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InfoQ Homepage Articles Culture & Methods Trends Report March 2021

Culture & Methods Trends Report March 2021

Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 was the biggest driver of culture change in the last year
  • There are dramatic differences between good and bad remote work cultures
  • Management practices are evolving to adapt to the new ways of working and the expectations of the workforce
  • Creating real psychological safety and focusing on employee experience is hard, but pays off in terms of engagement, motivation and outcomes
  • Ethical issues, diversity and inclusion and tech for good make a difference and need to be addressed purposefully.

COVID-19 was the largest influence of change in the culture and methods space in 2020 and the knock on effects in 2021 are driving many of the trends we see at this time.  The previous trends report was released early in the pandemic and we now have a year’s worth of content to explore how the IT world has adapted and responded. There have been many examples of great collaboration, teamwork and adapting to new ways of working along with plenty of stories of hardship, Zoom Fatigue, mental and physical health challenges and other impacts as people have adapted to working from home, managers have changed long-held beliefs about remote work and organisations have adopted new technologies to support the shift.

The Forced Shift to Remote Working

One of the biggest impacts we saw was how quickly organisations were able to adapt their infrastructure to support massive numbers of remote workers. IT and Operations teams scrambled, put in Herculean efforts and shifted operations to enable remote work in almost every organisation around the world. There are countless untold stories of burnout, weeks without breaks, constantly reconfiguring infrastructure to adapt and the sacrifices made to enable the global economy to continue functioning. At InfoQ we saw this and many of the other impacts of the forced shift to remote work and put our editorial focus on sourcing and sharing content which could help our readers make sense of and cope with the impacts on them and their teams.

Good Remote and Bad Remote

One of the most significant trends we have seen is the split between what we’re calling Good Remote and Bad Remote. Good Remote happens when leaders and teams recognise that you can’t replicate the in-person experience in a remote environment and deliberately design your culture and practices to embrace effective remote working.  This takes a determined effort, a compelling vision, a clear understanding of what motivates people and how they collaborate, recognition of the importance of psychological safety and the willingness to experiment and learn.   

Remote work was not new in 2020, prior to the pandemic there were a number of companies who had embraced remote working so there were examples we could look to and see what was needed for an effective remote culture and share their stories and advice through InfoQ to help our readers navigate the disrupted world.

Bad Remote sadly seems to be the prevalent mode - which is why we’ve placed it in the Late Majority area on the graph. People thrust into working remotely where they vainly attempt to replicate the in-office experience with back-to-back online meetings, measuring keystrokes and "attention" in calls, expecting people to be fully productive despite Zoom Fatigue and disrupted schedules, inadequate tooling, no allowance for the additional stresses of working in a shared space while also trying to be a caregiver, teacher, parent, partner and coping with the existential threat of a deadly pandemic.

Emergence of Deliberately Asynchronous Working

Something else we’re seeing in the remote space is an emergence of deliberately asynchronous remote working. Some organisations have adopted the approach of embracing outcome focused work and full autonomy by removing almost all synchronous work in favour of asynchronous communication using wikis and collaboration tools.

The graph at the top of this article is our current take on the topics and trends we see in March 2021. You can see the 2020 report here.  

Innovator Trends

Things we see in the Innovators include a number of ideas emerging, some a result of the COVID-19 disruption and others simply good ideas whose time has come.

Team Topologies is a rapidly emerging set of practices, based on the book published in 2019, that are starting to be introduced in organizations. The practices take a wider approach to team designs, because, as demonstrated by Conway’s Law, good team designs lead to better software design and more effective teams. Teams need to be organized for flow and cognitive load and in order to achieve that, organizations are considering teams’ workload, responsibilities and lines of communication.

We’re starting to see the application of AI/ML systems to help generate insights on employee engagement and the use of those insights to improve overall employee experience and developer experience. It’s very early days, and there is a significant risk of companies using the data to make ineffective changes that are more lip-service than genuinely improving the experience.

Descaling was something we highlighted in our 2020 trends report, and have seen very little movement in the last year. The push to Digital Transformation in response to the remote shift may have influenced the lack of movement in this approach.

We’ve grouped a few topics under Humanistic Workplaces - approaches like joyful work, Sociocracy, Holacracy, and self-management are about structuring the organisation to empower people, bring out creativity, innovation and fulfilment in the workplace. These ideas are taking root in more organisations but still remain in the innovator space.

#NoProjects, the ideas about moving from Project to Product based thinking and structuring for value streams is still an Innovator practice. There has been much more discussion about the approach and value stream thinking is gaining traction. In order to deliver greater value for  their customers, organizations need to focus on enhanced visibility and clarity, greater integration between all the functions involved in a value stream, and governance across value streams.

Carried forward from last year, systemic and leadership coaching is still relatively rare, and leaders in organisations are having to adapt to the very different types of interaction and support they need to provide in the remote workplace.

The newest element we see is the incorporation of AI/ML capabilities into the tooling development teams are using, where the AI system effectively becomes a teammate on the work. There are lots of open questions about what this means and how teamwork could be impacted.

Early Adopter Trends

Shifting to the Early Adopters we have a longer list of practices, some that carried forward from the previous report and some that have jumped straight into this space.

The first is the Good Remote work we discussed at the beginning of this piece. There are enough organisations who are making the genuine changes needed to support effective remote work that this fits into the Early Adopters area of our trends graph. We long for the day this is a late majority practice, because bad remote practices are causing harm and more and more organisations are adopting remote work as a permanent change.

Remote education is undergoing a radical shift. From boring voice-over-powerpoint to deeply interactive collaborative experiences leveraging what we have learned about engaging people in remote meetings, remote training also opens up opportunities for people who would otherwise not have access to the latest thinking and tools to become fully engaged in the modern workplace.

