Starting remotely as a developer - trials and tribulations

When you start in a new ‘remote role’ as is common in 2020 it can be daunting to adjust to a new home-only environment if you’ve never done it before. This is something I don’t think I did very well, but perhaps it was conducive to the nature of the company I joined which was also struggling to have” working from home” become a normal part of the culture. I hope you can learn from the things I experienced.

Introductions outside your team

I find that a lot of developers and engineers don’t like to turn on their video during calls if nobody else is doing it… herd mentality. However, I’ll encourage you to do it in the early stages as much as possible to build rapport, even if you’re the only one.

After I thought I was in cruise mode after building some trust with my own team I thought it would be prudent to follow suit with external stakeholders. I went out of my way to hold video calls with people who I’d probably be dealing with on a regular basis - with the project management guys, the business analysts and the testing team upon my first absolute need to talk to them. I offered to catch up via video and I told them explicitly that I just wanted to take this time to say hello and introduce myself. I did it with a smile and a genuine interest in their role and how they work. I asked things like “so when did you start with the company?” and “have you always been in this team?”. I know, it’s small talk. Not everyone likes it. But people generally love nothing more than talking about themselves and it’s an easy way to build rapport in a genuine way; I share a little about myself and they share a little about themselves.

Avoid passive ‘code & listen’ meetings

It’s so easy to do this: be on a call when someone is talking on one screen and continue coding on another screen.

I would strongly encourage you to be present for your meetings, especially in those early days. You want to be paying attention to what’s being said on your calls if it’s important enough to have a meeting created for that time in the first place.

The dual-task productivity fallacy

I’m not innocent of coding whilst on calls and it’s something I’m trying to get better at. Somehow I feel that I’ll be more productive if I can keep going and do two things at once. The implications of this haven’t been great - I felt more exhausted at the end of the day when I’ve done this multiple times because it messes with your head so much that you need to be focused continually on two things. Our conscious brain is usually only doing one thing at a time and so you make a little progress on your code, you tune out a little, you hear something important so you tune back in again. You get into this position where you’ve listened to parts of the meeting and your code is partially working but what took you an hour probably would have taken twenty minutes if you hadn’t been on the call at the same time.

It is just so tempting to do this but please, fellow developers, try not to fall into this trap of doing two things at once. Your brain will hate you for it. Besides, if you were in the office in a meeting room with all those people they wouldn’t appreciate you doing something else as they were presenting.

Set your work hours and be firm

Initially I set my work hours from 8am to 4pm, because I’m a morning guy and I got into this routine at my former company. However, two things crossed my mind after starting at a company remotely for the first time:

  • I really only did these hours because I wanted to avoid the morning traffic and so I could get onto public transport without being a sardine in a carriage during peak hour.
  • A lot of people outside of my team were continually making meetings outside of these hours (after I ‘finished’ for the day). I found myself working even longer hours than before.

So I came to the realisation that since I set my own day I’ll conform to what the masses are doing (for now). I adjusted my workday to the typical 9am to 5pm because that’s what most others were doing, and this has worked out really well.

Establish your laptop closing time

What I found is that there are some people who love to work late for whatever reason. I differ in that I am very firm about closing my laptop at 5pm most of the time, and at absolute maximum 5.15pm if something urgent comes up or if I’m really in the middle of something that can’t wait. But 95% of the time I’m shutting down at 5pm and I’m sticking to my guns on this. I have a supportive manager who completely agrees with me on following this process.

We all know the constant harping on from HR about wellness and mental health - well, this is exactly one of those scenarios. If you’re going to keep working longer hours it can only harm your mental health if you reach the point of burnout and you’re never able to ‘switch off’ from work. I really believe this and I’m fully supportive of never over-working any junior developers that work with me one day.

Team ‘core hours’

One helpful activity that my team did recently was set our ‘core hours’ of 10am to 4pm where we are able to book team meetings, in order to accomodate the early and late starters. Of course this is easier said than done sometimes if you have meetings being set by people other than your own team but it’s a good small step at the very least.

Regular virtual social gatherings

My company hosted this event called a ‘virtual mixer’ during lockdown where they had a DJ and people on a private Twitch.tv channel could listen to the music playing and write some comments as they listened along to those party vibes. This is not social, nor are you mixing with anyone. I really hated it - you don’t effectively ‘mix’ 1000+ people this way.

One thing that I thought was really cool is that the agile coach working with our team set up the Thursday 4pm-5pm time slot on the day before the end of the sprint as a small social gathering, where the only rule is that we can talk about anything except work (yes that can be hard sometimes when you’re talking amongst work colleagues). However, these catch-ups have been instrumental to me getting to know the team. We’ve talked about our backgrounds and our stories, things we love and hate about different languages we’ve used over the years and even our experiences travelling the world. And it’s a nice change from those stifling ‘official’ work meetings.

Again, with this virtual social gathering concept, I’m forcing myself to turn my video on and be present. It can be difficult in a large group on a video call as people have the tendency to follow the big talkers in the group. It’s the quiet ones that often get left out. If you were in a big group in person you’d probably find the quiet people breaking out into smaller groups but on a call everyone is present and only one person at a time can speak, so it’s a little different. I like being able to try to bring in the quiet people and let them have their fair say as much as I can. I know some people might be uncomfortable not being too outspoken and I respect that, I used to be like that, and that’s fine. But if it means just learning something new about someone and getting to know them a little better I think it’s for the better of the team to build the formation of a bond.

Expose personal vulnerabilities? Build trust

In The Phoenix Project (one of my favourite books) there’s a reference to a time in the board room where the protagonist, Bill, is sat around the table with fellow executives and the CEO demands that everyone tells a personal story, something deeply personal. His argument is that this vulnerability builds trust among the team and forms the relationship to make it stronger.

I haven’t gone this far yet with my new team but thinking back on my previous workplaces, I have to say it does positively influence my trust of others when we have those personal-life effects exposed between people. It becomes less of the mentality of ‘I’m here to work and not to make friends’ and more of something along the lines of ‘I would be happy to cover that person on their day off because they’d do the same for me’.

Summary

I love remote work. If I could do it permanently I probably would. I hate the daily commute and I felt like I’ve got more time for myself outside of work to focus on creative endeavours. Be sure to introduce yourself to your close colleagues and your wider team of ‘less-close’ colleagues with your video enabled. Make it personal where you can and build relationships outside of just ‘work talk’. Don’t fall into the trap of coding while you’re on a call and be sure to set your hours for the day and be firm about those hours.