According to the International Labour Organisation, telework, which it also refers to as ICT-mobile work, is defined as “the use of ICT – such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers – for the purposes of work outside the employer’s premises.” Teleworking is also known by other names, including ‘telecommuting’ and ‘remote working’.
The global spread of the coronavirus has increased the pace of the adoption of remote working. From the big tech companies such as Microsoft and Twitter to startups, organizations are unlocking new potentials in the work-from-home trend, which is rather a necessity as a result of movement restrictions.
But COVID-19 certainly did not birth remote working. In fact, before the turn of the pandemic, 7% of US employees worked from home regularly, and for most European countries, it is 10%. One sector that has embraced teleworking than most is the tech sector. It is not uncommon to find remote jobs in software design/development, programming etc.
However, this trend brings about the question, what are the limits of teleworking in tech, and especially, in software designing?
With this rise of remote working, organizations are exploring innovative options to keep workflow at an optimum level when they adopt teleworking. And to achieve this, not a few are obsessed with simulating traditional workspaces. That is often counterproductive. More organizations need to recognize that teleworking has its own unique features and it must be approached so.
Collaboration and Communication
Remote working, in certain ways, ‘defeats’ the need for collaboration, replacing it necessarily with independence. This is inevitable under certain conditions, such as if members of the team are scattered across different time zones. It creates a barrier in communication that inevitably inhibits proper workflow. It makes it difficult to have meetings. Though communication today is nothing like what it was ten years ago, remote workers have to go the extra mile to ensure seamless communication.
For such an extreme mode of remote working, there seems to be a blessing in disguise as teams can maintain round the clock productivity. This is great for customer service and IT support; but for software development, it only slows down the pace of work. Software agencies working remotely have to confront their new reality of having to deal with asynchronous communication. Non-synchronous communication has some benefits though, including flexibility and convenience, both of which are necessary ingredients for creativity and innovation.
The common response to this challenge is to leverage different communication tools such as email, chat apps (e.g. Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.), project management tools (e.g. Asana, Trello, etc.). However, more important than the tools used is the overall telecommuting strategy that the company adopts.
Members of remote work teams have to work with less supervision than they would have had when working in an office. Much of communication but necessary communication would be stripped away. It is important to employ a strategy that does not require workers to message each other every time. That is an indicator of poor preparation for telecommuting. To avoid this, there has to be a clear communication of goals, needs, and KPIs. When everyone knows what to do at each point in time, communication resources and tools would be reserved for necessities. No one should feel ‘lost’ at any time.
This is particularly important in software designing where due process is emphasized. Therefore, the focus should not be on choosing one best tool, but rather developing a project management system that suits the organization. Thereafter, opt for the tool that works best for that system.
Software Project Management
The asynchronicity of teleworking communication is not limited to correspondence; rather, it extends to project execution. For software design, being able to track changes is important. This is where the Agile methodology is most important. An Agile approach to project management ensures a continuous workflow through sustainable development. Though the term ‘agile’ in software development has rather become a cliche these days, it goes without saying that the methodology, applied rightly, helps make up for the inevitable gaps that come with remote working.
For instance, one of the principles of agile management is test-driven development (TDD) which focuses on continuous testing and debugging that makes it easier to tackle problems. This is a necessary feature for software development teams, especially when working on a product that has to pass some form of certification, in a field such as aviation, for instance. In intermittent testing also comes pair programming. It can be very helpful to pair two developers/designers on a single task so that they can bring their expertise in different areas to bear. It fosters innovation. While pair programming is often limited to office-based work, nothing stops remote workers too from it; all it takes is a screen sharing tool by which both developers/designers can see and assess what each person is doing.
The process of ensuring a software design team teleworking succeeds begins from the onboarding stage, or perhaps even before then. A remote software designer must be willing to work independently. Despite the many tools, resources and tips for managers to monitor the activities of their remote supervisees, the reality is simply that there is less supervision possible than if it was an office space. Besides independence, it needs not to be said that they must be effective communicators as well, for communication is the grease that keeps the telecommuting wheels going.
For managers of remote software development teams, it is critical to have a specific project plan ahead. The fundamentals of the project should be clearly communicated with the rest of the team while initial concerns and questions are addressed and discussed before beginning. Telecommuting is effective when each person knows what to do per time.