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Collective Learnings about Remote Working during Covid-19

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The response to the pandemic showed how to make sure people are productive and included in a hybrid environment, and it's all due to the learnings we carried on from March 2020, Matteo Emili claimed. Many organisations demonstrated how it’s possible to work in an inclusive and productive way even if people are distributed around the world.

Emili, group manager for software engineering at Avanade UK & Ireland, shared his learnings on how companies responded to Covid-19 at DevOpsCon Berlin 2021.

The challenges that companies had to deal with at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic were adapting to a new world of remote presence, flexible timings, and realising that people need empowerment rather than simply expecting the same behaviours and patterns in an online-only world, as Emili explained:

We worked for a while in a full-blown emergency mode (working from home is not the same as working remotely after all, as the vast majority of people were not equipped for it!), and we all had to adapt to different situations we never dealt with before. Childcare, remote learning, two people working from the same living room - these are all things we didn’t account for pre-2020, and we made a success of it.

Being geo-distributed in different offices is different from being geo-distributed around homes, Emili argued. The same challenges applied to everyone - things changed, quickly, and high-performing teams were the quickest to get on board, he said.

Working remotely impacted people’s working environment, and not everyone is equipped for it, Emili said. Old enforced work patterns are no longer effective; organisations should support employees to make sure they will be as productive as they were in the office, he argued.

Understanding childcare needs and offering flexible working patterns are usually the two top items, as Emili explained:

Flexible work patterns include being able to take time out of the regular working day as needed, and enlightened organisations are able to support this without problems. If your employee needs time off from 15:00 to 16:00 because they need to pick-up their kids from school, what’s the problem with it? As long as you have a clear arrangement the team will be able to function without that person for an hour.

It’s time to evolve, and employees are rightly front and centre in this evolution. As an organisation, you don’t need bodies on seats in the (virtual) office from 9:00 to 17:00; you need people who are able to perform as needed bringing the expected results, all of that whilst offering the best possible working environment, the one which caters to their needs, Emili said.

InfoQ interviewed Matteo Emili about what we learned from how companies have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic.

InfoQ: What advantages did high-performing geo-distributed teams have in dealing with the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic brought?

Matteo Emili: Adaptability is the keyword here. Cultural challenges are always the hardest to overcome, and high-performing teams being quicker to adapt showed better resiliency in their fabric.

Preemptively establishing clear ground rules about meetings and setting up shared communication spaces with purpose are examples of things that facilitate inclusion and bring everyone on the same page without requiring effort from the team. You will see the difference here between an average team and a high-performing one, with the first one struggling (in comparison) to get going due to the inevitable adjustments to make, while the second one will naturally adapt.

InfoQ: In your talk, you showed scenarios that showcased the adaption to remote working. Let’s look at the example that you gave about a simple pull request. What challenges did that pose and what have you learned?

Emili: Pull Requests (PRs) in a remote environment are way different than in person. Nobody will be able to quickly jump in, side-by-side, and look at issues with the same effectiveness via Teams or Slack. Remote PRs require open-mindedness and an ability to expose yourself to criticism, something that not everyone is able to do straight-away.

Coaching in this case is definitely required to make sure that information is shared with the right tools and with the right attitude in order to avoid misunderstandings - it’s all about how the information is conveyed.

A lead with the coach hat on can recommend the way forward here - for example, an objection can be raised for a certain functionality directly in the system. If the explanation gets too verbose or the sides cannot reconcile, it is appropriate to move to a different communication medium, which will allow for a better unstructured conversation experience. There is nothing wrong with two points of view, but having a conversation with tens or hundreds of comments doesn’t help in a review! Once things are agreed on they can be recorded in the PR in a succinct way, showing the hows and the whys.

Think of it this way - do you want to see bickering in a PR? No, you want to see a clean line of conversation. Arguing can be left to the internal chats.

InfoQ: Another scenario was about troubleshooting an issue. What happened, and what can we learn from that?

Emili: Coordination and collaboration are the name of the game when it comes to troubleshooting, however it’s important to maintain clear boundaries for leaders. You, as a leader, are there to support and facilitate, not to direct or command.

A remote team should be able to understand that the leader is not there to micromanage, but rather to ensure things are dealt with effectively. The leader only helps by removing obstacles and problems that the team might face, not by calling the shots directly, as otherwise the team would be overridden. The team members should self-organise around the issue and raise calls to the leader only when really necessary. If you have a leader micromanaging in a live troubleshooting call, you have a bigger problem.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for becoming more effective in working remotely?

Emili: Listen and genuinely try to help.

I always try to stay in touch on a 1:1 basis with my team members, and from the very beginning we established a mutual cultural understanding about how we want to shape our environment, the environment we spend a lot of time in.

This entails all of the above: knowledge sharing sessions, study groups, even gaming sessions - everything counts in a healthy workplace.

For example, I had a team member who wanted to study for a certain certification. I suggested setting up a study group with like-minded people - two weeks after, not only did she pass the certification, but her effort helped five more colleagues pass the exam.

In another circumstance we could really sense a feeling of stress over the space of a few weeks, so we introduced social sessions where we could just drop in and talk about any topic - they work really well and people are happy to have such a safe space for being themselves.

Active listening is the key enabler for remote working. Do you feel a colleague is struggling? Have a chat. Do you think your organisation is not tackling a problem in the best possible way? Talk to higher-ups. Are you on the receiving end of this conversation? Act.

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