Challenges on working from home

Challenges on working from home

While the world is in the grip of the COVID-19 virus outbreak; more and more companies, scrum teams and individuals are confronted with a fairly confronting and unpleasant prospect. Having to work remotely for the next couple of weeks or even months.

Note: this post has been updated in February 2021. Jump to the updated section here.

The Belgian government, alongside almost every country in the developed world, is now taking drastic measures to contain the outbreak of the Corona virus. Limiting and, in some cases, taking away our social freedoms. With this in mind I wanted to write a post addressing the challenges me and my team encounter while we cope with working completely remote.

At the moment of writing I am working as a scrum master/team lead in a large enterprise, overseeing +- 10 persons. But this post applies to everyone who is suddenly faced with the challenge of working from the relative safety of their own homes.

Different Culture

I read somewhere that working from home is much like doing the work you're used to; but having to do it in a different language. And I tend to agree with that. You still do the same things you normally do but, especially in regard to social aspects, you'll have to do things differently.

As a team you'll have to decide which tools to use, what works and what doesn't. You'll have to consider the fact that not every team member is equipped to actually work from home. Most developers I know don't have that problem though, as they tend to do a lot of research and development from home anyway.

Remember, working remotely is not a new idea. In my team almost everyone has a fixed "work from home" day. So it is not a completely estranged concept. But, having to work in a team where everyone works remote, for me at least, that's quite new.

Attitude matters

How you and your team/company view the coming days, weeks or even months can make a huge difference and has a big impact. If you're going into this with the attitude that productivity will be severely impacted; well, it probably will.
Losing productivity when working remote is a fear, it's an idea, a feeling, a concept. Which is mostly driven by the prospect of losing control, doing things differently and embracing a new(-ish) team culture. But new is not always bad, nor is it always good. It is new :).  

Don't get me wrong. If your team-members are used to work alongside each other, you will lose some time getting things in order. There will be some loss of productivity. Your velocity will be lower. At least in the beginning.
We tend to forget there are lots of teams which inherently work remote. And I really mean a LOT of teams. They tend to do just fine. So it's mostly a physiological and a cultural block we have against this idea. But it can be done!

You can (and should) see and treat this as an opportunity. When people come to me to ask to work from home, the reasons are almost always the same. To be able to focus. To get that one complex thing done and get sheltered from everything (and everyone) else. Or to avoid wasting time to commute from and to the office.

Try to embrace the attitude that your team, when working remote, will have more time (no commuting) and should be able to work with more focus. The difficulty lies in collaboration. In talking to each other. To work on cross-team or cross-individual dependencies. And that will be difficult in the beginning. Treat this as a learning exercise. There might be to many unnecessary meetings, which you can now identify and possibly minimize or even cancel. If there are too much dependencies, re-examine the current team structure, as it is possibly not the perfect set-up.
You won't be able to do much about all that immediately, but take with you what you can in future retrospects. You might finally have the chance to really take Conway’s Law into consideration!

Plan for the worst, hope for the best!

I once read that hope, or hoping, is one of the worst things you can do in an agile mindset. I don't mean; lose all hope, prepare for catastrophe and start looking for another job.
I mean that hoping for something to go right is completely irrational. You should base important decisions on data, and on data alone.
So in this context: hoping that you won't lose productivity, that you won't have to delay a release or hoping that hard work will be enough to be able to commit to deadlines; that's the kind of hope that should not be in an agile environment.
Only when you have correct data on how your team is responding to the new remote culture, how they collaborate and possible gain velocity by being able to focus; only then can you make accurate decisions regarding deadlines, releases, etc. Not before.

Don't forget, humans beings have this miraculous gift to adapt to any kind of situation. However hard or different from what they are used to. So trust in your team(-members), they might just surprise you!

Tips for working from home

More and more articles are appearing on the internet providing tips, dos and don'ts and general practices for working remotely. I've created my own list with items that work for me:

