Optimizing for remote working

Part 1. Starting the journey of optimizing for remote working — explicit commitments and creating space for work to happen.

Many people around the world have been forced by current circumstances to work from home, and they find themselves needing to adapt very quickly.

Given this swift and abrupt transition, it is reasonable than the new way of working can be unsettling, and potentially even less productive for a while.

As a practitioner, do you find yourself spending most of your day in back-to-back in video conferences? Do you feel overwhelmed to stay on top of all the emails and the proliferation of various messaging platforms, perhaps concerned about getting things done? If you answered yes to some or all the questions, then maybe something is just not right yet with the remote ways of working.

The reality is that remote working is quite different from office working, and our instincts are to transfer office working practices to remote working. But, copying the office work model in a remote context won’t work.

Perfecting any work practice or technique requires time and dedication; it needs optimisation. Remote working requires its optimisations, optimisations at both individual levels, as well as organisational levels.

Tools are essential, but they are only the enablers of remote working and not the remote ways of work itself; they alone are not a guarantee of success. We need to put the horse ahead of the cart, work practices ahead of the tools.

Remote working is not new, and it has been around for a while. However, this abrupt transition at a large scale for many organisation is unprecedented.

I intend this to be a series on improving remote ways of working, part of broader modern ways of working, to help individuals and teams navigate this new reality. I will cover topics of team management, the role of project management in the flow of information, and the need for building individual habits amongst other things.

1. Make explicit team agreements

David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried in their book “Remote, office not required” have highlighted that the big shift in remote working is the shift to asynchronous working — that is, not everyone is working the same hours.

A team should acknowledge this aspect of working by discussing explicitly within the team, assuring some desired overlap in working hours. They should agree on a set of core hours for a guaranteed overlap.

Given that not everyone overlaps, or that team members can’t see each other face-to-face (unless they jump on a call, one of the practices we would like to avoid being abused), all team members need to agree to respect the principles of remote responsiveness. They need to reply to all messages that require their attention. If someone is asking them for an update via email, or someone is asking a question via instant messaging, or someone is posting a message in a Jira comment or a Wiki, team-members need to answer it. If they have a missed call or a voice mail, team-members need to call back.

These practices left unattended will erode the trust in remote working, and people will fall back to video-conference calls, filling the day with calls.

Once other practices are improved, efficiencies will increase, and the volume of irrelevant communication will reduce.

Key takeaways:

  • acknowledge the nature of asynchronous work and agree on a set of core hours
  • agree to respect the principles of remote responsiveness

2. Create space for work to happen

Not all work activities are homogeneous, and they are of various types:

  • catchup — catching up with emails, industry news
  • collaboration — collaborating with colleagues across multiple mediums such as video conference, instant messager, email.
  • serious core work — performing the main duties of the role writing code as a developer, testing as a tester, etc.), of different intensities and various types:
  • a. creative work — this can take many forms, and it is concerned with creating something new, valuable, coming up with the idea that solves a problem or perhaps identifies a new problem;
  • b. raw work — ‘just get it out of the head’ into a target medium (paper, or software, document) with the knowledge that we will get back to it to refine it;
  • c. refinement work — improving the raw work, taking away the rough edges, ‘polishing the diamond’;
  • d. research work — looking for new sources of inspiration, researching new fields;
  • retrospection — reflecting on past events or activities;
  • training — learning something new, or refining a skill that will make aspects of serious core work more efficient;
  • admin — well, yes, there is no workplace without admin.

For progress to happen, we need to interweave all the types of activities (yes, even the pesky admin — if you don’t do it, then there are always consequences, some that would even impact the work).

For work to happen, we need to create space for it. Video conferences by large fall into the category of collaboration. If the entire day is take up with collaboration only, then how can we make progress?

Given the nature of the asynchronous remote working and the differences between peoples styles (as an example, some are better at serious work in the morning, some in the evening) it is challenging to create a ‘one size fits’ all rules. However, teams should have explicit conversations on how they can create space for all types of activities.

Here are some ideas that teams could consider, acknowledging that teams might need to compromise a bit:

  • create copious meeting free periods — for instance, if all people are working in the same time-zone, members can agree that there won’t be any meetings past 2 pm; or agree full days without a meeting;
  • experiment with the ways of synchronisation — I am typically a big fan of daily synchronisation (aka daily scrums or “standups”). However, experiment with off-line synchronisations — maybe one day of the week you have an instant message based standup;
  • mix and match the synchronisation mechanism — ask team-members to start the week by writing down their plans for the week as a declaration of intent, rather than the creation of an unchangeable plan;

And, some ideas that individuals could consider:

  • divide the working day into multiple slices (dedicate time for catchup, for core work, admin, etc.), taking into consideration their styles and the energy required for each type of activity. For instance, doing admin mid-morning might not be the best use of time; this could be done when energy levels are lower.
  • identify techniques that allow them to focus, to find a state of flow, and stay as long as possible in this state; disruptions that don’t match the task in hand can be very costly, taking up to 23 minutes to refocus on the task in hand [1]. One such potential technique could be the Pomodoro Technique. This technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks [2]

To implement these ideas, or finding new ideas that would work for the team and individuals require a degree of autonomy. Individuals and the team might operate under certain governing constraints created by the larger organisational constructs, such as the needs for synchronisation or reporting progress at predefined intervals. Still, individuals and teams will need their autonomy, something that senior management can instil.

Key takeaways:

  • have explicit conversations on how they can create space for all types of activities

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Peter Pito

Peter Pito

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Agile practitioner and software developer at heart. Husband, father and rookie triathlete. I try to be the best version of myself, as often as I can.