The great remote working experiment of 2020
Have we said enough about remote working? Apparently there are more than 10,000 books on the subject (and that’s just in English). And 2020 turned out to be the year we had to put the ideas into practice. As long as the experiment is still going, there will be more to say about what worked and what didn’t. Here’s how it went for us.
SPOT. has had a remote working policy in place for three years, so when lockdown came around we already had the processes and systems in place. But under the model we were used to, everybody worked from home maximum one day per week. In other words, 80% of the team was in the office at any one time. Going fully remote came with its own challenges. And they weren’t the ones we expected.
It wasn’t about communication
We tend to work closely with developer teams in our client companies, so maintaining service levels is always the first priority. Since we mostly interface with our client counterparts over video, call, or collaboration tools like Slack, not much changed here when we went 100% remote.
At a systems level the infrastructure was already in place, and aside from a couple of colleagues who needed hardware upgrades, everyone in the company was already equipped to work from home. We already use online tools and chat extensively (we may have been known to message our desk mates) so there wasn’t much change there, either.
But outside the company the situation was highly fluid. Restrictions and regulations due to the pandemic changed frequently, some clients stopped production, others put projects on hold. Our managing director Maurizio kept us in the loop via frequent updates by email. We also started a bi-weekly video call with the whole team. The calls were brief (30-40 minutes) but everyone got a chance to say hello and talk briefly about what they were working on. This definitely helped us feel more connected.
The intangibles took a hit
Something that’s really important to us is company identity. Not just our brand, but internal culture as well. Every single team member is client facing, and we think of our culture as the secret ingredient for great collaboration. It’s important that new hires get up to speed quickly, and this suddenly became a lot more difficult.
A basic example is how we answer the phone. When we’re in the office, newbies hear other employees taking calls. Without even trying, they quickly pick up on what’s expected: how to address a client, what kind of language is appropriate, even what tone of voice to use. Teamwork is another example. What’s expected, when and how to take the initiative and when to ask for advice, finding out who to ask for advice. When you’re all in the same room, this kind of knowledge gets passed on by osmosis. When you’re working from home, these things are trickier to work out.
So what are we doing about it? We’re currently running the office at 30% capacity, with a chart to book desks in advance. Project teams can plan to be in the office on the same day, which means that every junior gets one day a week of face to face coaching from a more senior developer.
If Italy follows the rest of Europe into full lockdown over the coming weeks, we’ll have to re-evaluate. Again. It’s something we’re still working on. (If you’ve cracked it, we’d love to hear your tips).
Resource management was also an issue
There’s always a black swan. For us it was resource management. When we first moved to 100% remote, team leaders were extremely focussed on meeting client expectations and maintaining their own productivity.
It took us a while to realize that some of the more junior team members were underutilised. They weren’t doing nothing – those who aren’t on client assignment proactively ‘reassign’ themselves to training or internal projects (our in-house activity tracking app is pretty cool). But they could have been doing external work, and they weren’t.
We had found a hole in our agile processes. Our project teams are very autonomous, forming and re-forming around client work, so the results didn’t come out straight away because we were looking in the other direction. But once we spotted this, it wasn’t hard to fix. Team leaders have tweaked their focus so that, while clients always come first, internal resource management also gets some attention.
What has worked (or not) for you? We’d love to hear about it.