Remote Working in the Age of DevOps
I was talking to one of the rock stars from an old DevOps team the other day. One of the things that came up was how well we became a remote first team during those years, and how it made a great foundation for the turbulent times of COVID-19.
For us it was a necessary part of our day-to-day, having a geographically diverse team with people living and working in different states across the US. Indeed, a lot of technology companies have been honing these approaches for years.
More recently, the broader office community is coming to terms with adopting these practices. You sort-of get into the ritual of going to work, sitting at your desk, having meetings, sending emails, and then going home. It’s hard to change habits and behaviors. It takes time. Some of these changes are obvious, others just seem obvious once you know about them.
Either way, the trauma caused by COVID-19 has opened our minds to new ways of working, and — in the long -term — I believe that they will be better for our health, and the environment.
I’ve covered a few ideas here, but as always, it’s a conversation. Let us know what you think, and what’s worked for you!
Looking After Yourself
I think a lot of companies have started to practice the idea of employees using a single device for all of their work, and the technology has really evolved to where this is possible. So now that you’re successfully working on your laptop at home, why go back to that old desktop computer at the office?
My physical trainer is generally horrified as to how I work at home, with my laptop on my lap while I sit slightly slouched on the couch. It’s really not good. If you get backache from working this way, then think about how you can elevate your laptop screen so that you’re looking straight ahead rather than down. In order to avoid contortions, this means that you’ll need to plug in an external keyboard to keep your elbows and knees at 90 degrees. But pay attention to the experts rather than me.
But maybe you don’t even realize sometimes that you’re stiff and sore… or even sad or antsy about being cooped up, being worried for the future, or juggling three kids and a couple of dogs. You’ve probably been going through the The Five Stages of Grief in the COVID-19 Work Environment. It’s important to check in on yourself every half hour or so, which can be hard when you’re heads-down and focused. Walk around. Set yourself an alarm if you have to.
Do your best to keep routine and normalcy: get cleaned up and dress as you would any other day, break for lunch, find ways to be successful in exercising safely. Be with your family. It’s important.
Looking After Others
In-Person over Video over Audio over Text
Communication isn’t just about words, and the fewer clues we have to understanding the intent of a message, the greater the risk of miscommunication.
I think it’s about being mindful of the most appropriate way of communicating a given message. But with the whole idea of “in person” going out of the window for a lot of us, the next best thing can often be video. Think about asynchronous communication (I need an answer later) versus synchronous (I need to talk about this with Mary now).
If there’s video available in the group or 1:1 video calls that you participate in, turn your camera on. If’ you don’t have a camera, then buy one right away (it’ll take a while to be delivered, so sooner is better than later). You and your colleagues will feel closer and more engaged.
As always, you can’t expect someone to see or respond to an email, and it’s unfair to believe that they are ignoring you. Sometimes you have to be persistent.
There’s also a lot more to collaboration tools than video, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Daily Team Check-Ins
I love stand-up meetings where the team gets together for fifteen minutes every morning to talk about what they’ve accomplished, what they’re going to be working on, and where they need help. It’s commonly used for agile teams but I think it’s useful for everyone, even if your job isn’t tech-related. You don’t even have to call it a stand-up: call it daily status or group hug or whatever you want.
There are some tricks with standup meetings though, and they become even more important when the team is split across locations. If the meetings go on for an hour, and you figure out who’s going to speak next based on visual cues, then these meetings will feel like hell when everyone is remote.
- be predictable: it doesn’t matter on the specific method you come up with, it could be by distance west, alphabetically by name, employee id, position in the virtual room, or whatever. But make sure that everyone speaks in the same order. This way, everyone will come to instinctively know when it’s their time to speak
- be concise: give your update in no more than a minute or two. If you need to discuss problems you’re experiencing, then ask for people to stay at the end as part of your status.
- be constrained: large groups of people waste everyone’s time because the broader the group, the less relevant the content becomes. Think about two pizza teams [link] and a meeting that lasts no longer than fifteen minutes. It’s called “stand-up” because there is greater chance of wrapping up sooner if everyone is standing.
Mindfulness in the Community
The world has gone through a shock, and things will be different. Some of the things that will change are to do with team dynamics: behaviors will change, and priorities will switch. Make sure that everyone is cognizant of this and are empowered to recognize and speak out where changes and optimizations are required so that they feel part of the solution.
Use those verbal and non-verbal communication cues that you have available to spot when someone is struggling. It could be a peer, report, client, supplier, boss… it doesn’t matter. Check in with them and at least listen to what they have to say.
Building and Maintaining Relationships
We no longer have the encouragement of break rooms or water coolers, but with everyone being remote, this is a huge opportunity to make new connections and strengthen existing ones… even for us introverts.
It takes all sorts of people to build a successful team, and it’s likely that there will be people who want to talk, and others who have opinions but will remain quiet.
As well as being mindful of hearing those who have a lot to say, make sure that you’re inviting those who are quiet to participate. There’s a good chance that they will be appreciative and feel better as a result.
It’s easy to feel trapped by being cooped up at home, but there’s a lot you can do to stay in touch with your friends and colleagues.
Here we have virtual lunches, virtual game nights, and virtual all hands, and an always-open Discord channel, allowing us to speak out if we want to engage in idle banter. A few years ago, we set up social instant messaging channels for things like book club, tech ideas, and so-on.
A friend of mine in the UK gets together virtually with her pals on a Friday afternoon after work and celebrates Five Thirsty.
It’s good to get inventive.
Looking After the Company
Staying Engaged and Making a Difference
These changes help level the playing field and open us up to communication paths that were less accessible in the old world. That being said, it’s not unusual to feel helpless.
It’s easy to put your head down and work in isolation, and — conversely — there are fewer consequences to goofing off, “leaving work” earlier, or spending your daytime looking at pictures of cats on the Internet. But we’re all in this together. Think about what you need to stay motivated and engaged. If you have free time, then take some online learning, research opportunities for improving the company’s performance, and think about how you can help others. In the end, we’ll all be better when this is finally behind us.
A lot of the secrets to adapting to the virtual workplace have to do with being mindful of yourself and others, as well as being open to continuous improvement and new ways of working. If we consider ourselves victims, then we will fail. If we consider ourselves open minded leaders, then there is opportunity for success.
This has always been true across an organization and applies to DevOps principles as much as it does anything else… it’s just that with the advent of COVID-19, the need to adapt has become more urgent than ever, and the world will (eventually) be better as a consequence.