By Sarah Gruneisen and Benjamin Augustin

In larger organisations, mobile engineering teams often end up working in a silo. Understandably, this makes communication across teams a challenge. But for any organisation that’s serious about scaling its mobile capabilities, effective communication within mobile engineering teams and across the organisation as a whole is vital – especially given the prevalence of remote and hybrid working.

In this article, we explore the reasons why mobile teams get siloed, how Mobile DevOps aims to bridge the operational gap between teams, and the key principles of exceptional communication within mobile teams and organisations as a whole. 

Why do mobile teams get siloed?

There are a multitude of reasons mobile teams become siloed, the most common is due to historical organisational structures. Many of the businesses we work with existed for years, perhaps even decades, before native mobile development was a priority for them. Consequently, their organisations are structured around their web capabilities or, in some cases, bricks and mortar locations and operations. 

Did your organisation first launch its mobile capabilities as an experiment? And today, even though mobile has now become a central part of your business, have you shifted the way you function to accommodate that? If not, you’ve likely ended up as a fully structured business with a mobile team bolted onto the side, which struggles to fully integrate with the rest of the company. 

The mobile tech stack is a contributing factor to this siloing of teams as well. By design, mobile apps are a monolith. They have to be shipped whole as a package, making it easier to end up with a centralised team. While web and backend have shifted to microservices, micro frontend, and other technologies to support more distributed teams, mobile has to do without the ability to decouple that much of the tech stack.

Since mobile engineering teams end up being siloed, their skill sets and experience remain very different compared to everyone else in the organisation, which doesn’t encourage diversification. Within a large company, it’s not uncommon to have a team of mobile engineers who have only ever worked on mobile. This lack of wider experience can make them more reticent to open up and be part of discussions with back-end engineers and other team members. 

Thanks to these and various other contributing factors, mobile teams are in danger of becoming isolated. As a result, communication suffers – which means that collaboration, morale, productivity and innovation suffer too.

Bridging the communication gap between your teams

As Mobile DevOps specialists, we look at how we bring the core principles of DevOps to mobile development. Mobile DevOps isn’t completely new, and we don’t want to create a completely new structure for mobile teams that’s entirely independent. Instead, we want to bridge the gap between existing DevOps processes and mobile operations, ensuring we address the specific quirks and requirements of mobile while integrating teams to make communication easier. 

When we work with any company, we aim to look at how we can bring learnings together from across the organisation, integrate mobile engineering processes with the rest of the business, and mitigate the specific challenges and pitfalls that mobile presents without causing the mobile engineering teams to feel isolated and separate.

To successfully implement Mobile DevOps processes that work in the long term, communication is the most vital component.

Managing remote teams with asynchronous communication

Now that remote and hybrid working is pretty much established as the new norm in tech companies, effective, asynchronous communication is a vital part of day-to-day business operations. To make remote or hybrid working truly work for your organisation, it must be fully embraced, with remote communication policies and expectations clearly documented and defined.

In remote or hybrid teams, your processes need to ensure that everyone can work and communicate effectively in an asynchronous way, especially if you’re operating across multiple time zones. There’s no definitive answer as to the best communication method – you might use Slack or a project management tool – but the key principle is that not everything needs to be a meeting.

In hybrid teams, if you have ad hoc conversations on-site, you must always bring them back into the async channel to update the team members who are working remotely. Make it a rule to never have conversations or make decisions that do not get translated back into this channel immediately to keep everyone in the loop. 

Hybrid meetings are never effective

If you have hybrid teams where some people are on site and some people are remote, and you need to run a meeting, then everybody should dial in remotely. 

When you have half of the attendees around a table and the other half dialling into the room, the people dialling in remotely will likely miss key points and struggle to engage in the discussion. It is always far better practice to have fully in-person OR fully remote meetings, having everyone on-site using noise-cancelling headsets or finding their own meeting room to join from.

Implementing effective meeting practices

It’s always easier to implement effective meeting practices when facilitating in person and it’s easier to ensure everyone feels heard, seen and respected because you’re in the room. One of the main reasons online meetings can be so challenging is that you can’t read the visual cues telling you when someone is trying to speak.

It takes more work and planning to facilitate effective online meetings, but if you invest the time and effort then it makes a huge difference to the extent to which people feel able to engage and participate. Generally, it’s more difficult for everyone to pay attention in remote meetings because they’re not fully present and are easily distracted by notifications pinging at them or things happening around them at home. 

Therefore, as a facilitator, you will need to work harder to ensure you mitigate distractions and keep people engaged. This can be facilitated even easier when using meeting practices like liberating structures as an example.  In longer, larger meetings you may want to implement breakout sessions where people can contribute to a particular issue in a smaller group. This might feel less intimidating to some people and give them more time to share and explore their insights and perspectives. 

As a rule, if someone is not contributing to an online discussion for more than 10 minutes, it’s unlikely that they’re still listening. Building in opportunities for everyone to have their say boosts engagement and leaves your team feeling like their contribution is valued. 

Ensuring everyone gets their say

Implementing regular, ultra-focused tactical meetings and stand-ups is an effective way of ensuring everyone has an opportunity to raise their concerns, questions or tensions. During these meetings, your structure should ensure that everyone has a chance to speak and that there is a clear decision-making process. 

We’ve all been in those online meetings where you don’t know when to speak up because as soon as you open your mouth another person starts speaking again. By having a clear turn-based structure, you ensure meetings aren’t dominated by the loudest voices. 

Check-ins and check-outs

One of the best practices we have introduced at Novoda is the check-in/check-out for all our meetings. The check-in allows everyone to get a sense of everyone’s mindset coming into the meetings. Allowing all attendees to share what they are dealing with means that, as a facilitator, you can easily tell if you are going to be able to hold everyone’s attention or whether it would be better to reschedule for a time when everyone can give the meeting their full attention.

For example, if somebody comes into the meeting and says: “I have an urgent support issue I’m working on and I’m feeling anxious and distracted,” then you have the opportunity to reschedule the meeting with no judgement. 

The practice of checking in is also important for creating a culture of psychological safety within your organisation. It ensures that before every meeting you are checking in that everyone feels able to be present, and whether there is anything that needs to be addressed before the meeting begins that’s going to prevent people from being able to contribute.  

The check-out allows people to comment on what went well in the meeting and what didn’t, which factors into your continuous improvement. It provides an opportunity for people to raise any issues, such as feeling like their points didn’t get discussed, or that a method of communication didn’t work for them, which gives you the opportunity to improve the next meeting you have.

In order to keep psychological safety, it’s important that the facilitator listens to everyone’s checkout feedback without judgement or defensiveness, validating any concerns and taking time after the meeting to learn from the experience and note down actions and considerations for future meetings.

Managing tensions effectively

It is vital that your organisational leaders can facilitate and create space for effective communication and remain objective when people are raising tensions. It’s likely that in an environment of open communication and transparency, there will be times that team leaders feel attacked by someone raising a particular tension and allow their defences to rise.

In these scenarios, it’s important that your leaders learn to self-regulate their emotional responses and set a precedent for how the rest of the team deals with conflict. If your leaders struggle with this, it is a sign to invest in further facilitation or leadership training to support them in key areas of communication. 

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