The old normal
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, most of us were working in the office 5 days per week. The lucky few had the opportunity to work from home every now and then, mostly limited to one day per week. The team had to agree with this flex-day. Often there was a hard limit of 1 or 2 teammembers being able to work remotely on a specific day.
The reason for this was simple. We just didn’t know better. When working in a team, you should be sitting together, otherwise you couldn’t help each other. Every team in the office had its own dedicated island. A workplace for every teammember, and the physical scrum board. We were all sitting there together, giving us the opportunity to challenge each other and discuss work related (and non-work related) stuff.
COVID-19: Forced transition to full-remote
Early in 2020, I remember sitting at our island with my team. We were talking about the news when one of my colleagues suddenly received a phone call from his wife. Their daughter was sick and had to go to the doctor. The doctor mentioned that there was a risk of the girl being infected by the coronavirus, so they should be very careful and isolate themselves as much as possible. My colleague left the office and went home.
Only a few weeks later, our government decided that it was time for a (first) lockdown. Everyone was forced into teleworking. I was one of the lucky few who already had a decent home office — stable WiFi, comfortable chair, extra monitor, … — in place. Some of my colleagues were brute forced into working on their 13″ laptop all day, every day.
We were forced into isolation, but we still needed to cooperate. We were under pressure because we had to change our way of working. As a surplus we heard from our product owners that they were in need of some new features, that needed to be implemented very quickly. These new features were all related to the lockdown — and how this affected the customers — so it was very urgent.
When we heard this, we immediately shifted gears. We were already using a tool that gave us the possibility of video-calls and online meetings so there was no time for us to lose. Our teamlead immediately organised online meetings to maintain our daily routine. He also added some extra meetings to clarify the new requirements. Once everything was clear, we immediately started developing the new features.
We were lucky to be a solid team. We already knew the business quite well and we were aware of each others strengths and weaknesses. We were able to maintain — and even increase — our velocity. After a few days, the first features were already available on our production environment.
On the other hand, we all had some difficulties with the full-remote situation. We were all still physically healthy, my colleagues daughter luckily hadn’t been infected by corona, but we were starting to suffer mentally. We missed being together. Due to the high workload and the physical distance between us, there was no more room for smalltalk. The only times we heard each other, was during the — numerous — online meetings.
We also struggled with our way of working. When development for a story was ready, another colleague had to review the new code. We were already used to this, but we would discuss these remarks face to face. Now we couldn’t do this, so we used the code review tools of our VCS platform, sometimes leading to long threads with endless right/wrong discussions.
We also had a dev-channel were we could ask quick questions and post our daily portion of memes. Sometimes we started having discussions in this channel. This was a bad idea! How can you be sure that your interpretation is actually what your fellow teammate really meant? Short answer… you can’t!
We learned the hard way that it was better to avoid these discussions. When one did not agree with a remark or when something was not entirely clear, just ask to have a short video-call. This way we were able to hear each others voice (including intonation) and see each other. This worked fine, until one of our colleagues had the fantastic idea to turn off his webcam, to save bandwith. Again this idea led to frustrations when someone misinterpreted something he said. This could have been avoided when his webcam was turned on, because you can better express what you really mean, using your facial expression and your hands.
Switching projects during lockdown
Some months later, I left my team for another challenge. I was given the opportunity to start on another project with a new customer. This gave me the possibility to learn some new technologies, something I couldn’t do at my previous project anymore.
This is one of the perks of being a consultant. When you start a new project, you leave everything behind and start all over again. You are the new guy who has to learn everything all over again. You have to align yourself with the way of working in your new team, discover both the new domain and the existing code — if you’re not lucky enough to start on a greenfield project — and, last but not least, you have to meet your new team. A bunch of people who have been working together for a while.
All these new things are exhausting, even in a normal — pre-COVID-19 — situation. They cause a lot of headaches the first days, maybe they are even causing a lot of stress. Why? You want to impress your new team. You want to show them that they have made the right choice by hiring you. You are the help they have been looking for for a long time!
I have to say it felt really weird to start on a project without having seen anyone. My technical interview was with my teamlead and the teams architect in an online meeting. Sadly their webcam (or bandwith) was so bad, that I could not really see their face. Even my “new” laptop had been delivered at my doorstep, because all off the offices were still closed due to the pandemic situation.
My first day “at the office” started off with a very short call with my teamlead. He showed me where I could find my agenda and the project documentation. He also told me that I would only be able to see my team two days later. The reason for this delay was that I was required to join some formal — online — introductions. These sessions were about the organisational structure (both the organisation as a whole and the IT department).
The second day I received an invite for a domain introduction. An analyst — part of my new team — invited me to show me around the domain I was going to work on. I also learned that I was going to be the only developer involved in this part of the domain for now. The rest of my team was working on other applications. That was new for me. I was used to work in a team that was responsible for one application.
