Office. Home. Distributed. Effective.

Is your technical or engineering team working from home? Are you concerned about the lack of collaboration, and drop of productivity? The ECG team put our heads together to talk about some of the top ways that a technical design and operations can be effective while distributed. 

Lost In The Shuffle

There are many great ways to share files, including Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive. But having so many choices creates a natural problem: asking yourself "where did I put that file?" and "where did she put that file?" It reduces frustration tremendously if you choose a single place for work-related files, and then to agree on a single way of organizing those files. Even if you have to search, using one common tool tells you where to search.

Of note: Emailing files doesn't work. Each time you email a file, it makes a new copy of the file. If you email a Word Document, you now have two Word Documents. Which one is the "master copy". It's critical to have a common place to store files where everyone can see every document. Email is not an effective way to store and retrieve files.

Information doesn't move around naturally when people are working in different places.

Jon Chleboun, an ECG Senior Member of Technical Staff (SMTS). He's focused on Sansay SBCs in current projects, and advises not to "assume that everyone will naturally communicate the same way, or as much, remotely.  Experiment with ways to actively promote collaboration where it's helpful. E.g. Continuous Google Hangout in the background for small teams that are used to sitting close together and talking often. E.g., Slack channel for 'quick questions'."

Software Engineer Matt Keathley says it can be tempting to work in your own bubble, but  "Don't be afraid to work together. There are so many good tools to make this possible." For example, Google Meet has simple ways to share your display with one another and still see each other on camera. Matt explains that at ECG "we often do pair programming or screen sharing for a few hours each day. It's helpful to check in regularly and be sure I'm staying on task. It gives some of the same feel as being in an office." 


Like I Said...

Communicating tasks and ideas can be challenging in the best environments, but verbal communication when you're not in person is especially difficult. The Tufts University Electrical Computer Engineering Design Handbook explains that even in technical contexts, nonverbal communication is critical  because the speaker needs to know whether the hearer understands. "Presenting material is made much easier and more efficient when feedback on how the information is being received is being constantly received." When you're in the same office, you get good feedback by watching the other people while you talk. But when you're in two different places, it's far more difficult.

How do we overcome the limitations? We use a variety of methods:

  • Phone calls: Simple phone calls (made easier with quality headsets from Jabra and Sennheiser!) are very important to regular communication. You don't get the nuances of facial expressions, but you can hear pauses and harumphs that give clues.
  • Video calls: Google Meet and Hangout can be helpful tools, especially for screen-sharing. But when the team is working from home, they may not feel comfortable turning on a camera. Most homes are not professional workspaces.
  • Take Notes: Writing down notes that both parties can see is a key way to know whether you got the information. If you're brainstorming how to troubleshoot something, then write down the notes and share them so everyone can see. Each idea can be a new Slack message, for example.

ECG uses Slack for much of our of day-to-day conversation; it has virtually replaced email within our company. COO Clay Griner, explains the transition to this kind of work environment:  "The biggest thing to overcome is not having instantaneous responses which you get more of with face to face meetings. I have decided that you actually get better responses when people have a little time to think it through."

Driven To Distraction

"Don't assume productivity will inherently drop off a cliff with everone working at home," Jon Chleboun encourages. He advises that it's helpful to "Be clear about expectations, and talk to your teams about the advantages of social distancing." Engineers that are accustomed to working in the same office may have to cope with interruptions they don't encounter when working from home, which offers "opportunity for blocks of focused work with less drop-ins from co-workers who want to chat about sports-ball." 

But the home office can have distractions as well. Robert Yeager, an Associate Member of Technical Staff (AMTS) focused on Security Analysis and federal Cisco BroadWorks platforms, advises to "Avoid all distractions. Put yourself in a place you won't be distracted."

Chelsey Sizemore, an AMTS working lately on Oracle Acme Packet SBCs and training on Cisco BroadWorks, suggests that you "Lock yourself in a room." Some of her personal tips might work for you too: "I like to listen to music; I usually find some kind of instrumental music to help me focus. I have a Spotify playlist called 'Work Flow' that I use to help focus." 

Keeping an Inconsistent Schedule

Matt Keathley warns not to expect productivity without some consistency. "Without a regular routine of driving to the office," he says, "It sometimes feels like you can just be freeform...but maintain a schedule. Even though you're not in an office environment, it really helps to have a schedule. Especially if you have kids, it's helpful to be able to tell them, 'Bye, I'm going to work.' which means This is me leaving; I'm going to work...even though it's only 10 feet away." Sometimes people are less productive because their work from home doesn't provide the structural support of a regular workday. Matt continues,  "It is about getting up and preparing for your day as if you were going somewhere. Get up, shower, and get dressed as if you are going to work."

AMTS Michael Lindsey, currently on projects related to the Cisco Broadworks DBS migration, says: "Be sure, for business calls, you can cocoon yourself away. It may not be soundproof, but you need to be able to have a call without hearing background noise of children making noise and dogs barking."

Grepping on Toes

For technical work, a common problem is knowing what others are doing and coordinating around that. For an urgent issue, we use a video or telephone meeting. But most work is split into cases (Zendesk) or tasks (Jira). In each case, the work can be assigned only to one person, so that person and his colleagues can easily tell what he's doing. It's especially helpful for remote teams to have one Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) for each task, and these tools help make those distinctions clear. Apple made DRI famous under Steve Jobs' leadership; just look what it did for them.

Many companies have a system for working remotely, but they're often not sized to equip the whole workforce.  Federally-Focused SMTS Brian Tate reminds you to check your capacity for these events. If people are having problems getting work done remotely, it could be that  tools like VPN concentrators and Virtual Desktop environments may not be adequate to allow for successful remote work.

Exercise and Pray

Brian Tate recommends some tips for come from Hong-Kong educator and blogger RachelDangerW, writing after weeks of lockdown:

  1. Work out. Get outside every day.
  2. Talk on the phone.
  3. Give thanks and pray. "If you are reading this list, you are probably better off than at least 90% of the world population. Pray this doesn’t kick off in Africa. Pray for containment in Italy and Iran and the healthcare workers on the frontlines. Be so so grateful for that and make conscious choices to take care of each other, our earth, the systems that can keep us safe. VOTE for responsible leaders who respect science, who care about people."

Jon Chleboun encourages everyone: "Embrace the opportunity to get better at blocking out distractions, focusing, and self-motivating. You'll find that you can be fantastically productive when you give yourself the right space and structure for your work."