In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the world of work is undergoing a huge amount of change to adjust to the norms of social distancing.
As a result of this, over the past few months millions more people have had to switch from office-based work to working from home.
With plenty of technological solutions available to make the remote workplace as seamless as possible, it seems there has never been a more suitable time to rethink the workplace.
Led by Mike Sowerbutts of White Springs, The Bridge recently hosted a virtual roundtable event with software professionals to discuss delivering effective software products using a fully remote working model.
Making home working work for you
Mike introduced the roundtable by talking about the working situation immediately before the pandemic.
“I’ve been working from home for two years now after deciding to relocate 150 miles away from the office. Working from home is quite a pertinent thing now because lockdown has been affecting everybody. Before this happened, I think things were slowly moving towards more remote working. It’s still not necessarily normal though for a lot of people, but the current situation has forced companies to embrace it more. It does have several challenges associated with it. There’s motivation and productivity for example, but there are also a lot of technical requirements such as security too. How do we get people working offsite to still be able to have the same level of access that they require when there is a plethora of potential security problems? How do businesses ensure both themselves and their employees stay cyber safe when working from home?
I think the workforce is starting to expect more remote working possibilities, especially within the IT industry just because it lends itself to remote working compared to a more physical role. There’s an exponential curve of more people working from home some of the time if not all of the time.”
The curve has grown as such that oftentimes the prospect of remote working for at least some of the time has become a key bargaining tool during the interview stage. In addition to this, the growth of remote working has led to teams being able to open their reach in terms of attracting talent, since the constraints of hiring talent local to the office no long apply. Andrew Dineen reflected on this:
“Four or five years ago we couldn’t recruit developers in the UK and we were looking to go remote. The greatest issue was not finding them a mechanism in order to work but finding the right culture and attitude. It didn’t matter where they were or what the time difference was, it was finding the right team. To that end I always conducted a pilot. I went out there and worked with the team to a get a feel for them culturally. Having the trust factor is a massive thing. Trust is not just around whether or not they’ll be there working from 9 to 5. It’s about producing an accuracy and quality of work.”
Mike echoed this, seeing the removal of the geographical constraints as being advantageous when trying to find a trusted, culturally compatible fit.
“The reality is trust is a broad topic, but if you trust people, they’re hopefully the right kind of people who will remain productive. One of the reasons I have a fully remote team now is because I couldn’t find the people locally. If they’re 100% remote it doesn’t matter where the right people are in the world, so you can be a lot more selective regarding the people you take on board in the first place.”
Challenges of home working
While the technology certainly exists to make remote working possible from a communications point of view, having a team working from home across the world can present challenges in terms of on-boarding and building team rapport which would naturally develop in a face-to-face setting. Mike spoke about his experiences in this regard:
“Different people react to different stimuli. Sometimes you can still meet face to face and there’s no replacement when it comes to project kick offs or quarterly social events. It’s easier said than done in certain situations but you can’t get away from the fact that people like to meet up. I sometimes miss the bonding things where people go out for lunch or beers on a Friday. But I encourage personal discussions between team members. At the beginning of formal meetings, we have a bit of informal chat to maintain those connections. It’s encouraging that culture where it’s OK to not just talk about work stuff. Just because you are text chatting to someone doesn’t mean you have to talk about something work related or technical. Maybe keep it away from the main work conversation just so the technical conversation isn’t interrupted by personal photos or something that you have to scroll through before you get to the response to a work question but definitely have specific areas of your communication platform that are specifically for personal chat and encourage it on a daily basis.”
Mike Stoodley spoke about his team organizing ‘back-to-base’ days where team members get together in the office in person is vital for maintaining a team culture and learning more about the organization you’re working for.
“I think the hardest bit [with remote working] is understanding the culture and how different people fit within a structure, because you’re not presented with people in the same way as you would be in the office where you can read interactions within the rest of the team and the business. I know a few people ‘well’ but I don’t really understand how the rest of the organisation works. You can’t observe people to see what they’re like. My vision of remote working is that people work from home two days a week and they’re in the office three days a week - a perfect mix for me where they get interaction but also alone time.”
Mike agreed that some constraints can often be difficult to overcome:
"Timezones can add a layer of complication to things. We have some staff in America on the dev team which can be problematic but I tend to prefer that everyone is in Europe so the timezone issue doesn’t matter too much. It really comes down to core hours, so I know the times someone is going to be available and the times they work so that we can plan meetings with everyone. When it comes to physically meeting up, of course if we had a million pounds of spare profit every year we would be doing global gatherings. We’ve done it a few times in the past where we’ve flown people from Australia and America over to the UK or had a hotel and met somewhere. But budgets sometimes don’t allow for it. When you’ve got big geographical distance between people things become more difficult.”
Home working software tools for software engineers
One of the key topics in the discussion centered around having the right virtual tools for working from home as a software engineer.
“The worst possible thing you can have when working with a team is someone with a constantly noisy background that’s got a poor connection with a rubbish microphone. All it leads to is frustration on all sides. If you’re going to have remote teams, the reality is you’re saving costs on office space and other overheads, so give your team good equipment.”
In terms of the work of software engineering, Mike led the discussion on what coding tools they use remotely.
“At White Springs we use Azure as our platform and DevOps because they play very nicely together. Obviously, there are some very big benefits in terms of autoscaling and things like that which you wouldn’t necessarily get with others and in terms of backups it’s great. There are certainly pitfalls, that’s the same with any platform. For example, I’m trying to migrate things to a different subscription at the moment and within Azure it’s a nightmare. I’ve already put many, many hours into it. It’s down to bad setup where things have grown organically from the ground rather than a clear structure. But the benefits of Assure in comparison to how we used to do things blow it out of the water.”
Andrew Dineen echoed Mike’s sentiments:
“Before we landed on that infrastructure we had a combination of others. We were also married to Microsoft Stack in a way. The full lifecycle can all be managed in one offering. That’s the main benefit.”
Michael Seipp stressed the importance of having automated tools, particularly when working remotely where communication with other team members can be limited.
“They key is when you can use tools to have things automated you rely less on that human interaction. When you have human interaction there’s always that margin for error. When everyone has access to the same tools and they’re automated you can push that software out whenever you need it. I remember the days when we used to manually run executables and then have to restart IS and there was so much human interaction there that left that margin for error. Now with the right tooling you remove that friction and you have a team of two or ten and the process remains the same.”
Mike Sowerbutts agreed with the practical advantages of this:
“Also with the correct tooling you’re taking out the knowledge pooling as well in smaller teams where you could have one guy who knows how to do something but he’s on holiday.”
Being a software engineer is one of the most suitable roles for home working as it’s a role which not only is almost completely computer-based but also requires engineers to work for many hours at a time in isolation. Having the equipment, culture and procedures in place can go a long way to making a remote team feel as though they are working together in the same room.
Finding a balance of trust between communication and letting employees work independently is key to cultivating a productive team that will work effectively together regardless of geographic location.