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.


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.


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.

What’s in a name – Owner, Manager, or Leader?

My esteemed colleague @benjiportwin just wrote a parting post which talks about job titles, and how much they matter, if at all.

He opened with the the Product Owner vs. Product Manager job title thing, which I’ve also been thinking about.

When I joined the NHS Choices team a few years back we had Product Leads who each looked after a specific area of the service. They did a great job of defining the changes needed for their particular products, but didn’t always interact directly on a day-to-day basis with the people building those products.

Changing titles to indicate change

We spent a couple of years changing this as we implemented agile methods across the programme. At the time I pushed for these roles to be called Product Owners, mainly because I wanted to force a distinction between the old and the new way, and that’s what the methodologies we were adopting (like Scrum) tended to call that role.

Shared ownership rules

I tend to associate the Product Owner role title with Scrum, and over time have gone off it a bit. Partly because I don’t like the idea of sticking with just one fixed methodology, and partly because it could imply one person having sole ownership of the product. I much prefer the idea of a team collectively owning the product that they build and run together.


Instead I shifted towards the Product Manager job title. This seems to be much more of an industry-standard these days. If I see a Product Owner job ad I think “they do Scrum”, when I see Product Manager I think “they have Product teams”. Generalisations I know, but that’s what it conjures up in my mind.

Full circle

Most recently I’ve come back around to Product Lead. I like the idea of somebody leading the development of a product, rather than managing it. I think we all know the difference between a manager and a leader.

Managing a product could perhaps be read as holding it back, pruning it, keeping it in check (thanks to @st3v3nhunt for this). Whereas leading it talks of setting a vision, inspiring progress, and taking the product forward to exciting new places!

Does it matter?

I’ve thought about this mainly because I’ve been taking on a product role myself, but really, as Benji said in his post;

job titles are interchangeable and frankly unimportant, but what matters is the impact you make each and every day.

Good luck in NYC, Benji. See you on the sun deck!

Resources, or People?

Workplace language is interesting. We hear a lot of different jargon and cliches that we wouldn’t ordinarily encounter outside of the office. I think we know some of it is a bit silly and acknowledge it as such, but other workplace language is treated as totally normal.

One of the most common, but perhaps pernicious, examples of workplace language is the use of the word Resources, when we mean People. It really does seem to be workplace-only vernacular too – I’ve yet to hear anyone say “We need some more resources for 5-a-side tonight.”

I understand that it’s a fairly industry-standard term, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with it. Lots has been written on this before – posts like this, and this – and there’s even a day dedicated to the cause. defines resources as

A stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organisation in order to function effectively

So technically speaking using the word resources to describe people isn’t wrong, and sometimes it makes sense to use the word resources to describe a particular ‘thing’. Resource management isn’t just about people – it could be about laptops, office space, or beanbags.

But 99% of the times I hear ‘resources’ mentioned at work, it’s being used to refer solely to people.


The problem is that the word resources seems to imply an interchangeable quantity –

“we need more resource”

“add some more resources”

“this resource is leaving, let’s get another one in”

From a management point of view this is great. It would be fantastic to be able to swap interchangeable resources in and out at will, in order to maintain performance.


But of course it doesn’t work like that. People have different skills, personalities, likes, dislikes, attitudes and so on. You cannot simply switch people in and out of a team, and expect things to continue at the same level or pace.

Because in knowledge work, value is generally delivered by teams, not individuals. A team is not just the sum of its parts – it’s the product of its interactions. The relationships between the people in the team determines the success of the team – it’s not about just adding up the raw skills of the individuals in the team.

The word resource obfuscates this fact. It helps us to kid ourselves that we can work in this way – swapping people around. It’s hiding the reality of the situation that when you’re dealing with knowledge work – people are not always going to be completely interchangeable.

That’s not to say I’m not against moving people around between teams on some regular basis. This can keep things fresh, and helps to share knowledge. But I think I’d get better results from trying out a new winger in my regular line-up, than swapping out the entire midfield.


I know a lot of people don’t like being referred to in this way, but I don’t think this is just about individuals being sensitive to being called a ‘resource’ – it’s about our cultural definition of how we view and treat our people, and about how we plan and manage work in a realistic way.

Having shared language is really important for building shared understanding, but next time you’re about to use the the word Resources, maybe pause and think; would the word People explain the situation in a clearer, more helpful, and more realistic way?

Building consensus around product ideas

I’ve spent the last year or so working with teams in the early stages of Product Discovery – examining the needs of users, and forming ideas and prototypes of services we can deliver to meet those needs.

