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InfoQ Homepage Presentations Remote Working: the Day 8,000 People Suddenly Worked from Home through the Present

Remote Working: the Day 8,000 People Suddenly Worked from Home through the Present



Rebecca Parsons describes the transition that Thoughtworks made to remote working initially, and how they look today at the value of remote, hybrid, and in-office work.


Rebecca Parsons is Thoughtworks' CTO. She has more years of experience than she’d like to admit in technology and large-scale software development. She recently co-authored the book Building Evolutionary Architectures with colleagues Neal Ford and Pat Kua. Before ThoughtWorks she worked as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida.

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The Prior's Plague Episodes

Rebecca Parsons: My name is Rebecca Parsons. I'm here to talk to you about our journey to hybrid and remote working throughout the pandemic. I want to start with a story that comes from a science fiction television series called Stargate SG-1. In one of these episodes, the team has brought back a plague from another planet. What I found interesting was my different reaction to this episode, from when I had seen it the first time, I had watched the series.

Like many during the pandemic, I rewatched, I binge watched a lot of series that I had on DVD or was able to stream. The first time I saw this, I thought it was intellectually interesting to learn about the kinds of factors they talk about in terms of spread and the mitigations that are put into place to try to stop the spread. When I saw it a second time, I reacted to it much differently, because I had seen all of those things in the early days of the pandemic. This had become a part of our lives looking at, how is the disease spreading? What are the death counts? What are the infections? How are the hospitals doing?

All of those things that were a part of my day-to-day reality were playing out in this television episode. I responded to it in a different way. Rather than just looking at it clinically and scientifically, and, isn't this interesting? I felt a different kind of kinship with the characters. I was reading quite recently something from The New York Times when they were talking about people's reactions over the course of the pandemic, and how we look back at those earlier days, and are still really trying to process.

Relevant Background

First, some relevant information about my company. The first is, we're a services firm. We primarily work on our clients' premises, or in our own offices if we have our delivery centers. We are firmly rooted in the practices of agile software development, and in particular, those from extreme programming. Many of those practices are heavily rooted in having people in the same place. However, since the early 2000s, we've been widely geographically distributed, and so we've had to develop the techniques of distributed agile.

Pre-pandemic, we had had projects that were actually taking place on multiple continents in multiple time zones. I believe the most heavily distributed was one that was between Bangalore, India, London, a suburb of London called Hemel Hempstead, and Toronto, Canada. Although we are firmly committed to agile, we have extensive experience working in a distributed fashion, even though in those different locales, those teams were still colocated.

Finally, unlike many of our competitors, we actually have a significant presence in China, and so we started to feel the impacts in our business earlier than many other companies did, just because of our presence in China. I went back through my email and the earliest reference that I have to some specific impact was January 22, 2020, which is when our Wuhan office was closed. We have several offices in China, Wuhan is just one. Obviously, it spread from there. Our Wuhan office was the first to close. Shortly after that, I was in the very last face-to-face that I would attend for a long time. This was in San Francisco, California from February 26th to the 27th. One of the people on that team actually could not make it, because she lives in China. The lockdown in terms of people from China had already begun. Within the next couple of weeks, we went fully remote.

Early Principles

When I look at this from the perspective of how we ran our business during that time, we came up with some key principles. The first being, first and foremost, we want to keep our Thoughtworkers safe, and our clients safe. That was principle number one. The second was then to protect our business, and do what we could to continue to support our clients in their own success, to the highest standards possible. Then, finally, we wanted to do whatever we could to help mitigate the spread within the communities, because that way we could protect the most vulnerable.

Confusing Time

Those first several weeks were confusing. I ended up getting stuck outside Charleston, South Carolina. I had been on my way to speak at a conference in London, actually, and the organizers kept saying, "No, we're going to do this in-person." As it got closer, I was having conversations with my CEO about whether or not I should say, "No, I can't come." It was only a couple of days before that the organizers said, "We're going to go fully remote. Let's set up some time for you to be able to record your session."

