The last month has been a surreal one for me and my family. On the 10th of March I welcomed my first child into the world, a wee girl called Emmy. I am so thankful that the birth was straight forward and my partner Jules and Emmy are both in good health.
At the maternity ward, it was clear that the covid-19 pandemic was spreading quicker than our government had anticipated. The ward was plastered with posters telling people to wash their hands. The double doors that break up the winding corridors have hand sanitiser stations dutifully standing by to help fight the virus. Some of the public toilets had had their sanitisers stolen as panic buying (and thieving) gripped the nation.
We stayed in the hospital a single night, returning home in part to free up beds and in part to get a good nights sleep. The good night sleep still hasn't materialised...
A little under a fortnight later, lock down measures were declared across the UK, preventing any non-essential travel which included visiting family members and friends. My parents live in Wales and had thankfully visited their first granddaughter shortly before the lock down was announced. Jules's parents had also managed to visit us before we were forced to stop accepting visitors.
Our siblings were not so lucky and will likely never see Emmy as a newborn. It is not how we expected our first steps into parenthood to be. Jules had plans to go for coffee with her friends, attend baby yoga classes, go for mother and baby massages etc, and introduce our firstborn to all the people that are close to us. It was not to be.
We have received reduced support from health visitors because of the risks associated with entering our property. Emmy's six week health checkup has been postponed indefinitely. Despite all of this, we have a lot to be thankful for. We are healthy, our jobs are relatively secure, we can speak to our friends and family easily over video chat. While this is not quite the same as face-to-face interactions, I am thankful we can do this.
While our tentative steps into parenthood haven't quite matched our expectations, we are still comparatively lucky. Our friends are in more precarious positions financially and this brings our small setbacks into focus.
I received two weeks paternity leave from my employer, the University of Edinburgh, and expected to return to the office sharing photos of my daughter to anyone in the vicinity. This did not materialise as the pandemic forced my team to start working from home.
I was acutely aware that our previous working practices would not transition to a fully remote setup. We are a small team of three developers who are already semi-remote. One of the team, has been working from his home in Poland for a number of years.
However, this felt different. Our colleague from Poland was always fitting around our office's schedule. He might miss meetings due to issues with remote conference software or might not be involved in staff meetings as the meeting location did not have suitable provisions. Everyone is now in the same position, and our work must change accordingly.
I bought and read the excellent book, Remote: Office Not Required by Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. The team at Basecamp run a successful company remotely and I wanted to find out what their secret was.
The Small Matter of Trust
The biggest issue managers have when they transition to remote working is worrying about what their employees are doing. How will they know that their employee is sitting at their desk doing work for their mandated nine to five shift?
In the office, you can simply look up and see your team, tapping away dutifully at their computers. You admire how productive your team is and sit back, basking at how well oiled the machine is.
In reality, it doesn't matter that you are in the office. The office isn't a magical vessel that focusses people on their work. It is estimated that UK workers spend an average of two hours a day on social media and other distractions while working.
When you can't monitor your staff (which no good manager should be doing anyway), some are tempted to resort to monitoring software that will report how active the user was at their desk. This is draconian and doesn't foster any trust in your team.
Ultimately there is only one observation you need to make. Is the work being done?
This is easier said than done but if you can observe this, then everything else falls away. You no longer need to care about what time people show up or if they are working continuously for eight hours straight.
In my team, we achieve this in two ways:
- Peer review of completed tasks
- Sprint Reviews
Peer reviews are conducted by all team members. Once a task has been completed, a fellow team member reviews your code and checks to make sure it matches the team's agreed coding conventions. Tests are performed on the code to ensure it runs as expected. If issues are found, a discussion is initiated to find a common path forwards. The reviewer never dictates to the reviewee.
They permit all team members to be held to the exact same standard. Whether you are a manager or a developer, you all play on a level playing field. If we find recurring issues, these can be flagged and lessons can be learned. We grow as a team and foster engagement with each other by watching each other's backs.
No one wants to be solely responsible for the botched site deployment that breaks a teaching and learning service. As a team, we shoulder the responsibility. We understand that mistakes are made and recognise this is not a problem with an individual, but instead a problem with the processes used in the team. When such an incident occurs, we pause, reflect, and refactor our working practices to mitigate such issues in future. Peer review is core to this process.
Every two weeks we come together as a team and conduct a sprint review. A sprint is simply a body of planned work conducted over a period of time. In my team, these happen fortnightly.
The review comprises of three parts:
- Review what we completed
- Document any issues encountered
- Log lessons learned and any associated actions
Peer reviews let us ensure the work completed is matching the standard we expect as a team. Sprint reviews allow us to check the volume of work is in line with what we expect, and if not, why was that the case? Often there is a process or external blocker preventing work from progressing as expected and it is my job as a manager to help remove this so my team can do what they do best; create innovative, professional, learning applications.
