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.