Interesting times

Well, we are certainly living in interesting times. The world seems to have gone to hell in a hand-basket over the last few weeks, doesn’t it? As the world is struggling to cope with finding a “new normal” amidst COVID-19 chaos, I thought I’d jot down a few rambling thoughts from my neck of the woods…

Coping with the shift to working from home (remote working)

We here at Timely are probably in a very fortunate position in that we already work remotely, and mostly from home at that. So when the various countries that we have staff in (NZ, AU, UK) went into lock-down, we didn’t really have to change too much about the way that we work.

For a lot of other people, this whole “working from home” thing is new and scary. I get that. I remember moving from never really having worked from home almost 6 years ago, to working at Timely where we were 100% work from home. It took me months to get settled, and to find my “rhythm”. So the single biggest piece of advice I have here is not to sweat the small stuff, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be getting back up to 100% effectiveness too quickly.

I won’t reiterate what a million other websites have already covered off (in terms of “top tips for working from home“, etc), but the few big ones for me are:

Setting aside a dedicated work space

Whether a spare room, a desk, a dining room table, whatever… make it your spot where you do work, and that’s all. Try not to use it for out of hours stuff like gaming, YouTube browsing, etc. Otherwise things tend to blur and you’ll either end up never “unplugging” from your work, or you’ll catch yourself watching 6 hours of cat videos on YouTube when you should be preparing those TPS reports.

Change your expectations around communication

When working in an office you get what I think of as real-time unconscious information all the time. Want to know if your colleague is available for a chat, just look up. Overhearing progress updates from a neighboring team’s morning stand-up. Seeing that a team-mate is busy working on that script you need for a deploy tomorrow.

All of that goes out the window when working in isolation. You (and your team) need to get used to communicating more frequently and specifically. It won’t come naturally at first. You might feel like you’re “nagging” people, or interrupting them too often, but good communication will avoid frustrations down the line where you’re being held up because you’re not sure if someone else is working on what you need right away, or taking the dog for a walk instead.

We use Slack a lot, but don’t rely on written comms too much (whether Slack, email, etc) – get used to jumping into video calls, even just for unscheduled 2-5 minutes chats throughout the day. Think in terms of where you were normally just lean over your desk to ask a coworker what they think about using this framework versus that one, or whether they’ve heard of the newest changes to the SaaS product you’re rolling out. Just spin up a call – it’s much quicker than typing out paragraphs in Slack, and gives you an excuse to chat to someone, even if just a little bit.

Managing teams remotely

Leading a team in this environment is definitely more challenging than doing so in a collocated work-space. A lot of what I said above about communication being critical is even more applicable when leading a remote team. Don’t discount the value of continuing things that your team might be used to doing in the office, such as morning stand-ups, maybe a social catch-up over lunch, or a beer at the end of the day, etc. All of these can be done remotely over a Hangout or Zoom meeting. It may be awkward at first. No, it will be awkward, but embrace the awkwardness and push through it.

Over the past week or two my team have actually gone from just our normal 9am virtual stand-up each day, to having a second catch-up each afternoon as well. It’s not as structured as the morning stand-up, and is more just for chatting about how everyone’s days have gone, and usually devolves into poor attempts at joke telling, etc. All of this doesn’t have to take a huge amount of time. Some days when we’re “just not feeling it” they could be over in 5 minutes, and other days they’re 20 minutes of almost-crying-from-laughter – which is just what we all need a bit of at this time.

As a wider company we’ve also become more active in our social channels in Slack; these are channels related to DIY, gardening, beer brewing, the gym, Lego, and a million other niche topics. Friday afternoons also tend to be more active, with various groups spinning up video calls where people can grab a beer/wine/water and have a bit of a virtual-social catch-up to close off the week. These have always been super-awkward when we’ve tried them in the past, but strangely now that they’re all we’ve got, they’re actually great fun! The trick is to limit them to small-ish groups (<12 people) and for someone to be ready with a few conversation starters if those awkward silences start creeping in. Give it a go and comment with your results, or any other tips you discover along the way. 🙂

Remember that people are dealing with a lot right now, so on some days your team will be firing on all cylinders, and on other days people will be withdrawn, or overly sensitive, passive aggressive, etc. The best you can do is try to gauge this as quickly as possible and then tailor your interactions to suit.

Dealing with isolation and social pressure

All the above stuff talks about dealing with working from home, or managing a team during these trying times – but the most important piece of this puzzle is making sure you’re looking after yourself. This is something I definitely battle with.

Before having to isolate I enjoyed going to the gym every day. My partner is an IFBB bikini competitor who was due to compete just a few weeks ago (before it was cancelled due to COVID related travel restrictions), and I’ve dabbled in powerlifting for years now. So naturally my social media is now filled with people going on about home workouts, staying motivated, videos of people doing all these awesome, clever workouts, or going for runs… you get the idea. At the same time I feel zero motivation to exercise, and am stuck inside eating too much food (and probably drinking more whisky than usual), which makes me feel even worse.

Similarly there’s a lot of pressure at the moment to use this “free time” you now have to better yourself. Every other person seems to be earning their MBA or getting a bloody masters in something from some online university… and here I am still trying to finish that 6 hour Pluralsight course I’ve been busy with for the past year. Never mind the guitar I’m trying to learn that I haven’t picked up in 2 months…

On top of this (as if it wasn’t enough) there’s stress and uncertainty about our jobs, the welfare of family and friends (I’ve got family in South Africa, which is definitely less equipped to deal with this than New Zealand is), making sure our kids are coping (and still learning while out of school), and a multitude of other things.

So I think the answer is to just not give a f__k… for now. There are probably more eloquent ways of phrasing it – but basically I think that, just like it takes time to get used to working from home, it’s going to take time to adjust to everything else that’s changed in our daily routines. So I’m not going to worry about putting on a few extra kg’s, or my pile of unread books not shrinking as quickly as I’d like – in the same way that you shouldn’t worry about your work productivity taking a hit when you first start working from home.

Each day I’ll try to stick to a routine as much as possible. When it works – great! But when it doesn’t, there’s always tomorrow to try again.


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