Suddenly Working Remote When You Hadn’t Planned On It

This is a guest posting by Peter G. Walen

Many people are suddenly thrust into “working from home” or “remote working” when they and their companies had not planned on this. For some it is a minor inconvenience. For others, it is a major adjustment for them and their entire family. We’ll look at how to survive this sudden change, and maybe thrive in the “new normal.”

For many IT and tech workers, the idea of “working remote” has been something that “other companies” did. Just not theirs. For a huge proportion of those same people, the reality is now thrust upon them in a way they did not expect.
On top of the sudden shift of working from home, for many, the entire family is home as well. Sharing a space for a long period of time can be challenging and stress-inducing.

Add to this a pandemic spreading globally, inconsistent reactions, and conflicting information from sources people rely on for information. The result is a stew of uncertainty, if not outright fear.

This article can’t help you with everything. The ideas here might give individual contributors and managers some ideas on how to get through challenging times and emerge successfully.

For Managers

Forget the metrics. Forget the usual “success factors.” Forget the OKRs. Forget pushing delivery so that software is not late. Things likely will be late. Your clients and customers are likely reeling as well. We left “business as usual” a few weeks ago. People are only realizing it now.

The problem is, no matter how good or focused a team member is in normal times, this is not normal. Allow people space to be worried about their family, friends and loved ones who are likely to be hurt by what is going on. Allow them time to adjust.

This does not mean to not set expectations. Just be gentle. A light hand now will likely be remembered in the future.

Make sure people have what they need to have a chance at success.

Are they used to having monitors, other than their laptop screen? It might make it easier for them to have large, readable screens. If it is not practical for them to get their monitors from the office, order some and have them delivered to them. Same thing with mice and keyboards. Get them the physical equipment they need.

Make sure everyone has a good headset with a mic. The “on board” speakers and mics on most computers and laptops are fine if there is no background noise. Expect everyone, including you, will have some level of background noise.

Additionally, make sure everyone has a working camera either on their computer, or a stand-alone webcam that can be targeted anywhere and not simply in a straight line of where the laptop is. This is important for keeping the “in-person” feel as much as possible.

Reach out to each one individually. A kind word and heartfelt “How are YOU?” can go a long way toward sending a message that you care for them as people, not merely a “resource.” When you ask that question, don’t ask about any project or work stuff. Let them breathe a minute. If they start to mention that, reassure them that it is OK to get their family sorted first. The project status can come another time.

Help them be relaxed. Don’t give false hope and don’t make predictions about the future. Simply allow them to be human. Be human with them as well.
Human bonds will go farther toward building a cohesive remote team than any other action you can take.

Interested in learning more about remote working, especially as it relates to software testing? Register for our free webinar on April 6: 

Cunning Strategies for Effective
Working on Remote QA Teams

Live Webinar: Monday, April 6
5:00PM CEST, 11:00 AM EST

Meetings, Ceremonies, and Touchpoints

Status meetings, touchpoints, daily standups, check-ins, retrospectives. Whatever your team does, keep doing them. The challenge will be to do them when everyone is in a different location. I get that.

Since everyone is dealing with unknown territory, it might be worthwhile having a conversation around “When can we meet for {X}?” Some folks will have different times than what was done in the office. Accept that and find something that works for everyone.

Times where “almost” everyone is available likely are not good candidates. If someone is finding themselves dealing with kids because they are home from school and there isn’t another adult to look after them, adjust and adapt. Be flexible. Everyone needs to cooperate.

There are loads of tools for collaboration. Tools to help with meetings abound. I suspect your company has a “preferred” tool. Fine. That is a good start. I also would suggest having a second and third choice on the list. If one crashes or won’t start, go to the next.

Instant Messaging is fine, but screen time with faces looking at everyone helps to feel “normal.” Make it a “rule” that cameras are on as much as possible. If the traffic over someone’s web connection is too heavy sometimes, because of people all trying to use a single connection, fine. These things will happen. Make every effort for everyone to be “on screen” as much as possible – particularly when they are speaking.

If possible, have a standing connection so people can jump in and have a quick conversation on something. Something equivalent to a “walk by” or hallway meeting. Keep the vibe going. Keep the feel and energy as realistic as possible.

