With my company laptop, I can work from home if needed. This is useful if I need to wait in for a bulky Amazon delivery or go to a dentist appointment. Otherwise, I am quite happy working in our office each day.
In March 2020, our office shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We were asked to work from home as a proactive response by our Directors before the Government lockdown was enforced.
I had to take my working setup from a dedicated, well-organised office environment, and figure out how to make it work at home.
Challenges with working from home
For me, there were several challenges that I had to consider when working from home for the first time. Let's explore those challenges and the questions they raised…
I have never worked from home before. We could work from home for short periods to accept deliveries or attend health appointments, but this would be my first remote working experience.
How would I cope with working from home? Would my home setup be as comfortable as the office? Would the pandemic lockdown impact me in any other way?
Meetings & teamwork
I love working in a team that can quickly share ideas, discuss problems, and ask questions face-to-face. But face-to-face meetings would not be allowed during lockdown. Usually, we could share issues on a screen in person with other developers to diagnose and fix problems quickly.
Our office also practices different types of agile development. To continue using agile, multiple meetings would still need to happen from home:
- Sprint planning
- Daily stand-ups
- Backlog refinement
- Sprint reviews and retrospectives
How would we share ideas and help each other fix issues? Would it be possible to use agile and run meetings remotely?
One benefit of the Rock Solid Knowledge office is the multiple meeting rooms with whiteboards and Chromecast TVs. Our development teams would often sit around the TV or whiteboard to sketch out ideas and plan upcoming work together.
How would we run ideas and planning sessions remotely? Would it be possible to share screens and ideas online?
I really enjoy those "water cooler" moments and chats at the coffee machine with my colleagues. Socialising and interacting with my team might seem like the last thing to consider when working from home, but ad-hoc socialising was something I would miss.
How would our team stay connected and feel inclusive? Would it be possible to recreate a friendly, social environment remotely?
Challenges with staying in the office
There was another option to consider... continue to work in the office.
The Government had advised against leaving the home for anything but shopping for essential supplies, exercise, and work (unless there were no other options). For those who could not work from home, it would still be possible to attend work as normal.
To stay open, our office would need updating to meet the regulations set out by the Government for safer office working:
- Social distancing for employees
- Management of visitors and clients
- Deeper and more regular cleaning
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings for employees
- Shared and common area restrictions
This and many other guidelines would need to be assessed and implemented to let employees continue to work in the office.
Logistically, the changes could be costly and would likely create a stressful and unpleasant environment for employees worried about health and well-being. The stress would create a less than productive office environment.
And would we really want to use scarce PPE and other resources when our wonderful NHS and care home systems were running low?
Switching to working from home
Rock Solid Knowledge was built on the foundation of remote working since the beginning. The four founding Directors worked from home and used voice and video software to stay connected and work together remotely.
Today, every employee in our office has a laptop instead of a desktop computer. The laptops let us work anytime and, most importantly, anywhere!
Working from home was the only valid option.
And we have been working from home for over eight months (at the time of writing).
Addressing the challenges
I am fortunate to have a dedicated space that I could set aside as a home office. But with fantastic support from our Directors, we could take any equipment and peripherals needed to make our working lives easier from home:
- Extra monitors, screens, and webcams
- Keyboards and mice
- Mobile and tablet devices
- Adapters and connectors
- Office desks and chairs
- Pens and notepads
If we needed it, they would provide it. The support made the switch to working from home easier. And even though the Government had restricted us socially, with our equipment at home, the new-look working week began to feel more natural and comfortable very quickly.
Meetings & collaboration using Teams
In 2019, we migrated our internal software to use the Microsoft stack. This included moving our emails and calendars to Microsoft Outlook, our development tools to Azure DevOps, and our internal messaging to Microsoft Teams.
Everyone reading this will have been aware of the rise in video messaging platforms for commercial and private use during lockdown. We were already using Microsoft Teams, which meant we could collaborate and solve several challenges:
- Host and attend meetings: voice and video meetings with each other
- Client meetings: voice and video meetings with our clients
- Code sharing: screen share to visually diagnose issues together
- Ideas sharing: screen share to visually share ideas on virtual whiteboards
One of the biggest challenges to reproduce at home would be socialising together. It would not be possible to join random conversations about the latest Netflix shows or overhear news about other projects when working from home.
To improve the feeling of inclusion during such an isolating time, a few initiatives were setup...
Daily water cooler meetings
The daily water cooler meetings were an optional way to have office-like background noise and chats when working. But as we began to feel comfortable working alone at home, we discarded those meetings. This was the only initiative we did not keep.
Daily jokes & quiz
We have a company-wide break at 2pm for daily jokes and a quiz using an Alexa skill (try it yourself: "Alexa... Question of the day"). We wanted to continue this from home, so an optional daily video call was setup for anyone who needed a fun and social afternoon break.
Bi-weekly all-hands meetings
The bi-weekly all-hands meetings require everyone in the company to attend on Mondays and Thursdays. Each meeting has a different agenda:
- Mondays: company announcements, updates, and news
- Thursdays: a team showcases a recent project, sharing awareness for those not involved
Continued weekly brown bag sessions
Our weekly brown bag sessions are short, informal showcases of interesting technology that someone has found or has been exploring. The sessions let us share knowledge and stay up to date with new trends and technologies internally.
Virtual Friday beers
At 3pm, every Friday, the office would head to the fridge for a social breakout and Friday Beers and soft drinks. This is a great time to unwind and catch up with colleagues. To keep that Friday feeling alive, we created an optional virtual meeting for anybody who wants to chat and grab a drink together. Cheers!
Encouraged video participation
Finally, one of the most important initiatives introduced: purchasing and turning on webcams for meetings and calls with each other. Seeing a person's face and reaction during a video call feels more real and engaging than a voice call.
Working from home: a success
Due to Government social restrictions, I found working from home hardest at the start of lockdown. Separating my work and home life was difficult during the period when we were restricted to staying at home. But I began to find working from home felt more comfortable, and I am starting to enjoy it. I have even considered asking to work from home for part of my working week in the future.
Our teams are as productive as ever. We have adapted well thanks to the fantastic support from our Directors and by using the latest technology to our advantage. A few people have returned to the office (with safety, cleanliness, and social distancing in place), but the majority are still working from home.
With no plans to return to the office in the immediate future, it looks like we will continue to work together even though we are physically apart.