We called out Genuine Diversity and Inclusion because we do see a significant difference between D&I for show and the genuine culture shift that embraces difference and invites everyone in. The former is common, the latter is harder and absolutely necessary.

Government agility is a real thing today. Various governments around the world are adopting agile approaches in their project delivery and identifying ways of working that enable more effective product delivery. While adoption is scattered and there is a way to go, there is enough impetus in this trend for us to place it in the Early Adopters category.

Tech for good explores ways technology can be used for the benefit of society and the planet. It also encompasses the deliberate choices that can be made about the impact that our technology has on areas such as climate change (a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry).

Psychological safety has been an important concept for a number of years, however as with many hard to apply practices there is a lot of lip service and a far lower implementation of truly psychologically safe workplaces. With the enforced shift to remote working there has also been a renewed emphasis on the importance of mental wellness and employee wellbeing.  

Explicitly focusing on DevEx is still an Early Adopter approach that has not moved into the mainstream yet.

While many organizations are investing in becoming more agile businesses, they still face challenges due to their organizational structure and silos, business and technology misalignment and funding constraints. Business agility requires the adoption of practices that are at odds with legacy mindsets and ways of working. Organizations that have established business agility demonstrated greater adaptability during the pandemic and its economic impact.

Team self-selection goes hand in hand with dynamic reteaming and both are practices that show empowerment and trust in the workplace, tapping into intrinsic motivation and the desire to make a difference through the work we do.

InfoQ has been exploring the state of ethics and professionalism in the tech industry for a number of years and we feel that this topic is gaining more traction and people are becoming more aware of the social and societal impact of the products we build and the way we run our businesses, it is not yet truly a mainstream concern. Government regulation lags behind industry practice and there is a need for self-regulation and careful consideration of the impact of the work we do on areas such as security, safety, privacy, entrenching systemic biases, equity and equality.

Last year we called out Mob Programming as an emerging technique, it is being adopted in more and more teams and there is a move to rename it to Ensemble Programming.

Another trend from last year that we see being even more important this year is the need for facilitation and collaboration skills for technologists. When working remotely facilitation is a key skill to ensure all voices are heard and to allow the best solutions to emerge to the tough problems software development teams tackle. Retrospectives are but one example of team events that need effective facilitation and while there are many resources available to help prepare and run them, the key is effective facilitation and then ensuring that the changes identified are followed through with.

Listen to the Trends Report Discussion on the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast

The Culture & Methods editorial team met remotely to discuss these trends and we recorded our discussion as a podcast.  You can listen to the discussion and get a feel for the thinking behind these trends

About the Authors

Shane Hastie is the Director of Community Development for ICAgile, a global accreditation and certification body dedicated to improving the state of agile learning. Since first using XP in 2000 Shane's been passionate about helping organizations and teams adopt sustainable, humanistic ways of working – irrespective of the brand or label they go by. Shane was a Director of the Agile Alliance from 2011 until 2016. Shane leads the Culture and Methods editorial team for

Shaaron A Alvares is a News Reporter and Editor for DevOps, Culture and Methods at InfoQ and works as an Agile Transformation Coach and Trainer at T-Mobile in Bellevue, Washington. She is Certified Agile Leadership, Certified Agile Coach from the International Consortium for Agile, and Agile Certified Practitioner, with a global work experience in technology and organizational transformation. She introduced lean agile product and software development practices within various global Fortune 500 companies in Europe, such as BNP-Paribas, NYSE-Euronext, ALCOA Inc. and has led significant lean agile and DevOps practice adoptions and transformations at, Expedia, Microsoft, T-Mobile. She focuses on introducing the Agile mindset and customized value-driven practices aligned with organizational performance goals. Blogger, writer and speaker at local organizations, she is board member, advisor and contributor to global agile organizations such as Scrum Total, Agnostic Agile. Shaaron published her MPhil and PhD theses with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Ben Linders is an Independent Consultant in Agile, Lean, Quality and Continuous Improvement, based in The Netherlands. Author of Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives, Waardevolle Agile Retrospectives, What Drives Quality, The Agile Self-assessment Game and Continuous Improvement. As an adviser, coach and trainer he helps organizations by deploying effective software development and management practices. He focuses on continuous improvement, collaboration and communication, and professional development, to deliver business value to customers. Ben is an active member of networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer. He shares his experience in a bilingual blog (Dutch and English) and as an editor for Agile at InfoQ. Follow him on Twitter: @BenLinders.

Craig Smith has been a software developer for over 15 years, specialising in a large number of technologies in that time. He has been an Agile practitioner for over 10 years, is a Certified Scrum Master and Certified ICAgile Professional and a member of both the Scrum Alliance and Agile Alliance and currently works as an Agile Coach, fulfilling technical lead, iteration manager and Agile coaching roles on technology and business projects. He has presented at many international conferences and is a reviewer of a number of Agile and software development books. In his spare time, Craig is an avid motorsport fan.

Raf Gemmail is a New Zealand based DevOps consultant and the Head of Product at Developers Institute. He is a technical coach, teacher and polyglot who has helped leading product teams achieve faster-feedback and greater empiricism. He is a passionate advocate for Good Remote ways of working, disrupting traditional models for engineering education, and is also a champion for DevOps culture, who helps with NZ's DevOps days. He is also an ICAgile certified coach and a Java professor for Open Classroom.

Douglas Talbot is an experienced technology and product leader, specialising in creating and leading teams building complex, innovative products across tech, engineering and science boundaries. He has scaled agile and digital approaches to over one thousand people, distributed internationally, with 24/7 operations. He is known for a strength in building teams, great cultures, and attracting great talent.

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