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Illustration of Eloise and Moritz by Eloise Coveny

About the authors
We are Eloise Coveny, and Moritz Kornher. A Kiwi who once lived in Germany, and a German who once lived in New Zealand. And now we are both Software Engineers at the BBC. We gave a version of this article as a talk at the {develop:BBC} conference in March 2020. It was the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, and the conference had to be moved online within a very short time frame.

A few months ago, the idea of a worldwide pandemic seemed unimaginable. Today the whole planet is in lockdown. Back then only some of us had any experience working remotely. Now everyone does.

We were planning to write a light hearted blog about remote first practices. We thought that it may perhaps be thought provoking. But as the current context has been changing daily, so has this. Now that you’re all remote working experts, what can we possibly say that you don’t already know?

We want to tell you two stories about remote-first working. Our teams have been engaging in these practices for some time now. Whilst we found remote working to be very different for each individual and every team, we did also see some common themes emerging. By putting our two stories next to each other, we hope to highlight different perspectives.

Remote Generation

by Eloise Coveny

Since I started working at the BBC in May of last year I have been working in a cross-located team across London and Glasgow. Everything has been done remote-first; our morning stand ups, pair programming, and all social interaction with the wider team. In my first few months it was just my team lead and I who were in Glasgow, so our team was only just transitioning to becoming remote-first. I can only imagine for my team, who were used to being all co-located, that this must have been a difficult transition for them to make.

It was particularly awkward for me, not just because I was new to the BBC, but also because of the fact that it was my very first role as a software engineer. I was transitioning from a career in the arts, so it was a completely new experience. In hindsight now I think joining a cross-located team meant that I had to be a good communicator from day one. Luckily for me I was no stranger to communication, as I had over a decade of experience in my past career.

I understood the importance of rigorous clear communication very early on, and that it would become my lifeline if I was to get to know my team and learn to become a better engineer. What helped me to feel valued by my team was when my colleagues would reach out to me and either express an interest in getting to know me, or simply offer to pair with me on a task.

So given my experience-to-date as a software engineer has been by and large remote-first, does that make me part of a new “remote” generation? It’s an interesting concept. And perhaps now due to this pandemic, we are the Remote Generation. So what does this mean for the future of software engineering?

Having been a cross-located team now for just under a year, I think we are all pretty comfortable with remote-first practices, and on the whole things seems to work quite well. But this isn’t to say that we can’t improve. Now there are more engineers in our team in Glasgow, I can be guilty of swivelling round to my colleague sitting next to me, to ask him a quick question. But when I do this instead of asking the wider team via Slack, I am excluding others and restricting knowledge sharing. Code Reviews, for example, are more inclusive when done remotely because more people can be involved, so I can receive more varied feedback and it increases knowledge transfer across the team. So this got me thinking, can remote-first practices benefit us, allowing us to develop our practices beyond the limits of co-located restrictions?

We understand the importance of social interaction and meeting colleagues in real life. As ironic as it sounds now, none of us want to be subjected to eternal house arrest. So how do we get around this? What can we do now with our remote tooling to try to bridge these gaps?

Our team has been constantly facing this problem. We have been trying a few things, and although they are no substitution for face-to-face time, they do perhaps make up for some things in our day-to-day working. Every morning in the 15 minutes before stand-up we have a casual drop-in chat room called Talking Heads. This dedicated time-box gives us an opportunity to have these over-the-desk conversations with our colleagues in London that we otherwise don’t get to have. We have also had several farewell calls, giving us the opportunity to say our byes to departing colleagues and share in their embarrassment as they open their leaving gifts. And just very recently we have begun holding end-of-play quizzes on Fridays. Three hosts prepare some questions about topics of their personal interest. The rest of us break off into groups to answer them, and we get the pleasure of learning something new in the process.

It’s fun being able to have the creative scope to use our imagination and design different ways of doing things with remote tools. But, how far can we push these boundaries? And where will remote working take us next?

Test Drive

by Moritz Kornher

For us, remote working started with an email. The subject line was unsuspicious: “Video First trial”. Its contents were ambitious, because in just a couple of weeks the whole of the Voice + AI department would switch to remote-first working for two months. It was July 2019 and little did we know of what the world would be like less than a year later. It was only after the trial that I learned it was, amongst other things, indeed planned as a test drive on our business continuity.

To be clear, we weren’t kicked out of the office. But the intentions of the experiment were communicated very openly. People would choose where they wanted to work; at the office, from home, on the beach or a lonely bothy in the Scottish Highlands. We were to push the boundaries of our existing working practices and learn as much as we can about this new exciting challenge.

How we prepared

So, how do you take a whole department remote? We didn’t need to start from nothing. Slack has always been an integral part of our communication, and early in the year the department did sign up for a video conferencing solution. Around then my team had also moved to remote-first stand-ups to support regular home-workers.

Of course we still had another three weeks to prepare. As a first measure a department-wide town hall meeting was called. Town halls are exactly what they sounds like; one large video call with everyone from within the department and an open floor to ask the senior leadership questions. We held them regularly during the trial and I found them to be a very effective tool for vertical knowledge sharing. These meetings allowed me to ask questions beyond the general brief that was normally communicated. And it was a great test to see if we could have a web conference with over a hundred participants.