  • A more general tip regarding the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus: don't panic! Let reason triumph over emotion. Especially panic and fear. Make informed decisions, listen to trustworthy news sources and don't believe everything you read on social media. A good example? I read questions online from worried people who asked if it would be helpful to use bleach as mouth-water. BLEACH! (answer == DON'T!!).
    Please, listen to your own voice of reason and look for news that is trustworthy, and leaders who take decisions regarding the spread and urgency via experts, on a day to day basis.
  • Treat your home as it would be a place of work. This is very import to me. Use, if you can, a different room to do your work than you use for entertainment. Work on a desk (so not on the couch!) and limit distractions. Make sure your work spot is clean and has everything you need.
  • 'Commute to work'. Seriously. Before starting your day, take a walk. Go outside for a couple of minutes or more. This divides your normal morning routine with your (new) work routine. Which is really important.
  • Dress for work. Don't work in your PJ's, even if they are more comfortable. This will allow you to get more in the 'work' mentality.
  • Take breaks. I often get hyper-focused when working at home, sometimes staying at my desk for more than three or four hours. Don't! Get up and stretch your legs every hour. Make time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Use the time you gain to make your breaks extra-special, or maybe do some household chores. But keep to your business hours, and stick to them.
  • Don't forget exercise! Your local gym might be closed, but you can still go on walks, do some physical training exercises at home, go running, or whatever. A healthy body and mind is ever so vital when impaired to the boundaries of your own home.
  • Learn when you are most productive. For most people this is the morning and early afternoon. Do one thing at a time and keep your focus on what you should be doing.
  • Call if you need to, use MS Teams or Skype chat as often as possible. But don't overdo it. Make team decisions and keep them. Communicate clearly and report to your scrum master or team-lead when appropriate. Remember that they are also faced with a new culture, new challenges and a new way of working. It won't be perfect from the beginning. But, everything starts with clear and transparent communication and reporting, on both sides.
  • If you are in a management or leadership position, don't start micromanaging! You'd better get used to the idea that you will have to loosen the control you have over your team(s). Know what they are doing, and make sure that they know their team-objectives and priorities. Help them to collaborate if needed.
    But don't start chasing people down with deadlines, bugs or whatever. Just let them know what you want, and when you want it. Trust them to deliver in time, and only interfere when it is absolutely needed.

So this is my list. These things work for me, and I hope they do for you! Do you have any tips or tricks? Let us know via the comment section.

For those of you who don't know, Microsoft is making Microsoft Teams available for everyone during the COVID-19 outbreak!

2021

Almost a year has passed since this post was published, and at least on the working from home front, not that much has changed. So, I thought it would be a good idea to provide an update as the COVID-19 pandemic continues; and try to write down the things I learned along the way. This post applies to everyone who is suddenly faced with the challenge of working from the relative safety of their own homes.

When this post was originally written not that much information was available yet. And as I think back at that time, which now seems like a lifetime ago- almost a distant memory-, a smile forms on my face. How irreversibly changed my life has become.

Before I continue I would like to share an article posted by the team at Mindgenius. It is filled with insightful ideas and I can only recommend reading it. It was the main source of inspiration that let to the update of this post.
"Homeworking & Homeschooling in COVID-19" was written by Brad Egeland and you can read the article here.

So; having read the list I drafted in 2020, here are my additions:

  • Be kind. Both to yourself and others. Life, at this moment, is so very difficult. How can we be anything but? Your kindness should always include yourself. Things will not always go the way you want, or how you intended it. You might have dealt with a situation in a "wrong" way, you got bad grades or a bad review, you experienced heartbreak or "simply" had a rough day.. Whatever it is; try not to worry as much. You are not alone. We are all living in an unthinkable situation. Try to remember that before you "lash out", to yourself or to others.
    If you want some more thoughts on this I recommend you read "Dealing with stress"; which I wrote in 2017.
  • Treasure the good things. It is not all bad; remember and treasure the unexpected blessings. More time with your family, less time on the road, more time at home. More time and different opportunities..
    There are always good things to be found in any situation, try to value them. You can never take the good without the bad; that's just how life works. But that does not mean the good is insignificant, or unimportant.
  • Go out as much as you can and schedule times to "get disconnected". This is vital for me. I try to exercise and go for walks as often as I can. I'd rather work longer if that means I can go for a walk during my lunch break. And at a certain point in the evening; I disconnect. No more social media, no more research, no more computers, no more cellphone, no more TV.
  • Seek out persons you feel comfortable with. Deep and honest human connections is a thing I kind of lost this past year; but it is essential to our happiness. You need to be able to feel connected to others in your life. Even if you are mainly an introvert, or you don't value the company of others as much. You still need it, and you should plan for it.

I wrote a post about how I experienced and tried to survive the past year. You can read about it here.  

These are the things that work for me, and I hope they do for you! Do you have any tips or tricks? Did you learn different things? Let us know via the comment section!

Big thanks to Jella Bal for taking the time to review this post!

Photo by James Fitzgerald on Unsplash

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