One thing I’ve seen is the tendency in those teams to have the same conversations about a particular topic or idea several times over. Sometimes in the office, sometimes over lunch, and sometimes in the pub after work (which is where a lot of good ideas form).

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing while we’re shaping our ideas and building consensus in small groups. But once we’ve found ourselves repeating, and agreeing, the same concepts a few times, it feels like it’s time to get things out of our heads and onto some paper, so that we can share the idea further, and build a broader consensus.

The worst case scenario is if we don’t do this, that a small group forms an idea and assumes everyone else is also thinking the same thing. In the early stages of delivering a new service for users, building shared understanding across the whole team is critical.

Audio recording

A nice idea we tried recently was to get a small group of us (three worked nicely) to record the conversation. Kudos to @evilstreak for taking inspiration from the work @mattsheret has done with us on blogging.

We found a quiet space and used a USB mic (that we use for remote meetings) and Quicktime to record our conversation for about 30 minutes.

We didn’t write anything down beforehand, but the conversation was fairly structured, as we’d already had similar versions of it before.

Recording a conversation

One side-effect of the recording was that we were a bit more conscious of what we were saying, and avoided any unnecessary rambling. Being aware of the recording also stopped us from talking over each other at all. This is something we sometimes suffer from, as everyone has so many ideas to share, people just want to get them out there.

After the recording we transcribed it verbatim into a document. By sharing the audio file, two people were able to work in parallel for 30 minutes to get the whole conversation transcribed.

Pro-tip – using VLC to play back the conversation at a slightly slower speed (about 80%) allowed the typist to keep pace with the conversation without having to pause and replay bits. If you’re a really fast typist maybe you won’t need this.

Listening again to the recording actually helped ideas to crystallise in peoples’ minds. You were listening more intently, rather than thinking about what to say next, as you might in conversation.

Getting feedback from the wider team

As it was just three of us that had the initial conversation, we needed to gather feedback from the wider team.

Initially sharing the transcript was a useful way to share the ideas. Teammates reported that reading the transcript was a very natural way to read, and understand the ideas.

We then began to structure it into a more coherent narrative. Using a tool that enables quick electronic collaboration (like Google Docs) is really handy here. Everyone can be in the same version of the document at the same time – teammates can add comments, responses can be seen instantly, and everyone can see updates as they’re being made.


We supplement this electronic collaboration with group crit sessions.

Anyone interested in providing feedback gathers around a table and we read through some ideas and have a time-boxed discussion with the goal of gathering specific change to make to the narrative.

In this case we quickly realised that we didn’t have consensus across our team. Lot of new ideas came from these sessions, and the original narrative gave us a way of framing this discussion.

A picture speaks quite a few words

Another (fairly obvious) way of clarifying thoughts and ideas was to do quick sketches of your thoughts. Drawing something and showing it around was a really quick way of prompting further conversation to build shared understanding.

A sketch about booking

It’s handy to draw something and then pass it to a colleague without explaining what it shows, then ask them to explain their understanding of it.

Building consensus in public

So we’ve built some consensus amongst ourselves, within our team. Next we need to build some consensus with the wider world outside of our team – with our stakeholders and with the public.

We need to be open with our ideas as early as possible for a couple of reasons –

  • All the services we’re delivering are created for, and paid for by, the public. We should be transparent about how we’re spending public money.
  • The health and care system is complex. There are many different organisations involved. Being open about our ideas and proposals early on is a good way of getting the message out to these organisations, and starting a conversation with them.

One way in which we share our ideas openly is by blogging.

The document and drawing described above were drafted into an initial blog post by @evilstreak and @paul_furley, the drawing was redrawn by @demotive, and the resulting post is here – Booking is critical for transforming healthcare

Failure IS an option

I wrote this post after coming off a daily ‘stand-up’ call where one Developer admitted he “didn’t know what he was doing” because he’s covering for one of our UI Developers while she’s off , and a DBA told us we weren’t seeing the data we expected that morning because he ran the wrong package by mistake.


It got me thinking about how it’s important to encourage an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid to talk about the mistakes they’ve made.

No-one admonished these people for saying these things. We respect someone for being open about the fact that they made a mistake, and then fixed it. We admire someone for actively stepping out of their comfort zone to work on something they’re not used to – it broadens their skills and reduces the number of single points of failure in our team – which in turn helps to keep our work flowing.

Whilst failure can be bad – it is also a chance to learn, and improve. It’s okay to make mistakes, and to admit when you don’t know the best way to do something, as long as you learn from it!




photo credit: ncc_badiey cc