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Distributed DevOps Teams: Supporting Digitally Connected Teams

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To establish a digital connection within a globally distributed team, an organization provided the team members with both collaboration tools and supplied an extra monitor with a visualization board. Collaboration using the online chat and white board initially posed challenges, as the board was tweaked towards the teams’ needs.

Ola Chowning, a partner at Information Services Group, spoke about dealing with geographically distributed DevOps teams at DevOpsCon Berlin 2021.

According to Chowning, it is much harder to "naturally" contribute to a conversation when the conversation isn’t happening around you in real-time. When team members are distributed and time zones don’t overlap, it becomes even more difficult.

Chowning presented a solution where an organization invested in technology to help solve some of the team’s challenges and get them digitally connected:

They purchased a separate monitor for each team member, and then had the team develop a persistent "visualization board" for that monitor. This board had four quadrants: the Kanban board, the MS Teams chat, a Visualization display (this was based on their monitoring and feedback tool so that they could keep tabs on product performance), and a white board. This allowed each team member to visually see a lot of what they had previously seen when they were physically co-located, and so helped them to stay connected.

The downfall with this solution, as Chowning mentioned, was that the team members needed to use the MS Teams chat to really react; where before they might have seen a performance blip and verbally pointed it out to the group and began to solve it together, they now needed to take action through the chat window instead. When they were trying to solve a problem, they needed to get comfortable using the white board tool rather than a real white board in a physical room. And these activities were, of course, compromised even further by the fact that not everyone was in the same time zone, Chowning said.

One of the difficulties they struggle with is collaboration between team members who are in different time zones during the non-overlap hours, as Chowing explains:

We’ve all used tools like MS Teams and Slack to chat with our colleagues, even right in the next cube; this is far less possible when the colleague is in a different time zone and not there to chat. This collaboration now happens more often only where there is a specific expertise that is needed, so that the collaboration is scheduled instead of spur-of-the-moment – which, of course, delays resolution.

Leaders do best when they check in with team members, monitor chats for member participation, and measure how the members are feeling with the new work environment, Chowning said. Having the team members fully participate in developing and then continuously improving the methods used is an important practice. Leaders should listen, measure and adjust based on feedback from the team, Chowning concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Ola Chowning about establishing a digital connection within a distributed team.

InfoQ: What challenges do distributed teams face?

Ola Chowning: The natural, even casual, ability to work collaboratively, contribute to an in-the-moment conversation, learn from peers, be exposed to different skills and abilities, even different perspectives, and engage in more areas and practices to the point where roles blur, all can be highly compromised in distributed teams. It’s much easier to slip back into role-based siloes.

If your time zones don’t even overlap, this can become even more difficult. Understanding the latest work that’s been done, the latest problems experienced, the performance of the product, the status of work or results, and even the business priority, all can be challenged when the team members are distributed.

InfoQ: How did the solution where teams were digitally connected work out? What were the pros and cons?

Chowning: The teams using the visualization board were in different countries, so they needed to address digital connection across time zones. This meant a more robust process for things like retrospectives, more robust breakdown of stories into tasks, more "scheduled" time for showcase and issue resolution, etc. The team found that, while they worried a more defined process would stymie their agility, it worked well in focusing their activities productively in line with the broader objectives, without the necessity of being in constant communication.

They found they needed more overlapping work time, particularly when they were in release planning and deployment. And they had to think about and plan task/work turnover to the other team at the end of each day – something they never had to do when in physical proximity.

They’ve seen some team members fall back into role-based activities more often. There simply isn’t the natural communication and subsequent spark of curiosity that is truly the hallmark of team collaboration.

InfoQ: How do team members feel about collaborating using the visualization board now that they’ve used it for a longer period?

Chowning: They’ve certainly tweaked it, and they still struggle a bit with chat conversations open to a wider audience rather than just chatting person-to-person. The white board frankly isn’t used as much as they had hoped, and so they are considering a different purpose for that quadrant.

InfoQ: How can organizations enable collaboration without impacting work/life balance?

Chowning: I’m sure a psychology or brain science expert could tell us why, but being on camera in a video chat is far more stressful than being physically with your colleagues in a common space. I believe part of it may be that we are effectively "tied" to the laptop or camera itself. Whatever the case, we see organizations limiting their video requirements based on this fact, to minimize that stress.

Some organizations have a natural time zone overlap, while others have to force one – that forcing can sometimes result in one team working at later hours than another team. In the case where a team of distributed members needs to force the time zone overlap, we’ve seen them flip the impacted time zones periodically so that members in the different time zones have equal odd working hours. These are not intended to be longer working hours – although unfortunately that has a tendency to be the case.

So where odd work hours are necessary for time zone overlaps, be sure to monitor the situation so it a) doesn’t equate to longer working hours overall, b) doesn’t affect one group of team members more than others, and c) results in an approach that minimizes the need for working odd or extended hours as much as possible.

InfoQ: What have you learned about supporting online collaboration in distributed teams?

Chowning: It takes work and focus, and most teams do not find it comes naturally to them. And it takes leadership to involve team members in solving for the best collaboration possible within their given situation.

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