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Practical Tips from Engineering Leaders for Working From Home During Uncertain Times

As COVID-19 spreads across the globe and many organizations have asked non-essential employees to work from home, many of us are adjusting to the new norm of conducting business where we also live our lives.

As a remote-first workplace, Fairwinds has considerable experience in helping employees be successful working from home. We recently hosted a panel discussion, "Remote Tips & Trips for Your Engineering Team" that had great insight for any person working from home.

Transitioning to Home-Based Work

These are uncertain times. We all have a lot of unanswered questions, which, when coupled that with setting up a new work environment, can overwhelm even the most unflappable teammates.

“Recognizing that there is an emotional toll where it’s affecting people who might already have the systems in place to work from home, is important,” said panel moderator, Kendall Miller, president at Fairwinds.

Now, because many schools are closed, a good number of us are juggling child care responsibilities within our work days. Also, for those of us with an at-home partner, we are figuring out who works when, trying to schedule calls around each other and working to be patient with seeing each other 24/7.

Employers and employees alike need to consider comfort. Sitting – or standing – at a new workstation (kitchen tables included) could take a toll. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and talk to your manager if you need ergonomic support. And, as simple as it sounds, setting routines and patterns for your day of at-home work is important. Kristina Kemmer, director of engineering at Zapier noted, “I make sure to shower every day and actually get dressed to go to work because I need to feel a separation of home life and work life. I try not to look at Slack after hours and I think it’s really good to have cut off times."

Create – or Fold Into – a Remote Culture

You may not be able to extend free lunches or massages to remote workers, but you can help them focus on creating a culture that works for teams outside of the office.

“People who have been working remotely for a while have built up communications patterns – phrases they use to say what they are working on, emojis that mean certain things, etc. If you haven’t had a remote team/workforce, sit down and figure out what exists and how to get new members into those patterns,” said Sarah Zelechoski, VP of engineering at Fairwinds.

Whether those patterns are standing Zoom rooms where people can join in at any time or ‘water cooler’ video chats to help people feel connected, don’t forget to focus on culture.

Overcommunicate

It’s easy to overlook how much we communicate – even unknowingly – when we are together in an office setting. When we are dispersed, we have to make sure to remember to share slight details that might be important. 

Brandon Jung, vice president of alliances at GitLab said, “If you lead people, the biggest thing to remember is to overcommunicate. Don’t forget how important it is and that things are written down. Reach out to touch base with people, particularly with these changes.”

Zelchoski echoed this sentiment noting that for all employees, “Communication, openness and status have to be completely different. You have to be more transparent. Otherwise, you will be off in your own corner doing things; you will feel isolated and people will not integrate you into the communication path.”

Getting Work Done – Practical Points

Remote teams have to work with unique considerations such as teams in different time zones. “I’ve managed and worked with people from APAC, North America and European time zones at the same time and scheduling a meeting for those three time zones simultaneously is nearly impossible. Someone is going to be up at midnight,” said Kate Taggard, engineering manager at Stripe. Her solution? Limiting managers to choosing team members from two of the three time zones to make scheduling and working together easier. 

To this end, transitioning to a remote workforce means that it’s time to put collaboration and communication tools to work for you. Not only do they help you accomplish your work, but they ensure that your team communicates and is working in tandem with one another. Swarna Podila, senior director of community for the Cloud Foundry Foundation shared, “there is this pairing culture where engineers from different regions and time zones are paired together. They use Zoom calls and other tools they have found useful, like whiteboarding. I don’t personally whiteboard – I have reMarkable paper where I draw on it and it syncs up to my Google Drive which is already in a shared folder.”

The panel, all of whom have engineering backgrounds, also recommended creating processes that are documented and communicated so all team members know what they are. From there, the group suggested their favorite tools, including: 

  • Krisp.ai, which blocks background noise during calls
  • Retrium, which allows for easy retros for remote teams
  • GitLab for DevOps

We may be working as remote teams for a longer period of time than originally anticipated. Putting in the effort now to help teams be successful is worth it – both to the people and the bottom line. Check out the full panel, “Remote Tips & Trips for Your Engineering Team.” And, be sure to add your favorite remote work tools to our list.

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