This is the second in a series of blog posts that we’re publishing about how to build effective remote teams. We’re sharing insights and experiences from the Scott Logic delivery team working on the Scottish Government Payment Service as they shape optimal ways of working on this important project. You can read the first post in the series here: Remote Possibilities.

Back in the days before the pandemic, modern life could all be a bit much. Cast your mind back twelve months. You were probably racing to tame your to-do list before the Christmas break while recovering from last night’s staff party, planning your Yuletide itinerary, finishing off (or starting) your Christmas shopping… oh, and voting in a General Election.

Mix in the deluge of digital stimuli we’ve introduced into our lives and it’s no surprise that we could often feel oppressed by a sensory overload.

Hence the perennial popularity of meditation and mindfulness. Short periods of reduced sensory stimulation can be a very beneficial thing, contributing to our mental and physical wellbeing. In the early days of lockdown, many of us who were lucky enough to be able to work from home welcomed the chance to strike a better work-life balance, and to swap the nerve-shredding commute for health walks in local green spaces.

However, it’s also well known that a prolonged reduction in stimuli can have deleterious effects, contributing to anxiety and depression. Remote working every day for months on end is a form of sensory deprivation. We use all of the senses available to us when we work in an office, taking in information in a variety of forms that broadens our perspective on our work and enriches our working relationships.

Onboarding in a time of COVID

This is especially the case when we’re starting a project with a new team: it’s a steep learning curve that’s typically made much easier by working together in close proximity, supplementing meetings with impromptu discussions, often while surrounded by walls covered with information radiators.

As described in the first post in this series, at Scott Logic we’re developing a new and improved approach to building effective remote teams in a way that promotes sustainable productivity, morale and wellbeing. We’re piloting this approach with the new project team working on the Scottish Government Payment Service. Team members have been encouraged from day one to actively consider how they want to optimise for working remotely, and to feel comfortable in expressing what’s working and what needs to be improved.

Sensory deprivation—both literal and metaphorical—has been a thematic thread running through team retrospectives to date. The team has discussed and agreed on practical ways to address these issues, and we want to share them here in case any are useful on your own projects.

It’s important to note that no solutions are being imposed on the team—there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, the team is generating different options suited to different people, to help each person find their own preferred ways of feeling connected and motivated.

Gaining some perspective

The team is in the earliest stages of what will be a two-year project and so the initial focus has been on onboarding and scaling up. All of this activity has been important and necessary, configuring systems and sorting out access to tools and networks. However, it’s also meant that the team’s field of view has been confined to the road immediately ahead, rather than the destination.

As a result, the team has agreed as a priority to establish and communicate its epics as soon as possible, shaping the shared narrative of the milestones that will mark progress along the journey to the Beta in two years’ time. Working in physical isolation from each other, it’s more important than ever for the team to have a shared vision and a shared language to discuss where they’ve been, where they are and where they’re heading next.

Face value

For many members of the team, it’s the first time they’ve worked together on a project. As such, everyone’s willingness to switch their cameras on during video calls has been really valued by the team. Naturally, this has helped people put faces to names. But more than this, it’s felt by the team that seeing faces on calls encourages greater engagement and active listening.

At the same time, everyone understands that is has been a journey for some people to become comfortable speaking on camera during video calls, and that it can trigger the same sorts of anxieties as public speaking. So, there is no obligation, just a shared understanding that it can make a positive difference where people feel comfortable to switch their camera on.

Pair Programming

As the members of the team get to know each other, they’ve found pair programming to be very beneficial, and not just in order to work on the code together. Rather than be constrained by textbook definitions, the team has adapted pair programming to collaborate on other things, including configuration, implementation design and validation.

With video calls and screen share, it’s possible to replicate fairly closely the experience of sitting beside each other to do pair programming at a workstation. For some in the team, it has been their first experience of pair programming and, as usual, it has been a revelation. While the benefits of pair programming aren’t always intuitively obvious, people invariably find that it improves communication with other team members and increases their confidence in the code.

In the context of remote working, the team has found that it has an added advantage. Issues with connectivity to the network when working from home can interrupt flow and chip away at motivation and morale. Pair programming has become one way that the team is addressing this. Any team member impeded in this way can jump on a pair programming call with a colleague to avoid context-switching and keep contributing while the connectivity issues are resolved.

Virtual Library

One of the team members introduced this concept as a means of creating a similar environment to programming at neighbouring workstations. In these time-boxed ‘virtual library’ sessions, participants join a video call with webcams and audio on and work quietly together, talking as needed—whether to discuss the task at hand or simply for human interaction. Working in the virtual library was particularly useful to those engaged on solitary tasks, where pair programming was not an option. Each session ends with a tea break, strengthening the social bond between the team members.

Again, while virtual library sessions did not fit with everyone’s working patterns and preferences, there was no obligation to participate. And those to whom the virtual library environment was suited found them beneficial.

These are just some of the ways that the team is making a conscious and active effort to overcome the challenges of team formation while working in isolation. In pre-pandemic conditions, it was easy to take for granted how all of our senses were engaged in the formal and informal interactions that propelled us along the learning curve of team formation and project onboarding. Replacing these in the context of remote working requires commitment. That’s exactly what the team is bringing to the project and this will contribute to sustained motivation and morale.

We’ll continue to share insights from the team retros via this series of blog posts in the New Year, along with posts on related topics such as the foundational workshops and artefacts that helped to set the team up for sustainable remote working.

If you enjoyed reading this, you can find the first post in the series here: Remote Possibilities