I was in South Carolina because I happened to be stopping by on my way to London, to visit a friend. I was fortunate in that I was sheltering in place, but with a friend. I wasn't by myself as so many people were. It also allowed us to do things like have only one person go to the grocery store to feed two people. It was a confusing time. Very early in the pandemic, we actually had one of our Thoughtworkers succumb to the virus. She lived in New York City. Because we were so geographically distributed, we had people who were at client sites scattered literally across the globe.

Helping people get home safely, and understand even where everybody was, was a major logistical undertaking. It resulted in us having to turn our whole notion of distributed agile up to 11, because now it wasn't just you had teams in different places, but you had individuals in different places. Many of the practices, as I said, within agile still assumed that at least the team and individual site was together. Now we had to figure out, how do we do this when no one is in the same place? We had clients reacting in myriad ways. Some were a bit slower to shut things down. Others shut things down pretty much immediately.

As time went on, some of them actually started to bring people back depending on where they were located. Many with mask mandates. I recall doing several Zoom calls with clients where because they are in a big room, they're sitting there with a mask on. I'm sitting in my office or in my friend's house, depending on how early it was in the pandemic, obviously without a mask. Those times were in fact quite confusing for lots of people.

Survey in China

Later on, but still relatively early in the pandemic, we actually did a survey of our folks in China to try to see how they were adapting. The first thing is most people felt a real improvement in productivity. They felt actually, that being in their home was making them more effective. However, many of them said a lot of it had to do with the fact that they didn't have to commute. I don't know how many of you are familiar with traffic in cities like Beijing, China. This can be a non-trivial undertaking to try to commute within China. We also found out that people's response to this question definitely varied based on their home situation. Even though we all can imagine things like, how many different people are trying to get at the wireless, or how many quiet spaces do you have?

One of the big items was the chair. In fact, one of the things that we did was institute a working from home equipment policy where people could do things like upgrade their chairs, because of how important being comfortable and being able to sit for long periods of time is to productivity when you were working in isolation like this. Because, think of your typical day in an office, you've got people coming up to you. You'll stand up to talk to them. You might walk over to somebody else's table. When you're working by yourself, mostly it's trips to get another cup of coffee, or, frankly, to use the bathroom. You don't move around nearly as much. We all know how important comfortable work chairs are in an office, they're even more important in a home office.

Leadership Changes

From a leadership perspective, what kinds of things were different? As I said, initially, we are widely geographically distributed, and we don't really have a home office or a central office. Our CFO is in London. Our CEO is in Chicago. I'm in Seattle. We've got people scattered, and so, many of our leadership meetings had already been remote. That didn't necessarily change per se. Although we didn't have the opportunity to refresh those relationships with face-to-face meetings.

We also did have one relatively new member of our senior leadership team, our chief marketing officer, who actually, although she had met several of us in person individually, had never been to an actual group meeting because of the timing of when she started. Our approach to meetings, though, did change in part to allow people to express the anxiety that they were feeling. I will admit that for me, much like my father before me, Zoom meetings, telephone calls, these are transactions. I used to joke, my dad would very often forget to say goodbye before he hang up on the telephone because it was a transactional device.

Given the fact that we didn't have opportunities to meet with people, face-to-face, have those little water cooler chats and such. We had to be more intentional about introducing time into meetings to help people express their anxiety, rejoice in the fact that everybody was still there. Even though we were used to having remote meetings, we did have to change them up a little bit to account for this. Mental health and employee support became paramount. This wasn't just for our individual employees. It was also important for our leaders. We had to make sure that we were taking enough care of ourselves that we could make the space for others to be able to express their anxiety.

I often would allocate the first 5 minutes or so, particularly in my one-on-ones, to just let people talk about where they were. We had people with young children at home, who were really struggling with, how do I do all of this work when I don't have childcare available anymore? There were all different kinds of pressures that were put on people when they were at home.

Yes, there are advantages, like the folks in China expressed, on not having to waste time commuting. Let's face it, many people don't really worry that much about what they wear when they're on Zoom all day. There were other challenges, and so we needed to make sure that we had the support systems in place for the mental health of ourselves and the rest of our employees.

