Overcoming the Challenges of Remote Working

Mid-March 2020, in order to look after each employees’ physical and mental well being, Phitopolis rolled out remote working options for all. For a young company that hasn’t enabled work from home before, this scenario is like a trial by fire for all teams, including stakeholders.

It’s been three months and the team’s velocity is not affected negatively. On the flip side, the more the team gets accustomed to working remotely, the faster we are at delivering value. Here are three items that worked for our team that are worth trying if you’re planning to do remote work:

Communicate, a lot

Working with non-collocated teams for the first time is challenging especially when you’re used to tapping your teammate’s shoulder and heading to the whiteboard to bounce ideas off when designing a solution. What used to be a 2-minute chat to clarify a change request from the client with your seatmate seems to be a bit more complicated than it used to.

In an office setting, the team is accustomed to doing 10 to 15-minute stand-up meetings. Here we discuss what value was delivered the previous day, what are the goals for today, what new items we learned that will benefit the others, and blockers if there are any.

Working remotely, we noticed that the stand-up meetings (now done while sitting down) tend to be a bit longer. The first two to five minutes are spent catching up with each other and check if everything is good in terms of what’s happening in the outside world. This icebreaker helps prepare to set the tone of the stand-up. In the next 25-minutes, we share the virtual board we have and go through the tasks that were done, being done, for review, and blocked. The virtual board works like a physical board which makes the transition a lot easier.

We use a number of tools available to collaborate with the virtual team. The tools need not be sophisticated ones, the important thing is it should address the communication gaps that non-collocated teams face – from a shared simple sheet to track high-level project status, to video conferencing for architecture-related discussions and feature demo.

Slack plays a big role for async messaging. We use it for casual chats to check on our peers. Before finding its way into our documentations and master branch, a number of code snippets have been exchanged here too. When dealing with our counterparts on the other side of the globe, we leave offline messages that they can get back to during their business hours.

For immediate feedback, the team noticed that video conferencing and sharing screens via Zoom works great. We use it mainly for sprint planning, daily stand-ups, architecture design review, and walking through a new feature, among others.

Keep a clear list of goals

Working from home has a lot of potential distractions ranging from the stack of dirty plates in the kitchen sink that won’t clean themselves, to your four-legged fur baby hinting you for some more cuddle time. Everyone has different triggers, but one thing is for sure, there are a lot of these distractions at home!

To easily get back our focus after a short distraction, keeping a list greatly helps. Agile teams like keeping lists – a long list of backlog items to be groomed, lists of independent subtasks inside a task, a prioritized task list for the current sprint as seen in scrum board, etc. (the list goes on, pun intended). Having a list keeps everyone aligned and it also clarifies the goals. Ticking off items on our list also helps boost morale and gives a sense of accomplishment after a productive day.

The list can either be on a sheet of paper or it can be on a virtual board shared with the team. Our team uses a project management tool that has a kanban board to reflect the task list for the current sprint. We also keep a healthy product backlog so that we can plan ahead and prioritize which items are needed by the stakeholders.

Trust your team

Trust, or lack thereof, is a very dangerous feeling; it can make or break a team. When you cannot see what your team is doing and you’re used to some level of control on what’s going on, doubts start to cloud one’s judgment. Lack of trust, not only between management and development teams but also within the team is not uncommon for new non-collocated teams.

To help build a conducive remote working environment, we should find comfort in thinking that everyone is pulling their own weight. If doubts arise, communicate (see #1). Other than daily status meetings, weekly or fortnightly checkpoints help. During these checkpoints, the proof is in the pudding – with tighter feedback loops you have a better grasp on what value is being delivered by the team and can easily help unblock items if need be.

The hip processes, collaboration tools, and the latest remote work buzzwords may help the team deliver, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll work. At the end of the day, the person behind the keyboard is the one that matters. Hiring the right team who hold themselves accountable and to a certain degree of excellence is the key.

Ian Ragudo, Core Data Services team.

Partnering For Success

The year 2020 started with an exciting new partnership for Phitopolis as we hosted 3 Masters students from Ateneo de Manila University completing their Masters program in Applied Mathematics with a specialization in Mathematical Finance. This partnership was part of their program’s Capstone Project which aimed to give the students an opportunity to gain real-world experience whilst doing original research work.

The subject chosen for the project was a research paper concerning the opportunities for statistical arbitrage in the Norwegian market. The students were tasked to conduct the same study but this time in the context of the North American market. Working closely with Mikki Zaballero, Researcher at Phitopolis, they did in-office visits and together they developed their strategies and work plans. A VPN was provided to them as well by Phitopolis to access proprietary computing resources so they could conduct on-campus work.

Ateneo de Manila University Seal

Ateneo de Manila University Seal

Throughout the duration of the project, the students worked diligently and we were impressed by their work effort and the rate at which they came up to speed including the need to learn the Python programming language. As the Covid-19 pandemic took effect they were able to continue their work remotely whilst dealing with all the attendant challenges such as poor internet connection and inability to meet in person. The Phitopolis team supported them throughout and ensured the project was able to continue to completion.

The culmination of the project was a presentation, delivered by Zoom of course, to the Phitopolis team, the Ateneo Professors, and guest Ashar Mahoob, Chief Investment Officer at Quantbot. All agreed that the experience had been positive and it amounted to a “win-win” for all participants.

Pandemic Response 2020

BCP to Quarantine – dealing with “new normals”

When we started this company we deliberately chose a premium office space with which to attract top talent and make a statement about the culture and ethos of Phitopolis. We all enjoyed those first months working in a collaborative environment which definitely helped forge the early bonds between the team members. As we enjoyed Christmas and looked forward to embarking on a new year of growth, none of us could imagine we would be soon be asked to abandon our beautiful office and work from our bedrooms and living rooms instead. Yet as 2020 unfolded we heard worrying news about a new respiratory disease emerging from our neighbors in China and we began to make plans.

The outbreak started slowly, as these things do, with isolated cases coming from overseas, and initially, it seemed it was under control. However, as cases inevitably increased we decided that a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) test was in order. All employees were canvassed to ensure they had sufficient technical equipment at home and were given VPN access. The test was scheduled for Friday 13th March and all team members looked forward to trying out the system. As it turned out the timing was fortuitous as the very same weekend the Government of Philippines announced a quarantine of the whole of Luzon Island which is where Metro Manila is situated. Suffice to say the BCP Test was successful and very quickly became the “new normal” for the team as we abided by the Government regulations and stayed home.

As the days went by it was clear that the remote working system was effective and the team embraced the new mode of operation and adapted accordingly. Thankfully, in this world of Slack and Zoom, we were able to maintain our connections with daily standups, screen sharing and on-going support from our partners in Code Willing and Quantbot in the United States. Even when the quarantine was extended we remained confident that we could continue to deliver on our objectives and keep the momentum going in our fledgling company.

At the time of writing, there are signs of a slight easing in the quarantine restrictions and Metro Manila will be making its first steps to reopen. At Phitopolis we are in no hurry. We have a functioning team and whilst we’re ready to welcome them back to the office in BGC we will likely go through a transition period until we are happy that it is safe to return to work under this next “new normal”.

This is not over but the team has shown it is adaptable and resilient in the face of adversity. A character that will surely place us in a good position to face the challenges ahead. Phitopolis Management could not be more proud of our team.