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How to ensure software development can thrive in the new hybrid normal

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(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/niroworld)

The pandemic has changed the way we all work. Possibly forever. While this has resulted in some upheaval, it has also produced new ways of working that will deliver long-term benefits as we adapt to the world of flexible working.

In this article I’ll explore the challenges we’ve faced, the lessons we’ve learned and the impact it’s had on communication and culture. While certainly challenging, it is a process that has enabled us to maintain momentum during lockdown and now transition to the new hybrid normal.

Life before Covid

Employing over 300 people, Sports Development is responsible for innovating, enhancing, and maintaining bet365’s sports betting platform. 

This includes a wide range of activities from working collaboratively on the design of the user interface with the business and delivery of real-time content across multiple devices, to the processing and settlement of transactions driven from that content.

Prior to the pandemic, we worked in a way that I’m sure is not too dissimilar to many software development departments operating within large technology businesses. 

A requirement would come in from the business for a new product or service from which our architectural team would create a high-level development vision for the project. We’d then bring people together from various teams across the business and within the development function to discuss the requirements and put more meat on the bones of the plan. 

At this point, conversations would be informal, free-flowing discussions and brainstorming of ideas with the aim of identifying the right direction, the resource needed, timescales, and the rough outlines for any technical solutions. 

The result was a rough matrix of what was needed and who would be involved. 

Technical leadership would then come in and create the solution document. Again, we would use the length and breadth of the expertise within the building to design the solution. Discussions would take place in breakout rooms. Team members would come in and out as needed and people would be called in at a moment’s notice to contribute. 

Finally, the list of achievable tasks would be broken down into deliverables, teams selected to execute and project managers assigned.

All the way along the Software Delivery Life Cycle (SDLC), the process took a similar bent. Using the power of the office, we’d collaborate and communicate across multiple teams and departments. As much as possible, people would be located geographically close together in the building to give us the best opportunity to get the job done as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Systems and process had been formalized over time, while collaboration and communication were both formal and informal to allow creativity to thrive. Informality is just as crucial as formality. The ability to pick people’s brains, discuss ideas or find solutions to sticky problems in real-time. 

Certainly, technology was a key element for bringing people together because we operate across multiple sites. But there is no doubt that close contact is essential for driving the velocity of action needed to deliver a project. 

Availability and interruption are key. It ensures we can bring people together quickly to discuss and push a project forward. Despite the deep technical and keyboard-bound nature of the work we do, a strong verbal tradition is an essential part of our culture and our primary method for keeping everything and everyone in sync.

Very little is done in isolation. To ensure frictionless progress or at least as much as possible, it’s imperative that people from across the business can meet, be kept up to speed on progress and work through challenges.

It’s a very collaborative process. Much like making a film. A project’s success isn’t delivered by any one person or team and requires the free flowing of communication to ensure the project can be delivered to the business’s timeframe. 

Timing is critical. Our business is driven by both regulation, technology enhancements and the sporting calendar. We often don’t have the luxury of creating our own deadlines, or indeed missing those that are imposed on us.

Covid challenges for collaboration and communication

Then Covid came and the way we collaborated and communicated changed overnight. As we transitioned from the shared space of the office to the isolation of our homes, the immediate challenge was that of availability and accessibility. 

The opportunity for informal conversation and off-the-cuff collaboration was gone and technology became our key mode of connection. 

Physical contact was out of the question and with it the ability to bring people together at will. There was also an added dimension of challenge. Typically, when in the strategic phase of a project, we’d encourage side bar conversations during our breakout sessions. Part of creativity is allowing the group to test ideas with one or two others and then share their thoughts with the group in the moment. 

But when you’re online, you can’t have more than one person talking at the same time. You can’t turn to your colleague and discuss what you’ve just heard. It’s closer to a lecture theatre model and people tend to take on the aura of an audience. Rather than creating a space for collaboration and the explosion of creative thought, it curbs conversation.

Someone can still have a thought about what they are hearing but they are more likely to wait until after the meeting to discuss it with their colleagues and then come back to the group with their thoughts. Another meeting is then needed to discuss their contribution in more detail.

When using technology to communicate and collaborate everything can and does take longer. Follow up conversations, feedback, people looking for clarity, communicating to other teams.  

In addition, the margin for misunderstanding is far greater. Not just in terms of the tasks undertaken but also the passing on of information from leadership to the team. 

We no longer had a direct line to the people who were carrying out the work and couldn’t afford for the message to dilute compared to what had been asked for. Add the fact we were recruiting all the way through lockdown, and you have people who have no experience of your culture, how things work or the stack they will be working on.