The nine to five pattern is no longer applicable in a remote team. Many teams will have increased pressures at home due to child care and school services being shut. Colleagues might not have a quiet space to work during office hours. They might struggle to work regular hours as they have a dog to walk or an elderly relative to shop for.
To acknowledge this, my team is no longer working nine to five. Despite this, we still need to have some overlap so we can discuss urgent matters. After discussion with my team, we decided that we would all be online between the hours of eleven and three. Outside of these core hours, it is up to my team when they want to work.
One member is starting at seven in the morning and finishing at three in the afternoon. Because sleep is premium at the moment, I am starting work around ten am and usually finishing up around six. However, if my daughter is being particularly difficult or the dog is looking particularly bored, I will break up the day more to accomodate this.
This flexible working pattern allows us to fit work around our home lives, not the other way round. The work is still getting done which is what is important. I have personally benefitted from this flexible working pattern as I find, working outwith the nine to five pattern means fewer distractions as many of my colleagues have signed off for the day when I get my best work completed.
If there are any emergencies that come up, such as systems going down or student's not being able to get access to a critical system, the team is just a phone call or Slack message way.
Another small change we have put in place is to notify each other when we are online. We all endeavour to say hello in our Slack channel when we start work. We let each other know when we are heading out for a break or to walk the dog, and we say goodbye in the evening.
These are small changes that might seem inconsequential, but they serve a useful purpose, letting us know when we are available, and when we should not be disturbed.
I have made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of meetings I am creating. Since working from home, many of my colleagues have expressed Microsoft Teams fatigue. My team used to have a daily fifteen minute meeting to catch up on the work we had done the previous day, any issues we had encountered, and what we planned to work on today.
This meeting was conducted over Skype and was great for raising awareness of the team's activities and highlighting issues early. However, moving to a remote setup meant this meeting was no longer feasible.
It meant all members of the team had to be present early in the morning and added to the number of remote video conferences we were already being asked to attend.
To combat this, we've instead moved to asynchronous communication. We still let each other know what we did the previous day, the issues we've encountered, and what we will be doing today, but this is now documented as a simple Slack message in our group chat channel.
We will soon be logging these updates in a Discourse forum set up specifically for this purpose. It means team members can still be informed, but it will be on their terms. They will check this information when it is convenient for them, rather than being forced to interupt what they are doing at a pre-specified time.
If we want to demo something, I am encouraging the team to record their discussion points using screen recording software. They can upload the recording to the university's video hosting service and email a link to their team member so that it can be picked up at a time that is convenient for everyone.
Again, this is about moving to asynchronous communications as much as possible to reflect the lack of a common working pattern and location. I'm hopeful that these small changes will allow us to work more efficiently, with reduced stress at home.
We will also rely on write-ups rather than face-to-face video meetings as much as possible to keep people updated on the progress of our projects.
There are times when discussions will need urgent responses and a video chat will be ideal for this, but in general, most meetings do not require this. I am hoping that our working practices will reflect this change in urgency. Face-to-face meetings should be treated as a luxury, not a given.
An hour long meeting for three people takes three working hours away from the team for a week. Often meetings will fit neatly into their hour slot with digressions, technical issues, and the like.
Before creating new video meetings, I've asked my team to reflect on whether it is absolutely required. If it is, no problem. But I think we will find over time that in most situations, it is not.
Team Morale & Culture
Many people believe that a team's culture will be damaged by remote work. There are certainly challenges to maintaining social interactions when working remotely, but with a little effort, this can be overcome.
This evening, my colleagues and I are getting together remotely to play an online party game. We will all jump into a conference call and one member is going to stream a fun game of Drawful or Fibbage (to be decided) or some other game so we can interact outside of work and foster the same bonds we had while in the office.
In our team's Slack channel, non-work chat is encouraged, not frowned upon. I want to find out how your family is, what you happen to be watching on Netflix, or which book you recommend.
A team that does not get on socially will surely not function as well as a team that does. I hope that we are able to look out for each other on a personal and professional level wherever possible. This is all the more important when people are locked in their homes for most of the day. Mental health is more important than ever. Taking the time to find out how someone is doing is not a work distraction. It is a necessity.
Some of the practices I have put in place might fail spectacularly and that's ok. There is not going to be a one plan fits all approach to this. The global pandemic facing us is changing rapidly and all we can do is adapt to these changes.
If my team decides something isn't working, we will come together, reflect, and change accordingly. Things seem to be working for us just now and work is progressing in line with expectations.
If we come across a better approach, that we believe will provide real value to our team, we will adopt it with enthusiasm and ditch it just as quickly if it is not for us.
For now, I'm just happy that I'm still able to work and my family are safe.