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The software innovation impact of coronavirus

Software developers can work remotely, but if workers are expected to work remotely in the long term, can organisations maintain a software innovation cycle?

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IT has been instrumental in keeping businesses operational during the coronavirus lockdown, but as restrictions ease, there is an expectation that office workers will continue to be asked to work from home.

While offshore and outsourced development work has shown that software projects can be managed and delivered remotely, the trend towards agile has seen a drift towards face-to-face meetings between software teams and people in the business to deliver new applications to the business quickly.

The question for senior IT executives is: how effective is remote software development at delivering continuous software innovation to the business? More than ever, business executives will turn to software innovation to drive their coronavirus business recovery plans.

Research from Citrix, based on a poll of 511 UK-based IT leaders and forming part of a global research study of 3,700 IT leaders, found that businesses have been scrambling to meet the challenge of mass working from home and confronting new security and performance concerns.

Nearly three-quarters of IT decision-makers (72%) believe employees will not want to return to office working, but according to Citrix, the pressure is on for businesses to rapidly establish a new model.

“Almost overnight, the office has become a digital space rather than a physical place,” said Darren Fields, vice-president of networking for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Citrix. “This study shows that IT teams around the world have risen to the challenge of swiftly enabling mass home working.

“The next task is to make this sustainable and effective for the long term, while also beginning the mammoth job of reintroducing workers back to physical workplaces.

“This huge rupture in the business landscape is likely to bring forward the emergence of a truly hybrid working environment. IT teams and business leaders must make sure this is as seamless, secure and adaptable as possible.”

Workplace guidance

Draft guidelines from the British Standards Institution (BSI) recommend that the best way to mitigate work-related risks from coronavirus is to enable and support staff to work from home.

The BSI’s guidelines advise organisations to review work zones and move workstations to enable social distancing between each station, paying attention to the space needed to move to and from workstations.

It recommends that these workstations should also be arranged so that workers are side-by-side or back-to-back. If workstations are fixed at less than the recommended distance, the BSI guidelines say organisations should consider blocking the use of some workstations, or use screens to separate workers.

Another aspect of the draft guidance is that workstations and equipment need to be assigned to individual workers, wherever possible, or teams/pairs where this is not possible, such as in a call centre or training facility. The BSI’s advice also suggests that organisations should aim to limit the use of high-touch items and shared equipment, and enable frequent cleaning.

Managing software innovation

Restricting the use of shared spaces is one aspect of the guidance that could have a direct impact on the way companies try to encourage innovation. Agile software development project updates, standup meetings and brainstorming sessions often take place in less formal, breakout areas in offices. Software developers who are used to collaborating closely with colleagues during the development of a line-of-business application will need to rethink how this can be done remotely.

Discussing the challenges of engineering an innovation culture in a team of software developers who work remotely, CCS Insight research director Bola Rotibi said: “If there is a culture that values innovation, then remote working won’t be a hamper. There is nothing to stop developers from getting on a Zoom or some other video-conferencing line to collaborate.

“More to the point, as we have seen from Microsoft Build 2020 and the numerous announcements made that promoted collaboration on the go or remotely through features such as Microsoft Live Share and its new audio and text messaging feature, developers can be brought together in a pair-programming experience. The anywhere development capabilities of Visual Studio Codespace furthers this remote working perspective.” 

Rotibi believes that agile working practices are not mutually exclusive to remote working as long as there are means for collaboration, either in real time or by conducting code reviews where everyone can see the information. “Agile standups can be done through any number of video-conferencing tools where desktops can be shared,” she said.

“If we look at the concept of agile methodology practices, there is nothing that cannot be achieved through modern communications infrastructure in the home. The sophistication of tools that include sandbox environments in the cloud allows developers and other IT roles to both learn and try out different configurations of supporting platforms, infrastructure and tooling collections. Low-code and no-code tooling, which are often delivered as cloud services, can allow a remote working development team to innovate and interact at multiple levels.”

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Rotibi recommended that IT leaders assess whether the software development tools used by their developer teams enable the collaboration required by agile methodologies.

“The challenge, as always, is whether developers are provided with the right setup environments,” she said. “This can come down to investment and commitment from the technical leadership teams in providing the necessary tools and support services.”

There is plenty of research that shows IT people feel more valued when they are considered an integral part of the business, rather than a voice on the end of the tech support line. Agile has gone a long way to bridge the gap between business and IT, enabling cross-functional teams to collaborate in an effective way to deliver a software-powered business outcome.

The face-to-face meetings that are associated with this approach and the ability for software developers to sit side by side with users to understand the pain points in the applications they use and the business processes these applications underpin has ultimately led to better user experience and improvements in business processes.

Remote working will reinstate the physical gap that has slowly been shrinking between IT workers and the business. Beyond the challenges in maintaining innovation, there is a very real risk that individuals in software teams who have thrived in an environment of close collaboration may now feel isolated.

In its draft guidelines, the BSI urges organisations to ensure additional support measures are implemented to protect the psychological health and well-being of people who are working from home. Employers should consider whether it is possible to enable a safe return to the physical workplace for individual workers when home working has a significant negative impact on their psychological health and well-being.

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