Our year at Momenton started full of promise. In February, we partnered with a government agency to modernise its architecture. The ask was to build and quickly deliver a complex process orchestrator that would scale and be fast. Here we had an excellent opportunity to showcase our technical skills — Kubernetes, event-driven architectures and API gateways — and our ability to deliver high-quality software within a short time frame. Just one month later, the spectre of Covid-19 loomed. We knew this was going to force businesses into a remote working model. To get ahead of this and to be prepared, we trialled remote working before restrictions were enforced. As a team, we were set up for success, armed with an elite skill set, ready to overcome the challenges of a global pandemic, forcing us to work remotely. What we discovered was that even the best processes and tools could falter without strong human connections.
Remote working begins
First, we worked on a 2-day rotation. Half the team worked from home and on Fridays we all came together in the office.
The following week, everyone worked remotely from Monday to Wednesday and came into the office on Thursday and Friday. We were able to perform our ceremonies via Slack video calls. We stayed in contact throughout the day using Slack chat and email. We were able to visualise our work using tools such as Jira and GitLab.
Finally, remote working became the norm; for our safety, we all worked from home 5-days a week. Thankfully we were prepared, or so we thought…our workflow, tools and processes were solid and built for a remote working environment. Our code repositories were web-based and remote access was not restricted. However, our team morale started to decline. The way we were communicating with one another became laced with an air of frustration and hostility. Individuals started to take feedback on code reviews personally and team collaboration was breaking down. This was evident in Story Refinement sessions and Retrospectives. As a result, our performance and sprint goals were negatively affected. These were issues which our team did not have before the pandemic. Nothing had changed with our processes and tools; we still performed all of our ceremonies and could access our work all the same.
So what was causing this drop in team performance and morale? Well on top of the pressure of delivering an end product amidst a toilet paper buying frenzy, hands dryer than the Sahara caused by the excessive use of hand sanitiser and the daunting prospects of home schooling; working remotely was affecting our team culture. We were losing our identity, the bond we had developed over time through human interaction. We only ever communicated during work-related ceremonies, Slack chat and email. Even code reviews and questions on stories were done via the comments section of GitLab and Jira. Comments were being misinterpreted as demanding or condescending when written compared to verbal conversations. We were missing ‘face to face’ interactions.
The new ‘face to face’
Before lock-down and remote working, casual social interactions with colleagues occurred regularly such as, going for a coffee together or Friday night drinks. The importance and value of this time was taken for granted. These casual moments brought us closer together as colleagues and friends. Accepting and taking on feedback from colleagues is always easier when there is a mutual sense of respect.
In order to deal with this breakdown, we implemented a few principles to improve communication across the team. We came to an agreement that code review and Jira comment queries were to be followed up by a verbal conversation. If feedback was added to a code review, this would be followed up by a video call to the developer. Here feedback could be elaborated on. The same applied for Jira comments, rather than just tagging a person in a comment. These conversations helped in bringing a sense of understanding and respect back into the team.
To reinvigorate this lost work culture, we all decided to dial into stand-ups with coffees in hand, making them less formal and more in line with the friendly vibe that we had lost. We also started having Zoom catch-ups on Wednesdays and Fridays. We ended our workday at 4:30 pm, grabbed a drink, changed our virtual background to something fun and had a laugh. That’s all it was about; we didn’t discuss work or the sprint. In fact, we introduced a rule, you bring up work, you get kicked from the Zoom party!
These simple changes had almost immediate effects, our team was much happier. Individuals began to accept feedback from one another more willingly and produced better code. Overall, our team was back to its high-performing self, successfully and remotely, we delivered a fully functioning Complex Process Orchestrator within 16 weeks.
Whilst having a framework to set guide-rails for Agile teams is important (something we will talk about in a subsequent post) what is just, if not more important is maintaining team culture and morale especially when working with remote & distributed teams.
We went into a remote working setting with the right setup and tools to get the job done, but that wasn’t enough. We needed to maintain our face-to-face conversations and values to keep our performance alive. Simple techniques you can use to give feedback is video chats such as Slack or Zoom as opposed to commenting on stories or code reviews. Along with some scheduled break out time to have a virtual drink together was a major key to our successful delivery of the project.
Look after your team’s happiness, and they’ll look after the required task at hand. Don’t underestimate the importance of human connection and the impact it can have in the workplace; especially during this time.