Perhaps one of the main assets in an organization is proper communication. As we work in software engineering, communication represents an even greater asset, since requirements need to be properly understood in order to deliver the wanted product. So how do we communicate best? What changed post-pandemic? And what is the Agile preferred way of communicating? Let's dive into this extensive subject in the following article.
There is this 6th principle described in agile that says: The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation (source: https://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html)
This principle does not discourage the use of emails, chat, phones, or online meetings (with or without open cameras). In fact, it encourages their use, as they offer a lot of benefits and suggests they should be kept. It only emphasizes that face-to-face communication is the predominant form of communication to best achieve goals.
For us, in our projects, one purpose for communication is to deliver the message as clearly and as effectively as possible either about the process or about the requirements.
There is a common utterance that we sometimes use regarding the importance of well-defined requirements: "The quality of the input directly affects the quality of the output." or, in simpler terms, “garbage in, garbage out”. This implies that if the requirements lack clarity, they won’t be thoroughly understood, and the final solution won't align with the intended needs.
Effective information transferred both to and within the development team is one of the key factors for the project's success, as it is also emphasized in the Agile Manifesto.
The pandemic showed us all that we are more than capable of adapting.
People from a lot of industries transitioned to remote work and demonstrated that this is a viable alternative working way to the traditional office-based model. Within the IT sector, individuals now enjoy the flexibility to choose their preferred work arrangement, whether on-site, hybrid, or entirely remote.
A significant advantage that has become clear lately is that remote work has opened up new opportunities for both organizations and individuals around the world. Geographical barriers are no longer a limiting factor and we can now work from our own homes for companies located on different continents.This new possibility of working remotely has the potential to increase inclusivity and diversity. We also have colleagues who choose to live and work in a different country with a different climate for a short period of time and then move to another country.
Nowadays, we have the possibility to work from a different location and enjoy the flexibility, thanks to the circumstances and technological advancements brought about by the pandemic.
The switch to remote work has not been without its challenges. While it offers significant advantages, it also presents challenges in terms of effective communication and collaboration, particularly when teams are dispersed across various locations, different time zones or lack in-person interactions.
We’ve also encountered obstacles in communication when the teams started to work from home, each of us working from different places, with a different set up, and different internet providers. Communication issues caused by internet connectivity or by power outages became common.
In online meetings, interruptions, maintaining focus, muted mics or technical issues are common challenges. Background noise and external distractions can also affect communication quality. In contrast to in-person meetings, online sessions lack physical presence, making it harder to engage and respond to audience cues. We believe that these drawbacks could make it harder for team collaboration in the long run.
As we’ve demonstrated in the past, we can adapt and evolve in response to the changes ahead. As remote work becomes more common, it will continue to reshape our work approach in the future.
We are all aware that communication takes various forms, such as verbal, non-verbal, written, formal, informal, all of which contribute to a better mutual understanding, promote the sharing of information, encourage collaboration, the expression of emotions, and help build relationships.This helps us become a better team, and work more productively together.
While we can engage in numerous conversations on different platforms and through chats, what truly makes an impact and helps in progressing and creating trust is a face-to-face meeting, either in-person or online. Otherwise, we might miss out on essential non-verbal communication cues which are instrumental in effective communication and risk-making assumptions that could mislead us.
In Agile, there is a tendency for direct communication, which nowadays also extends to online meetings where team members can visually interact, ask questions, and provide real-time responses.
Online meetings have become a viable option where team members can connect virtually and engage in on-the-spot question and answer sessions.
Along with remote work, some people choose to keep their cameras off during meetings. This can be for various reasons, such as being able to answer a phone call, pick up a delivery, or other privacy concerns. In simpler terms, some people don't want to show their surroundings. Sometimes, this can have an impact on team collaboration; for instance, if someone asks a question, and there's no answer, just peace and quiet, they won’t know if the people heard the question or if they had to step away for a second.