We won’t all be in a happy place all the time. We might be grumpy. Sometimes our stress levels will get the better of us and tempers will be short. Everyone needs to keep this in mind. Everyone needs to be as compassionate as possible. Be kind to one another. You might now know what someone else is dealing with that has not been made known to the group.

A little empathy goes a long way. It will also help the team function in unusual circumstances.

For Team Members

There are a plethora of articles, pieces and even books telling you how to “be successful” working as a remote employee or team member. Some are better than others. Sadly, some going out now make presumptions that are not true for everyone.

My concern is for the people who don’t have the “ideal” and have loads of other things that need to be addressed. It is all well and good to talk about setting up a home office suitable for working from home. It is also good to talk about setting aside space for a workstation if the office is not feasible. Both of those are good options, space permitting.

What happens if there really isn’t room? Working from the couch with a laptop might work for a day or two, like when sick or inclement weather. It isn’t feasible for the long term, though.

If it is you, just you in the living space, that is, you live alone, you have a range of possibilities. In the past, I’ve used folding card tables and a decent chair as an “interim office”. Take it down at need, or just leave it up. Studio apartments might have a challenge with this, but the idea is the same.

If you have a significant other sharing the space, and working from home, it can be more complicated. Presuming there isn’t a space already designated as an “office,” you can still make things work. Again, it might not be easy, but to get going until you can figure out a better arrangement will get you over the immediate hurdle.

Then add in the possibility of children home from school or university who might be trying to do course work electronically. You’ve got a fair number of pieces to juggle now.

I get it. I’ve been there and here’s what I suggest.

Set up an area for “co-working” at home. It might be the dining table or another reasonably large surface people can sit around. Don’t make it permanent, you still need a place for things like meals and spending time as a family.

Setting up a power strip for everyone to plug into, then setting up laptops and extra monitors can be done in a few minutes. Setting up and taking it down each day might be an inconvenience but until a better “working area” can be sorted out, it is a start.

Everyone uses a headset with a mic. If someone wants to listen to music, fine. Use the headset, with a rule that if it can be heard by people other than you, turn it down. Also, if meetings or conversations are happening online, use the mic on the headset – do not use the mic on the laptop.

Nobody can use “speaker” on the phone in the room where everyone else is. Be considerate. If only one person in the room is in the conversation, don’t force everyone to be in it by using the speaker.

Here’s the hard part: Be patient. Be patient with everyone. The loss of routine can and will be upsetting for everyone. It might seem fine at first, depending on the age of the kids. In short order, don’t be surprised if nerves get frayed and tempers get a bit shorter than normal.

Be patient.

Allow for some organic problem-solving. Everyone has a share in finding a workable solution for your family. Not only the parent(s). Let the kids have a say and express their ideas, particularly ones who might be older.

Their suggestion might be better than yours. Or mine.

For Everyone

For any team to have any kind of success, there needs to be a level of trust. Communication needs to be multi-directional and open. This does not mean “rude” or “blunt.” It does mean that people can express themselves to make their concerns and feelings known.

This can happen without causing harm. That takes empathy and compassion on everyone’s part. There are a couple of things that stand out.

People are talking about “returning to normal.” What we used to call “normal” was once new. The idea that I could work writing code in one location and people hundreds or thousands of miles away could run those programs was, at one point, a significant jolt to “normal.” It created a “new normal” for many people, teams and organizations.

The idea that we could return to what we have come to accept as “normal” might be a comforting thought, in some ways. It is entirely possible we, as a society, and you as an organization, will never return to the old “normal.” It is entirely possible we are moving toward a new idea of normal. We must face that reality.

Radical change is happening all around us. Right now, in real-time. We can flee, run and hide. Or we can work to shape the new normal. To do that, we must be willing to help each other and not focus only on our immediate fears. We must work together.

Peter G. Walen has over 25 years of experience in software development, testing, and agile practices. He works hard to help teams understand how their software works and interacts with other software and the people using it. He is a member of the Agile Alliance, the Scrum Alliance and the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and an active participant in software meetups and frequent conference speaker.

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