This is the fourth 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 Platform as they shape optimal ways of working on this important project. You can read the earlier posts in the series here: Remote Possibilities, Sense and Sustainability and On the Importance of a Team Manifesto.

Working remotely day in, day out has been an unusual and disorienting experience for everyone at Scott Logic. But what has it been like for the more junior consultants, being onboarded onto their first client projects while physically isolated from each other?

Four junior members of the Scottish Government Payment Platform team—Duncan, Tad (both developers), Kira and Adam (both test engineers)—kindly gave me some time to describe their experiences of project onboarding and working remotely. And they are happy for those experiences to be shared in this blog post in case they offer encouragement and reassurance to other junior software engineers working on their first projects.

Joining on the eve of lockdown

All four joined Scott Logic through our Graduate Programme: Duncan, Tad and Adam in November 2019, and Kira in February 2020. So for Kira, she was only in the office for about six weeks before the UK-wide lockdown was enforced! Along with millions of other young people just starting out in their careers, they were put on furlough.

This was done to protect their employment, but it didn’t make the experience any less stressful, especially in the context of the wider uncertainties introduced by the pandemic. Regular check-ins with their line managers provided some reassurance, and they were also able to observe the quarterly company meetings to stay informed.

The furloughed graduates were in contact with each other, and proactively set up a team project in order to keep their skills honed and stay in touch. There was also encouragement to set up study groups around topics of interest so that they could keep learning.

But there’s no substitute for learning on the job, so all four were relieved when they were brought back from furlough in the autumn and assigned to the Scottish Government Payment platform project.

Experiences of onboarding

Onboarding was staggered in order to allow for systems and processes to be set up before the team scaled up to its full size. Duncan joined the project team first. He was paired up with a more senior developer and encouraged to familiarise himself with the Alpha phase of the project. Once the induction process was established, Duncan was able to participate in it along with the new joiners.

The Solution Architect, James, identified core areas of the technology that it was important for everyone to understand well. Team members were paired up and tasked with researching an aspect of the technology, and presenting their findings back to the group in playback sessions. The discussions prompted by these presentations helped to propagate the learning around the team, as well as to identify remaining gaps in knowledge that needed to be addressed.

In parallel to this familiarisation with the technology, I was facilitating workshops to help the team agree on its ways of working, distilled into a Team Manifesto. This forms a ‘north star’ in relation to which the team measures how well it is staying true to its original vision; it’s a reference point for team retrospectives, which Duncan now facilitates along with a more senior member of the team.

There were various aspects of the onboarding process that were particularly helpful to the graduates. For Adam, it was the opportunity to bring to bear what he’d learnt on his graduate project about test strategy; he worked with a more senior test engineer on the strategy for the project, and this gave him a good insight into the project’s scope and the testing that would be required. For Duncan, it was the time afforded to the team to learn—there was no expectation to start delivering immediately. And even when delivery began, tickets more suited to junior consultants were flagged, with the aim of giving them a good grounding in different aspects of the technology.

Pair programming with more senior team members was a key aspect of the early stage of the project. And each ticket was assigned a mix of junior and more experienced team members, so even when they weren’t pair programming on a ticket, there was still a more experienced direct point of contact from whom they could seek help and guidance.

Overcoming challenges

A first client project is a daunting prospect for any new consultant, whether in lockdown or not. That said, remote working brought its own challenges to the first-project experience.

For Duncan and Tad, the technology and the style of programming was new to them both. While this might have been the case on a first project anyway, working at home definitely made it more difficult to get up to speed. The onboarding process had grounded them in the theory, and one-to-one support was helping them with the practice. In addition, where any shared gaps in knowledge were identified, the team’s leaders were happy to convene training sessions to make sure everyone was on the same page.

For Kira who lives alone, her biggest challenge was second-guessing herself. Whereas in the office, she could quickly ask a colleague “Have I done this right?”, “Is it just me, or..?”, the communication channels for working remotely added a bit more formality, a bit more of an obstacle for the quick chat that would put her mind at rest. While her more experienced colleagues had been incredibly helpful and open to being asked questions, the return to the office was a welcome prospect.

For Adam, who’s a very social person, he had found the isolation of remote working the biggest challenge—not being able to wheel his chair over to discuss work easily with fellow team members, or just to have an informal chat. Added to this was a concern that the remote working environment caused by the pandemic might be impeding his progress—that he was missing out on overhearing and getting involved in work conversations about the tech they were working with, which would make it easier to learn on the job. The learning culture within the team helped a great deal, but he was very much looking forward to the return to the office.

Getting to know each other

All four agreed how much it had helped to have met each other before lockdown, however briefly. Duncan, Tad and Adam had joined at the same time and known each other for a few months; Kira joined later, but still had a few weeks to get to know her fellow recent grads face to face before lockdown. She thinks it would have been a lot more daunting to join the Payment Platform team if her first encounter with colleagues was via video call.

Relationships had strengthened despite working in isolation. Duncan explained that while he hadn’t known fellow grad, Alex, well while they were in the office, they were both now on the feature team and had come to rely on each other. For Duncan, it was great to have someone on the team in the same boat, someone who might feel similarly daunted on occasion, and someone he could empathise with and receive empathy from.

As well as the support they’ve been able to give each other, the four of them also felt supported by the more senior members of the team, both formally and informally. In the Payment Platform team, it’s codified that for each user story, team members should discuss with their lead their plan of action and how they’re going to break the work down. And they all felt comfortable pinging their senior colleagues ad hoc to ask questions or sense-check their approach. Often when they receive help from colleagues, the call naturally evolves into a few minutes’ informal chat, which has really helped them to get to know each other and strengthen relationships.

While nothing can replicate being in the office, chatting at your desk or sharing lunch, the ‘Friday Night Check-Out’ has been a very welcome regular event—a scheduled ‘down-tools’ moment, and a chance to ease into the weekend, chat to colleagues and enjoy a drink.

And with lockdown slowly easing across the UK, they’re all looking forward to doing that in person before too long!

If you enjoyed reading this, you can find the earlier posts in the series here: Remote Possibilities, Sense and Sustainability and On the Importance of a Team Manifesto.

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