Getting remote-friendly

Several teams where I work have been experimenting with different ways to support remote-working.

We’ve done this for a number of reasons:

  • Open plan offices are not always conducive to concentrating and thinking without interruption. We’ve adapted our workspace as best we can, but it can still be cramped and noisy on busy days. This is fine for the teams running noisy workshop-type activities, but it’s not good for those people who need to get their heads down to concentrate on something for a while.
  • Related to this; we know that context-switching and interruptions can be annoying, and impact our productivity. Some of the remote-working practices we adopted aim to manage those interruptions.
  • We thought that doing more remote-working would force us to think more about how we communicate about our work, and make it more open to people outside of the team.
  • We value flexibility. Our people work hard, and helping them to fit in work around their ‘real lives’ is something we want to support. Working remotely reduces the amount of commuting people have to do, for starters.
  • Many forward-thinking, and successful organisations are doing this too. We’ve been inspired by the likes of GitLab, Automattic, and 18F.

There are other reasons too. Making these changes also fits with our culture of continuous improvement. We’re always trying to make small adjustments to the way we work, and this seemed like a more ambitious experiment to take on.

Remote-first

The biggest change we’ve made in our team is starting to adopt a remote-first approach.

Remote-first means to communicate and collaborate as if all your teammates are working remotely, even when some of them are in the office.

In practice this means that if any team members are working remotely and join a meeting via Google Hangouts, then everyone joins as if they’re working remotely. So if they’re in the office they join Hangouts individually from their desk, rather than piling into a meeting room.

This was strange to start with, as you had people sat across the office from each other, talking over Hangouts. But then it starts making more sense, as it means that everyone in a given session is on a level playing field. It avoids the situation of having a less good experience if you are working remotely.

It also means that instead of turning up at someone’s desk to ask a question, you might send them a message over Slack instead. Unless you really need the answer right that second, you can communicate asynchronously and let them answer when it suits them to break from what they’re doing. This also means that conversations can be made more ‘visible’ to your other teammates.

This has been, and continues to be, very much a gradual journey of discovery for us as a team. We’ve gradually started spending less time in the office. Some people now come into the office a couple of days a week, and work remotely the rest of the time. A few people still come into the office most days. We’re not a truly remote-first team, but I’d say we’re a lot more remote-friendly.

Some things we’ve learned along the way

  • It’s really important to ditch the thing you sometimes hear along the lines of “x is working from home, I’ll pick it up with her tomorrow when she’s in the office”. Unless something absolutely has to be discussed in-person, you can probably at least start that conversation right now, over another channel. We still have to pull each other up on this.
  • We’re more conscious about socialising. When we’re not physically together so often, it’s important to refresh those team bonds that are built through face-to-face interaction. Think less ‘forced fun’, and more just scheduling time in for coffee, team lunches, and team drinks.
  • Be explicit about whether a meeting is remote or really needs everyone physically together. Over time we’re reducing the number of sessions that are mandatorily face-to-face, but there are still some where we find it helps to be together.
  • Over-communicate status. When you’re in the office people can see you’re around, and you’re working on certain things. When you’re remote it’s helpful to keep people updated as to how you’re getting on.
  • Finding the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Not everything has to be a real-time conversation, but knowing when to switch out of Slack and into a video-call is something we’ve been working on.
  • When new people join the team, we spend a bit more time in the office together, so we can form new bonds and get used to working together.
  • Working remotely doesn’t have to mean working at home. Co-working spaces, and the obligatory coffee shop, are regularly used by the team.
  • People like the flexibility that working in this way gives them. It can help in balancing work, and ‘real life’.
  • It’s not for everyone; some people prefer coming into the office and being physically co-located with their team-mates. We support that, and in future people’s preferences around remote working should be factored into how we set up new teams.

Challenges

Many of the new practices have been most eagerly adopted by the Developers in our team. There’s a good fit for them with being able to work in a quiet environment, get into the flow of their work, and communicate asynchronously as needed. It helps them find a ‘maker’s schedule’.

We still face challenges as to how we run design processes remotely. We have run decent design reviews remotely; in some ways it forces us to slow down a little and listen better as each person speaks. But there are some activities like analysing user research and sketching sessions, where we still generally choose to be physically in the same place.

Some might say that you cannot be ‘agile’ unless your whole team is all in the same place. I’d challenge that now; I think if you have a well-bonded team, with modern tooling for remote work, you can definitely work in an agile way.

I think on reflection that when we’re in ‘delivery mode’; knowing the product we need to build, and having a clear backlog to work from, then remote-first works well for us. More recently when we’ve been in ‘learning mode’; back in discovery, figuring out what we should be making, then we’ve benefited from being in the office together a bit more.

Is it the future?

A future that’s supportive of us remote-working could lead to us being able to hire people from much further afield, form some fully remote teams, and have much less need for permanent office-space. Some of our recent vacancies have been advertised with remote-working as an option.

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re supportive of remote-working in your teams, do consider adopting practices that fall under the banner of remote-first. If you already do this, I’d love to hear about what you do, and how it works for you.

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