When Lorna Mitchell watched developers make the shift to remote work, she noticed that a lot of concerns revolved around the nice-to-have aspects of the job instead of bigger problems like being unable to perform their work. Employees missed amenities present at the office, like ergonomic workspaces and access to multiple monitors.
“If you are sitting on the sofa all day or you don’t really have a good chair, that’s really different from the offices we build for developers with the big screens and the nice chairs,” Mitchell, who is head of developer relations at cloud management company Aiven, said. “That aspect made the transition really difficult — but in terms of doing the work, it wasn’t too bad.”
That’s because the tech industry was better situated than most for the sudden transition to remote work last year. Over the past decade, working remotely has become more of a reality for many in the tech industry. Some people, armed with a laptop and a fast internet connection, even traveled to remote vacation spots to work and could do so nearly as seamlessly as their office-bound colleagues.
Innovations in software development tooling have enabled this shift. Companies are able to recruit developers from around the world and tools can still make working together on a single team feel effective and collaborative.
How to Improve the Remote Work Experience for Developers
- Don’t schedule too many meetings. It may be tempting to use meetings to keep in touch with remote employees, but developers should have plenty of disruption-free time to work.
- Keep documentation up to date. Whether it’s project documentation, how-to guides or company organizational charts, employees working remotely can benefit from the information without needing to ask others.
- Utilize dashboards. Dashboards are a great tool for aggregating information in one location and making it accessible for everyone on the team.
- Spread the burden of work. It can take more effort while working remotely to make sure no individual employee is getting stuck with a disproportionate amount of work.
- Strive for balance. Developers are passionate about their work, so it can take some effort to unplug at the end of the day and take time for oneself.
Even processes associated with agile development have been digitized, like the sticky notes used for kanban boards and setting acceptance criteria; now team members can check a website to see everyone’s progress and stay up to date with the project. Tools like Git, along with Git hosting services like GitHub, help developers collaborate on codebases in a way that feels even easier than even looking over another developer’s shoulder.
And even remote pair programming, something that once seemed impossible to port to a virtual environment, has become routine with the introduction of tools like Visual Studio Live Share, which allows multiple people to work in real time on a single version of the codebase, with little colored cursors tracking users’ movements and edits like Google Docs.
Quality engineering consultant Melissa Tondi said she prefers many aspects of working remotely within a team, especially the way it speeds up and encourages the sharing of information.
“In terms of doing the work, it wasn’t too bad.”
“As we have a thought come up or as we’re testing something, we can jot it down in Slack,” Tondi said. At that point, team members “at least have the ability to see the information, versus waiting until the next day for a meeting.”
Nancy Kastl, director of testing services at software development and cloud consulting company SPR, said the prevalence of working with off-shore teams prepared the industry well for remote work.
“The nature of us being consultants — being deployed at the clients’ [offices], having the equipment, some teams already working remote — especially in software engineering and software testing, I think it was a pretty easy transition,” Nancy said. “If people had to adjust, it wasn’t the technical nature of doing the job because that was already happening.”
Remote Work Requires Mindful Communication
There were still some adjustments companies had to make when the time came. Jordan Dziat’s team of DevOps engineers at The Lifetime Value Co., a data aggregation company, worked on implementing changes to simplify daily workflows and to facilitate the kinds of communication people previously would have absorbed from being at the office.
The company shifted to using Slack mindfully, picking the right channels to broadcast team updates and using Slack for daily check-ins instead of always using video calls. Especially when employees were busy with project deadlines, people appreciated the additional time to concentrate on their work. Teams also implemented no-meeting days, so employees could block out time to focus on being productive without having to respond to emails or messages.
“Communication was the biggest hurdle,” Dziat said. “Now we’ve hammered it home: all the departments are on it, everyone is communicating there, you know when people are available or not. Everything together on that one central pane of communication is a lot of help for us.”
“If we’re looking at the same metrics, and it shows all the same information, then we don’t have inferences via text.”
Dziat’s teams also focused more attention on building internal dashboards for monitoring and metrics. The biggest benefit of using dashboards was providing a reference everyone could access that had the same information. Dziat said dashboards were more effective than ad hoc messages or emails for communication because there isn’t room for confusion or misunderstanding.
“If we’re looking at the same metrics, and it shows all the same information, then we don’t have inferences via text,” Dziat said. “It helps to shed some light into different areas for deployment metrics as well as engagement and see just how our release cadence is affecting the application as a whole.”
The company also made sure organizational charts were easily accessible and up to date — with people coming and going without ever meeting in person, it could get difficult to keep track of who to turn to for access to resources. Teams gave the same care to keeping documentation up to date, so employees didn’t have to ask others to solve common DevOps problems.
“Having clearly documented scopes for everything that we can think of helps,” Dziat said. “We’re not in the office anymore, so even if you have that org chart, it’s sometimes easier for you to just search in Confluence for steps than it is to reach out to somebody.”
Companies Need to Calibrate Their Cultures to Remote Work Too
But just like other industries, workers in the tech industry weren’t immune from the isolation and disruptive effects the sudden change to remote brought on.
“Work-wise, things were pretty smooth,” Mitchell said. “But for the humans — socially, especially if you live on your own, or if you have a house full of school-aged children that are also at home all day, that’s a really big transition from the office.”
Parents still scrambled to work and look after their children at the same time, and many struggled with isolation and a feeling of stagnation. In the beginning, that was compounded by most companies not realizing how long the new situation would last. Many companies didn’t spend much energy planning for their employees’ emotional well-being, like organizing virtual check-ins and social events to encourage community.
“Some organizations, not many actually, tried to switch to a more intentionally remote [workflow],” Mitchell said. “People didn’t have a plan. The coffee online or the Friday night drinks online, I think most companies tried to do that with varying levels of success.”
“If you don’t have that level of trust inside your team, then it’s not going to be successful.”
She said a lot of the cohesion felt in the workplace still comes down to the culture and whether it bolsters the feeling of “psychological safety” between team members.
“If you don’t have that level of trust inside your team, then it’s not going to be successful,” she said.
One way to establish trust is to make sure one person isn’t always stuck with a disproportionate amount of work. Typically when production applications go down, people will gather and problem-solve together to find and fix the issue. But the equal distribution of work can get trickier when employees are remote. People may not be alerted to the problem at the same time, and developers can’t just simply pull up their chair and work on the issue the same way.
Dziat’s team of DevOps engineers tried to tackle this issue early on after the switch to remote work by running fault-tolerance exercises and seeing where the burden of work fell.
“You do the role playing with different members of the team, to make sure everyone understands how a specific outcome was reached during the troubleshooting,” he said. “How do we share that burden, and make sure that everyone is comfortable?”
Balance Is Possible, but It Takes Effort When Working Remotely
There are positive social aspects of remote work too. Many employees gained hours back in their day by simply cutting out their commute and they benefited from the increased flexibility in their schedules. People could go for walks and take breaks when they needed and could even take advantage of how conferences and events were held virtually as well — employees could drop in on events held halfway across the world without ever leaving their desks.
Despite the possibilities remote work creates, it’s not always easy figuring out how to find balance. Developers are very passionate about their work, Mitchell said, so without that boundary between the home and the office, workers can quickly get to the point where they realize they are working all the time. To find that balance, developers can set their availability on their messaging apps and calendars and schedule in time for breaks.
“We’ve talked for years about work-life balance, and it should be easier when you work remotely, but I think it’s only easier if you try to get it right — otherwise it can consume you really easily,” Mitchell said. “You have to be really intentional about the time that you spend.”