The job, then, was three-fold. First, find a way for creative collaboration through technology. Second, we had to communicate everything our people needed to know with such clarity that they understood exactly what was expected of them. Finally, we had to ensure that our new recruits could get up-to-speed and firing on all cylinders as quickly as possible.

Finding a fine balance between formality and informality

Probably the first and most important lesson we learned was to readjust some of our delivery timescales and expectations to compensate for the difference in working, acknowledging that things are different and building that into the project. There’s no technological fix for that. Once we understood this, we could move forward with gusto.

However, to find solutions that worked across each of our challenges, we had to navigate the space between direction and instruction and go to a far more prescribed model of inspiring creative conversation. When thinking about creating an effective model of collaboration and communication with a dispersed workforce, discipline and culture have a strong role to play. 

We already had a strong culture of free speech. We actively encourage people to add their ideas, ask for help when needed and respond to requests for support. This meant we had a strong foundation from which to build from. However, in addition to encouraging contribution, active listening skills would need to form a key part of our strategy.

Certainly, we had to formalize many of the meetings that would have otherwise been established organically. A new sequence of virtual meetings was instigated to ensure we could move effectively from business requirement to action plan. But we also implemented ‘pickup’ meetings that were far less prescriptive. 

These meetings would have no fixed agenda and allowed people to talk through anything that was on their mind. The conversations would flow freely and give space for ideas to form, solutions to be found, and concerns to be aired and cleared up. All that was needed was for people to attend. 

Once in the meeting, their role wasn’t defined. As the conversation progressed some would bring wins or challenges to the table to discuss. Others would be there purely to help someone else. Most importantly, the organic nature of the pickup meetings, would allow for a far more diverse dialogue, thereby ensuring we didn’t lose great points and ideas. They allowed interaction both from and back into the group continually.

When thinking about communication, the hardest job was to write technical documentation that was instructional. All the tech leads had more to do because nothing could be lost in translation. 

You’ve essentially uncoupled yourself from the communication line. So, you need to give a far greater level of clarity when giving instruction because you’re influencing more than just the person you are speaking to. At all times it’s vital to ensure that everyone has a voice in the discussion. 

Once given, it is up to the person or persons you have instructed, to pass that instruction on effectively so that anyone affected knows what they need to do. 

In addition, you need to change the way you allocate actions to ensure that people can get on with their work and not get caught up in the mire of too much complexity.  You must package instruction. Chunk it so you can give someone just enough to do that they can work either alone or in a small group of people. 

Once you’ve created the work packages, the actual delivery side of things gets much easier. You’re in a burndown, which means you have a series of tasks that are realistic and achievable and ideally can be completed with only one or two other people. The aim is to empower the group to achieve results, not to distract with process or ceremonies.

This process works just as well or if not better with technology to monitor progress. By the time you get to execution, the need for discussion is over. At that point you probably can work the same and potentially better from home as you would in the office. 

Critically, all the way along you must put in feedback loops. You can never assume that what you’ve said has been received in the way you hoped it has. Feedback loops ensure that you can confirm understanding and that your people feel confident to ask further questions and provide their thoughts on what has been discussed.

You also need to bring the leadership much closer to everyone. While mentoring has always been a prominent part of our culture, it used to be quite informal. Everyone had a mentor, but there wasn’t a rigid schedule. It was more fluid and responsive. Now it needed to become more transparent and consistent. 

We found that by partnering new recruits with experienced people helped them understand why the process is how it is and why it works for us. What was interesting, was it didn’t need to be people who had been with the company for a long time. 

For example, when we have a new graduate cohort come in, we can pair them with graduates who have recently been through the onboarding program. Because we have been more prescriptive in our communication, they are extremely well equipped to bring their mentees up to speed.

We also now use tooling to look at the behaviors within a project. It is extremely important that people are supported in their roles. Working away from the nurturing side of supervision within the office means the leadership group need to discover new ways to make sure individuals aren’t taking on too much and potentially running the risk of burning out.  

Ultimately, the fixes for the challenges we have faced have been a good mix of increasing formality and discipline in our communication, creating a space for informal collaboration, ensuring that key processes could be mirrored through technology and using both people and technology to empower everyone to work to their full potential.

It has been quite the ride but a worthwhile one that will ensure we can continue to operate, innovate, and critically deliver for the business.

Alan Reed, Head of Sports Development, bet365

Alan Reed is the Head of Systems Development for Sports at bet365. He is responsible for the sports mobile and website development function.