Onboarding new people, particularly in such a people-focused organization as a consulting company is, is really hard. We brought one person, not on the top senior leadership team, but definitely in a global position, and she never met anyone in person for the first 18 months of her employment. We have a very strong culture, and trying to understand a culture when you can't just plop down and have a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine with somebody, that's really challenging. We had to figure out how to onboard not just operations people, but professional services people who would join our teams, and begin to work with other Thoughtworkers in solving our clients' problems. Figuring out how to do that without being able to sit down and talk to somebody is a challenge.

New Ways of Working

We had to develop new ways of working. Obviously, remote pairing. We were not going to give up on the practice of pairing. One of the things that we found, however, is that the different tools available to support remote pairing, we couldn't come up with one that was universally desired. We ran pilots. For many people, pairing over Zoom was just fine. For others, they wanted more specialized tools. A lot of it came down to what their bandwidth was.

Zoom actually did a pretty good job of remote pairing, even in lower bandwidth situations. Some of the other tools that were more advanced, actually took more bandwidth. Understanding the working conditions of the individuals on a team was important. Another thing, as we got further into the pandemic, is thinking about remote-first meetings. Even if you do have some people together, having everybody on their own computer with their own Zoom session, even if you had people in the same room, helped make the people who were not in the room feel more engaged.

That was very important when you were trying to reestablish connections, because if you've got a group of people sitting in a room, and they're all chatting amongst themselves, and you've got a couple of people whose faces are up there on the room screen, and they're frantically waving, trying to get some attention. That isn't a good way to help people feel like they belong, that they're included. When we started getting people back into rooms, which happened at various times in different countries and in different cities, and then sometimes they would be doing that for a while and then go back home. This remote-first meeting was an important aspect of helping people feel like they still belonged.

We spent a lot of time thinking on how to recreate those information-specific and location-specific information radiators, because that was one of the big things we gave up. Think, in an agile delivery center, you're going to have cards all over the wall, and people are going to come up and they're going to move them around. They're going to interact and everybody can see where things are at. Yes, we now have virtual card walls, but there are other kinds of things that have to be facilitated. That's where tools like Mural and Miro and some of these remote whiteboards started to come into account. You had some way of simulating that, ok, everybody go put stickies up on the wall, and then we'll move them around and group them and cluster them.

For each of our ceremonies and rituals and facilitation techniques, we had to look at, how can we make this work when we don't have a wall, or we don't have a whiteboard? A lot of effort has gone into thinking about, how do we actually facilitate these remote sessions? We also started to reimagine what was possible. We actually did an acquisition that was almost completely remote. In fact, the only face-to-face meeting happened right at the very end. Because there was just that level of discomfort, do we really want to do this when we've not met anybody in person? I think now, we would be over that.

Acquisitions are not something that come naturally to Thoughtworks. We've only done five in our entire existence. One was back in the early 2000s. That didn't necessarily go as well as we would have liked. This second one we did at the beginning of the pandemic, was literally only our second. I think now we would feel much more comfortable doing even something like an acquisition completely remotely.

Now, it's Hybrid

What's it like now? It's hybrid. It differs across clients. It differs across cities and countries. Many of our clients in the U.S. and Europe are still mostly remote. They haven't asked us to come back into their offices or our offices in any large numbers. Certain things are now again done face-to-face, but for the most part, most things are still remote. Throughout the pandemic, we were convincing our clients, many of whom would never let us work anywhere except their offices. It was, if we can't see you, you can't do work for us. Of course, when the pandemic struck, they had to get over that.

Clients that used to be very skeptical of things like nearshoring and offshoring started to see that that was an alternative. From our staffing perspective, it made it so much easier for us to make particular specialists available, because all you had to worry about was time zones. Client attitudes had to evolve very quickly, because they were faced with the prospect of just having to end programs that were very important to them or accept the fact, ok, we're going to have to deal with remote working.