We noticed that people tend to follow what others do in meetings. If most attendees have their cameras on, others usually turn theirs on too. I have personally seen how the open camera creates a better interaction and environment, than in other online meetings.
Online meeting with your camera open is the closest to in-person communication, since you have the possibility to make eye contact, or notice some signs of non-verbal communication, such as facial expressions or gestures. Being aware of other people's reactions and being able to interpret non-verbal clues can enhance communication, and help avoid misunderstandings.
In online meetings, we can control what others see. We can use backgrounds, blur images, or use different wallpapers. Usually, we can only see the person's face, not their whole body or hands. Some people have multiple monitors, which can make it unclear where they're looking, causing confusion about their involvement in the discussion.
When the camera is on, you can immediately receive feedback from colleagues. You will be able to see other people's approval through gestures like nodding or indications that they are attentive to your speech.
With the camera open, you can also notice when others are attempting to speak, even if their microphone is muted. You can either inform them or they can use visual cues on the camera until they locate the right option to enable their microphone. If the camera were off, we wouldn't be aware that someone wished to contribute.
At the same time, some users may not always focus on other attendees’ cameras, and in larger meetings, it might be challenging to display everyone on a single screen to capture all reactions simultaneously.
The ability to see the other person during a conversation is an opportunity to change more than words and are able to adjust based on the non-verbal responses as well.
When people meet in person, in a physical meeting room, usually all the focus is there, all of them are involved in the discussion and one can feel the energy and mood of the people around. Non-verbal communication is there to be acknowledged..
The speaker can react to the audience, when they see how the attendees are receiving the message. Also, when people go to an in-person meeting, it emphasizes its importance. Because it shows it’s worthy of the time invested, and shows the importance to be present physically there.
When people meet in a physical space the personal relationship develops, making it easier to collaborate with people you like and enjoy working with. At the same time, it is not only about the emotions and connections, it is a professional way of doing things, being able to see the other person when talking to them.
Furthermore, the spontaneous in-person discussions that can occur on random ocasion cultivate a sense of camaraderie among team members. We've found that some of the most productive brainstorming and solutions between colleagues have taken place during coffee breaks or table conversations.
Another benefit is office osmosis that allows individuals to absorb knowledge from each other, acquire skills or ideas without formal training, and gain valuable insights. This occurs naturally as colleagues share their experiences and collaborate in-person on various projects in the same location. When working only online, we lose this opportunity for evolving in this way.
We have real life examples of teams that started to work together as a team from home, from different cities as it was the pandemic context and after two years there were some issues of miscommunication in the team. Setting up some in-person workshops and giving them the opportunity to work together, even for a short period of time, had a great impact on the project and made a big difference after that arrangement. We could all see a boost in productivity demonstrating once again the importance of in-person connections.
Understanding and being good at reading non-verbal cues can really help us communicate better in an agile team. It lets us connect with people more deeply, avoid misunderstandings, and build stronger relationships. This can lead to increased productivity, higher-quality deliverables, and, in the end, to happy customers.
Both in-person meetings held in physical spaces and online meetings each offer their own set of advantages and challenges. The choice between them depends on various factors, including team composition, availability, nature of the job and activity needed, and geographical distribution.
In the world of agile development, where working together, being flexible, and always getting better are important, good communication is a key part of being successful. Among the twelve principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto, the sixth principle highlights the power of face-to-face conversation as the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team.
Through our own experiences in various teams and projects, we have gained firsthand insights into the various forms of communication and their associated benefits.
I believe, and I know most of my colleagues do too, that we should be aware of this Agile principle considering today's reality - a post-pandemic one - where the "face to face" can be seen as the need to see each other in person and work together like that, but also as the need of having online meetings with the camera on.
Bianca Enache, PMP, CSPO, PSM, PAL is an Agile Project Manager with 5 years experience in the Software Development area and 15 years experience with managing clients and teams. She is currently working on IoT department at eSolutions