We live in uncertain times and it seems like maybe at some point we might need to start working remotely. While this poses many challenges, over the past couple of years my team has gradually moved towards a location-independent way of working. I wanted to share exactly how it looks on a daily basis in case it’s useful to any other team. We haven’t completely resolved it, but some of our experiences may help others during these times.
We have been running an Agile methodology for project management for a couple of years and an essential part of that is the daily stand up. Whether or not you’re actually « getting up » is irrelevant, the crucial part of this is that you have dedicated time where your team can come together to share what they’re doing and raise any issues. In these meetings, we ask each other the following questions
- What did you do yesterday?
- What are you going to do today?
- Is there anything stopping you from completing that job?
Not only does this help us know what everyone is doing, but we can often collaboratively find problem solutions to unlock problems for each other. These meetings are deliberately kept as short as possible. We can get about 10 people normally in the space of 10 minutes. Anything that requires more discussion is discussed after the call with interested individuals.
To do this we use Microsoft Teams. Every day at 9:30 we make a call, no matter where we are. We regularly have people in the Tower Building, the Fulton Building, at home, and those on their way to the office as well. Teams provides an excellent way to not only hear each other, but also see each other. As the potential for isolation begins to rise, it will become more important to see other people.
Communication throughout the day
There will be many times throughout the day when you just want to ask one person a quick question or tap into the team’s collective knowledge. Using « chat » is a powerful way to message each other without having to disturb the flow of the day. People can respond when they need to, and others can pop in and out to keep up with what’s happening. Our favorite tool for this is Slack. We use it for its advanced chat interface, but also because we regularly collaborate with external agencies and colleagues from across the higher education sector. As this is a freely available tool and therefore without any formal data processing agreements with vendors, we have strict rules on the content that can be posted in this tool (e.g. no personal or confidential information). While not as advanced, Teams also offers a similar kind of experience.
Work planning and recording
A common downside of remote working in the past is ensuring that staff not only know what jobs need to be completed, but also ensuring that the work is completed in a timely manner. We have several solutions for this.
Bugs and feature requests
As we develop the new University website, we find many things that maybe don’t work as they should or we discover new features that would make our life easier. Everyone in the team is encouraged to log them and we review them once a week to decide what we should and shouldn’t pursue and with what priority. We use Microsoft Forms for this.
Gitlab is our favorite tool for developing new features. It allows us to record the requested functionality and track it through a defined lifecycle from development work, through quality assurance, to user acceptance testing and finally release. It integrates with our continuous integration systems and version control repositories to ensure that work is tracked and updated appropriately.
Microsoft Planner is our friend here when it records work to be completed, who it is assigned to, and what stage it is in. Additionally, we also use a tool called GatherContent which allows people to collaborate on content through a defined workflow.
Much of our time is taken up handling support calls from across the University. These requests are diverse and sometimes not only involve our 1st line support team but also 2nd line knowledge experts to resolve them. TopDesk is our call management system that enables call recording, routing and reporting. This ensures that when people across the University ask us to do something, we can ensure that they are activated appropriately and in a timely manner. It also allows us to route calls to others in the University who use the system to complete work for us where we need their assistance.
Even with all this communication and work logging going on, it’s not always possible for everyone to know exactly what and when something is happening. Then, every fortnight we meet (practically normally) to demonstrate the work we are doing. This allows people to see what’s been developed so far, see new features coming soon, and ask questions. Microsoft Teams is again our tool of choice here because we can see and hear each other, but we can also share our screens to demonstrate what we’ve done.
Central to the success of any move to remote work is the culture you foster and the communication you have as a team. We are very fortunate to have at our disposal an impressive array of tools that make this easy, but a true digital literacy must go beyond just ‘using the tools’. Ultimately, human consent must be present. There is a real danger, that without proper oversight and accountability, that « working from home » could turn into a day sitting in front of Netflix. It requires a lot of discipline from the worker but also a certain degree of trust from the manager. There is a responsibility on both sides to not only ensure we are doing the job we are employed to do, but also, as a manager, we give people the space to do so without the need for constant supervision. Regular communication and record keeping are key to ensuring accountability and building that trust between worker and manager.
We also need to accept that a person’s home business patterns may be different from those on campus. Getting around for fresh air and sunbathing where possible will be important. This can result in people taking longer breaks during the day but working later at night to make up for the time.
COVID-19 is a scary thing and will no doubt cause great disruption, but it is also an opportunity for us to change and evolve our working habits to make full use of the tools at our disposal and potentially help strike a good work-life balance private.
If someone wants to discuss the way we work, we are always open to sharing our experiences with others.