We are now back in a situation where some of our internal meetings are face-to-face. Depending on the timing, and we started these back in March of last year, we would have daily testing regimes. It was on the honor system, people were allowed to do it in their rooms. We wanted people to be able to feel comfortable. Masks, depending on the city, were optional. We were testing every day.

Unfortunately, in a couple of cases, we did have somebody come down with the virus. I believe the worst number that I heard was a third of the people who attended the meeting, did ultimately come down with COVID because somebody tested positive on the day after the meeting when they were getting ready to travel back. Over the next few days, there were I think a total of four who came down with COVID at that. It certainly wasn't a super spreader. That is the risk that you run in a situation like that.

Conference experiences are still mixed. I attended the Web Summit in Lisbon, actually, in late 2021. They had requirements for proof of vaccination. If you weren't from Europe, so you didn't have the European validation app, you actually had to have a test result every 48 hours to attend. There were, I think it was on the order of 15,000 to 20,000 people there, and I never heard of that as a super spreader event. They had very rigid protocols around keeping masks on. For the most part, people followed those.

We've seen other conferences where their first foray back into face-to-face, they had maybe 50% of the people that they were expecting. Some conferences are actually going hybrid, like this one, where you do have the possibility for online attendance or face-to-face attendance. That's actually becoming a more common model.

One of the things also we learned during this pandemic is certain kinds of events, there's a sense in which you don't lose much going online. Of course, you lose the entire hallway track, if you're online. I haven't really found any of the online serendipitous meeting experiments to work very well. That might just be me. There are other kinds of events, training events, in particular, where it's really more a series of classes. I talked to one person, for example, who is a nurse, and she has specific training she has to do on a regular basis because of her specialty.

It used to be, it would be a week in a city, starting at 9:00 ending at 5:00. She told me that she would leave those and not feel like she'd really learned anything. They put them all online, and you have to do them, but it's over a 3-month period of time. She was able to space them out and retain much more of the information, because she could do it at her own pace. I think we have discovered that there are some things that are better done remotely that we used to do face-to-face. I'm really hopeful that this notion of, I'm going to fly from London to San Francisco for a lunch meeting and then fly back on the same day, I hope we never do that again.

We're really learning what kinds of things do need to be face-to-face. There is nothing like that back and forth that you can get when you're clustered in front of a whiteboard, or the level of team building that can happen when you're all sitting around a dinner table after a long day of getting things done. There are certain discoveries or alignment where you need to be able to actually experience the body language. It's too easy to turn off the camera and scowl. If you're trying to get alignment, we need to know about the scowls. There are certain kinds of activities that really do need to be done face-to-face.

We've, as Thoughtworks, been putting together a Technology Radar. We're getting ready to do volume 28. We've been doing this for over 10 years. The pandemic lockdown happened just a few weeks before what we call our Doppler meeting, where we put together the radar, and so we had to go fully remote. We did a few of those. Then, in February of last year, we were able to do some pods. It was still difficult for some people being able to cross country borders. Visa applications in many embassies were way backed up.

We had one individual in Europe, who for a February meeting, he couldn't even get an appointment at the embassy until three months later, and so we did pods. We had one pod in Europe, specifically in Barcelona, and we had another pod in New York. We still had people in China. We still had people in India. That time we did not have South America, and our person from Australia actually flew to New York, so that the time zones were better. We follow that remote-first strategy, and it was certainly better.

Then, later in the year, we were able to do a radar meeting completely face-to-face again. It was so much more productive. Because we didn't have to use the remote facilitation techniques, we probably saved 4 hours of time, over the course of a week, and that's a significant amount of time. We were able to reconnect as a team. We did our leadership face-to-face, again, fully face-to-face. Again, we went through the testing regimen that I was telling you about. There were new people there who had never been at a face-to-face, including our chief marketing officer who had never been in the same room with the colleagues that she had been working with. She was hired in September before the pandemic began.