With lots of questions answered, some uncertainty remained around the practical execution. What does it mean for me as an individual to work “Video First”? To tackle all these little issues a multi-discipline working group was put together. They have created a Remote-Working Handbook. It reflects industry practises as well as learnings we made during the trial and is now widely shared across the business.

How I dealt with it

The first day of the experiment had arrived. Most colleagues started to work from home straight away. Others preferred to keep working from the office, which is what I did. It gave me the chance to observe changes around us. For obvious reasons face-to-face meetings did not occur anymore, everything moved online. Our work area was much quieter than usual and some co-workers started earlier in the day to make good use of the extra time they were saving on their commute.

Eventually I took the leap and also stayed at home to work. What surprised me at first was how little changed. Within two weeks our processes had adapted so swiftly that the only noticeable difference was a lack of direct social interactions. Of course, there were challenges. If you have ever tried remote pair programming, you will know how tricky it can be. Running our team retrospectives smoothly took us a while, until we had figured out the best tools and the right flow. And yes, video call fatigue can be a real problem.

But these are not issues with remote first working. Look closely and you will find the exact same problems in a co-located workplace. Many people don’t follow proper pairing protocols even when they sit next to each other. Retros can easily be dominated by a few vocal people, and I almost never take the recommended hourly screen breaks.

It was important for us to identify these pain points and to address them quickly. As we had hoped, our ways of working were pushed to their limits and it was clear they needed to change. In a remote world everything is more formalised, therefore flaws in the workflow are exposed earlier. No overhearing of conversations to fill gaps, or kitchen chit-chat to get the latest updates. I believe that being remote helped us to manage this change.

Remote practices unlock new possibilities that a co-located world cannot provide. When I am online there is less of a barrier to use tools or online services that help me to improve my pairing technique. Virtual retrospectives allow us to be more creative and so engaged more team members in different ways, helping to encourage them to share their thoughts. And since I’m in web meetings all day anyway, I can easily schedule my breaks between calls or I get friendly reminders from my colleagues.

How we are doing now

Fast forward a few months and it is the beginning of 2020. We have been following the same remote-first practices we all adopted during our trial. On any given day in my team, someone was working from home. Sometimes it was just one person, on other days it was almost all of us. We did not plan our presence in the office anymore, it just happened. The trial had helped us to improve our working practices so much, that we did not notice a difference anymore. For us it was the new “normal”.

Until coronavirus put Europe in lockdown. At first we were told to stay away from cafés and pubs. Later we were asked to work from home. That’s when I realised how lucky we were. Because we had a chance to prepare for exactly this situation.

Now I know it’s okay to call someone for a quick question, or a wee social chat.
Now I know the value of a well facilitated remote meeting, and I never want to go back to a meeting room again.
Now I know pair programming is a much more effective tool for knowledge sharing than overhearing conversations in the office.
Now I know that it’s okay to do my laundry while I’m listening to that town hall meeting.
Now I know that regular screen breaks are equally important as doing the work itself.
And of course, now I know that I can wear pyjama bottoms all day.

Originally I wanted to finish with a recommendation. I would have suggested that everyone in your team should adopt remote-first working practises for a couple months; to maybe pick a time that is a bit quieter, but really just to go for it. I would have said that all of you need to experience remote working first-hand, so that you will be ready for the new decade and the changes it will bring.

Instead I would now like to leave you with an interesting and telling observation my team lead made at the beginning of the year.

'Everything works better when we work at home'

Keep an open mind, and I promise you can get there as well.

Futurespective

Two very different stories from two unique perspectives. In the first we learn about a team that is gradually forming remotely. We learn how a new starter finds their footing, whilst being physically disconnected from the rest of the team. And how the team finds remote answers to their remote questions.

In the second story we have an existing team that know each other well. A team that is already comfortable working together. And then suddenly they become remote all at once, and they have to figure out how to carry over their practices into this new environment.

Of course both stores share some similarities. Each of our teams had to overcome challenges. But by being flexible and trying out new things, we found that remote first practices have helped to improve our workflows.

There are two points that particularly stand out for us. Firstly, it’s all about communication. Communication is much more difficult when we are not in the same place, but as humans it is engrained in our DNA. We now have the remote tools to allow us to be more creative in the ways we communicate; to explore more, to play more. We need to use this creativity to overcome any remote hurdles.

Secondly, it’s important to have a positive outlook. We are all in this situation together and we can’t just opt out of it. However it is more than just that, we are in the midst of the biggest work revolution since the nineteenth century. Coronavirus is not the cause, it is only an accelerant for this transformation. Our ways of working will change. What we can do is to be a part of this change, to influence it, to make it positive. Let us re-imagine and re-design the way we work as an industry and as a society.

What will our working environments look like?
Our relationships within our teams?
What about our daily schedules?
Our workflows?

Once this is over, all of us will form this new Remote Generation. We just don’t know what it will look like yet.