Finally! Day 3! I was going to “meet” the team. I joined the video-meeting and I saw 15 (!) faces, all looking at me (not really at me, they were obviously looking at their screen, also seing 1 new and 14 familiar faces. They started the meeting — our daily stand-up — by welcoming me. Afterward everyone introduced him/herself and said what he/she had been doing yesterday. Last but not least, it was my turn to introduce myself. So now, I knew everyone in my new team, and I was ready to get up to speed… Guess again! It was time for yet another introduction into my new organisation!
Get back to work!
The next day I had the first real team-meetings. I had a short one-on-one meeting with my teams technical lead and the teams architect. They informed me aboud the technical structure and the development workflow. This was quite interesting actually. When the meeting was over, I was ready to dive into the code, finally! This made me feel good again. After a few days I started to feel comfortable in my new role. I really felt like I added value to the team, increasing my own velocity every single day.
The first week is almost over. Last item on my todo list? Another meeting. Not just another meeting, but an informal team meeting. I joined the online meetingroom and saw my colleagues talking, making jokes and sipping their beer. Yes indeed, they were all drinking beers! This was how they ended the week, having a drink together and talk about anything but work.
Everything was just going great. I was waiting for the national health situation to normalize, so I could finally meet my new colleagues in the flesh. I was really looking forward to this, to finally getting to know them for real, … I was really up to speed by now. All issues that I had to complete by the holidays were ready. We were ready for the upcoming release. Business was so happy with everything we delivered, they just had to organise a release party, well… They organised an online-party, were everyone involved was sitting behind his computer and again, sipping his own beer. It was fun, but… not what I was hoping for. I had been on release parties, I mean the real parties where people come together, before and the were great. This was just another online event.
All good things come to an end. When the last issue was resolved, I had to start working on something new. It was something really new for me. Same customer, other business domain. And although it was new for me, the expectations were high. It was like they didn’t remember the fact that I have just been there for a month or two. While planning our work — we planned everything based on a certain velocity, combined with our availability — it felt like I had been there forever. I was supposed to do the same amount of work like the colleagues who have been there forever. I did not say anything, because I didn’t want to let them down. I just nodded.
At first I tried to do my best, but I just felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like I was drowning. After a while, it even got worse. I felt so bad, that I even got physical complaints. I got sick, diagnosed with a burnout. A burnout, me… This seemed so unreal, but I had to come to a full stop. My body hit the brakes, really hard. After a few weeks I went looking for professional help. Together with my coach, I have been looking at what I was doing, but even more at what I actually wanted to do with my life. I started to feel a little better. I talked to my manager and together we decided that my contract with my current customer would come to an end very soon. We just needed a new opportunity.
Shaping the new normal
Sometimes this opportunity arises suddenly. One of my colleagues — working on another project — decided to resign. He was working on a project being developed in-house by a small self-steering team. They were looking for someone to replace him, they found… me!
From the beginning I felt like this is were I was meant to be. It was great, working in a close team with people I actually knew. There was also the possibility to work at the company offices every now and then. The regulations statet that we were allowed to go to the office 1 day per week.
This was the best decision we could ever make. Everyone who wants to go to the office, can go to the office. There are only two things you have to do. The first thing you do is tell your colleagues, maybe someone will join you! Finally you also have to book your seat, due to the limited maximum capacity in our office. We quickly found a routine in this. Soon we had our fixed office-day. Every friday we — every teammember who felt like it — went to the office, were we worked together every day. We also took our time to have a chat, grab some food together and even drink a beer together at the end of the day. This is so energising!
What have I learned from this experience so far? Well… I am not ready for a full-remote job. I am a social human being, I need real life contacts with the people I work with! I don’t say I want to go back to the office fulltime. I am looking for a healthy balance between remote and onsite working. I think 1 or 2 days in the office is perfect for me, even for our team.
Freedom of choice is alto important. We — the team — decided to go back to the office on fridays. No-one told us to do so. We even have teammates that don’t feel the need to come back yet, they just stay at home. The team decided that everyone is free (not) to join, just make sure everyone knows.
Going to the office should have an additional value for the team. Working on-site should not be a way for our employer/customer to monitor our performance. There are other/better indicators for this! This additional value can be more than just working together to improve performace. Just spending time together can be enough. This is the only to make sure a bunch of great individuals become a real team.
Finally there are some things everyone should bet aware of while working from home. First of all, make sure to stay in touch with the rest of your team. When you encounter some unexpected difficulties with an issue you are working on, discuss it with someone just like you would do when you were working on-site.
The final piece of advice I want to give you is to make sure to take a break every now and then. I suggest to take a short break every hour. You can also take a longer break if you feel the need. Take the dog out for a walk, go buy some groceries or just go outside for a while. Make sure to get up and go away from your computer. And keep in mind, your smartphone is also a computer. Give your head a break!