Lessons Learned

What are some lessons that we learned? Many things that we would have assumed just have to happen face-to-face, really don't. You can do a lot more remotely than people necessarily realize, but you can't get away from time zones. I hear so many people who say, because of the pandemic, because of all we've learned about what you can actually do remotely, there will never be a global meeting again. That's just nonsense. Because when we were doing those fully remote radar sessions, as an example, I was back on the West Coast, I would be starting at 4 a.m. Yet, even with that, our guy in Australia was effectively working the third shift.

It's one thing to work third shift and not have to really think much, but the creation of our radar is a heavily technical process, and so, you need to be able to think, and that's hard to do. It's not like, it would have been any better if those of us on the West Coast were getting up at 2 a.m. instead of 4 a.m. It didn't help that much. You can't get away from time zones. For activities that require a lot of engagement, a lot of thought, face-to-face is always going to be superior.

Hybrid employment models are very complex to think about. We had to look at what kind of remote working we could allow our people to do in part just because of tax regimes. I am a resident of the state of Washington, in the United States. If I work too much outside of the state of Washington, I'm liable for state income taxes if that state has those taxes. It becomes even more complex if I decided, I want to go spend the summer in Portugal. We had to look at, what are the different arrangements, and they all vary by country, on what then would be possible?

If you live in Australia and you want to spend time with family back in Europe, how long can you be in Europe working before we start having tax consequences? What we've also started to do in some of our countries is look at how we can manage a broader approach to where we hire. Because if you're always expecting that people have to be close enough to do something face-to-face, you have to only hire where you can easily get people, or people have to be within commute distances. That was what most of our countries had been operating under. Not as much the U.S., because for our professional services folks, our clients are scattered across the U.S., and so it really doesn't matter. I happen to live in a city where we don't have an office.

That hasn't been a problem. I've lived here for over 10 years. In this situation where you don't have these places where people congregate, how do you engender the sense of belonging? There are all kinds of strategies in remote team building. We've done remote away days where everybody gets on Zoom, and you've got different talks happening. You've got different breakout rooms, where people who are members of an affinity group can get together. It's very hard to establish and maintain that sense of belonging, that sense of being a part of something, when you're sitting in your own office all of the time. We have to be very intentional about how we think about belonging.

What's Today Like?

Finally, what do things look like today? We've got different countries with different working styles. In some of our more delivery center focused countries like India, you maybe have up to 50% of the people going into the office on some regular cadence. We have other countries that have basically said, we are fully remote. Yes, we might still have office space, but there's no expectation that people have to come into the office. They're adjusting to what it means to be an employee.

We would have employees in cities that are well out of commuting distance to any of our offices and we're just learning to live with that, and pretty much everything in between. It's not that unusual anymore for me to get onto one of our global calls, and you'll see some number of people who are dialing in from an office conference room. We're still experimenting with tools. Again, we're seeing the different capabilities that are enabled by different tools and different people's responses to them. We actually did a pilot of a couple different remote pairing and there was no clear winner. I think there's still a lot of work that needs to be done, as we imagine, what are the approaches to take to some of these remote activities? What are the tools that can help facilitate that?

We are more scrutinizing requests for face-to-face meetings. Help me understand the value of doing this face-to-face. For many, several of the meetings could be done remotely. I think we still all believe, and we'll have to see how this plays out as people start to get back together face-to-face on occasion, we still feel like it helps a team to be able to work remotely if they occasionally are able to get together face-to-face. We found this with our distributed teams, when they can do an exchange of individuals so they get the perspective of that other location.

We also see that in some of our internal teams where, yes, if we get together once a year, we can do all of those other meetings remotely and still have that sense of trust, and have that sense of belonging. It's helping us with our carbon targets. We've committed to the science-based targeting initiative. Carbon reduction is a whole lot easier if you're not trying to fly everybody for every meeting. We've learned a lot through the pandemic. We've gone through a lot from the pandemic. I think it has helped us understand what are the true enablers for some of these processes and these approaches that we are taking.

It's also really focused us on thinking about, what do we need to do to take care of our people, to take care of our culture, to help them feel like they are part of something special, that they are part of something bigger. How do we do that? Just by looking at a little green dot.


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Recorded at:

Aug 18, 2023