How we transformed our company from mostly on-site to fully-remote (and why we may never go back)
When COVID-19 hit Europe in Spring 2020 we — as well as most other companies — were suddenly confronted with new challenges in organizing our daily work in a purely remote setup. In this article we will share the lessons we’ve learned over these 9 months (spoiler: there are quite a few). Furthermore we will explain why we might never go back to where we were in 2019 and why this is not a pre-apocalyptic scenario but rather a huge win in life-quality when done right!
Turn on your webcam
As already teased in the introduction we shifted our work-setup from being mostly on-site to fully remote in March. The first few weeks of everybody being at home the team was pretty much enjoying their new found privacy. Sitting in front of your laptop in your pyjamas was kind of a delightful feeling. Nevertheless, with the weeks passing by, we started to realize that an important thing was missing from our day-to-day work-life: Talking to each other “face to face”. Sure — we were still talking quite a lot via voice-calls, but not seeing each other for such a long time started to feel more and more awkward.
Even though it felt a little weird in the beginning we completely discarded voice-calls in favor of video-calls. This might sound a little over the top, but making it mandatory to turn on your webcam on 1-on-1 calls lifted our remote experiences to a whole new level. Instead of feeling alone at our desks some of us even felt like they had more contacts in the team than before!
Talking to one another face-to-face was a big step forward in improving our remote culture. Nevertheless some of us still felt a little “lost” trying to structure our day at home. So, what was still different?! One thing we encountered was that all the little rituals that come automatically in an office-situation were suddenly not happening: having a morning coffee in the kitchen and talking about the new episode of Black Mirror used to be a welcome start to the work day. So we just moved the morning coffee ritual into the cloud: Opening a (voluntary) coffee-chat call in the morning for everyone to start their day brought our remote-experience even closer to what we were used to before.
Communicate like it’s your office or “How permanent audio channels became a key-factor for collaboration”
Having regular video calls and some kind of daily routines already made our every-day developer life way better, but when thinking about an average office day there is a lot more communication going on than just through dedicated meetings. Being used to being able to just shout something over your monitor to get help, the hurdle to lookup your colleague in slack and start a new call for just a short question was quite big.
Luckily the solution for this problem again was easier and more efficient than expected: “Permanent Audio Channels for the win!”. Having some passionate gamers in our team, the idea of opening up our own Discord channel was born and established within minutes! (If you are like me and the last computer game you played was Tetris on a NES, don’t worry: Discord is a platform originally used for steady communication during online-gaming). Nevertheless, the technology is perfectly suited to use in a business context as well: Having two permanent audio channels — one for ongoing discussions, and one for working quietly but being available for questions — gave us a pretty much office-like environment: If you have a question: just start speaking, if your question leads to a full-fledged discussion, start a screenshare and/or change to the discussions-channel and if you want to work quietly, just mute your headphones!
A short note on Discords terms and conditions
Talking about Discord it’s only fair to mention that its terms and conditions might be problematic to some users in regard to their use of data. We decided that for the way we use it, we are ok with what they collect and share, but before starting you might want to have a look at https://discord.com/terms!
Don’t underestimate the chit-chat!
Communicating about your project progress or architectural decisions is one (admittedly) very important part of your every-day communication. Still — when talking about a full-remote situation — you will come to a point where you realize that there is more about communication than the “hard facts”. Even though we tried to stay in close contact with each other, there are some subtle nuances of real face-to-face communication that are not that easy to grasp remotely:
Is your colleague having a bad day because his baby was keeping him up the whole night? What’s everybody’s mood about the clients “new idea” and how are things going privately? All these things happen to be communicated in a classic office-situation, but thechances are high that you might miss a lot of this kind of communication when sitting in front of your laptop at home.
The key here is: make it happen explicitly: “How are you doing today?”, “What do you think about Client-X’s new approach?”, “How was your weekend?”. As with most of the other points, as soon as you realize it, the solution is quite easy!
The Critical Mass
As the pandemic gave us a little room to breathe during summer, some parts of the team started to go back to the office voluntarily. What happened in this time kind of surprised everybody: Instead of a better team experience, the communication within the team seemed to worsen. We realized that the situation where parts of the team were sitting together in the office while the rest was still at home lead to “communication islands” we didn’t expect beforehand.
Our solution was again quite simple: Even when present in our “real-world office”, everybody sitting in front of their computer was encouraged to enter our discord-room as well. By making sure that all (or at least most) of the project related communication was still taking part in the cloud, we managed to get the best out of both worlds: People were seeing each other in real-life again without losing the advantages of a distributed team!
But what about the productivity?!
Soooooooo — you might think. This all sounds nice, but you haven’t really talked about the impact on productivity! Luckily our team has been working in an agile environment for the last few years, so measuring the teams performance was quite easy: Looking at our velocity we indeed saw a little decrease in the first two to three sprints after we all moved into our home-offices. But let’s be fair: Everybody was just witnessing their first global pandemic and some of us even had their kids around while working — not the very best conditions for being super productive!
So it even came as a surprise to us that after about one and a half months, our overall velocity was back to its original value. And yes — you might have seen this coming — looking at the numbers today, we even managed to increase our velocity compared to February (our last month in the office) by a double-digit percentage. Admittedly this could also have happened if we would have stayed in the office, but the bottom-line is: unexpectedly, going “remote” had absolutely no negative impact on the team’s productivity
The new normal: On-site as a tool
Wow! So let’s cancel the rental-contract for our office! Well… Not so fast! Even though working mostly remote has meant a big plus in life-quality for most of us (just consider no more traffic jams, more family time, real flexibility on when or where you want to work), we are also aware that your home-desk will never be able to fully replace getting together in real-life. We are missing being face-to-face with our colleagues, and we really hope that this pandemic will be over in the near future to give us the opportunity to meet each other again and have a cold drink in our office-garden.
BUT: The last months also showed that we can live without being in the office every day and that most of our work can be done equally well, if not better from our homes.
Using on-site meetings only when they really make sense will allow us to stay focused in our daily-work while still keeping the personal contact alive in the long run.
We will of course continue to monitor the impact of our decision, but looking at the team and where we are right now, we are very confident, that we can continue to take advantage of the opportunities presented by remote working, and that this could be the start of a real transformation in the way we work!
Want to get in touch?
This all sounds interesting to you and you want to know more about what we do or maybe even take part in our journey? Don’t hesitate to just drop us a message here, via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or our (German) website: https://www.beyond-interfaces.com.
Also, if you liked this article, make sure to follow us on medium as we plan to share more information about communication techniques we use and the tools we consider useful!