Our transition to a full home working environment

We have now transitioned to a full home working environment across all of our teams, responding to the UK government’s and University of Edinburgh’s guidance. Even though team members have been working from home on occasions, doing it in this scale is unprecedented. I would like to share what was involved, how we prepared and create an, almost, live record of our “snagging” issues and how our teams are responding to them.

Having a remote working environment by design

Our teams have been steadily moving to a fully supported remote working environment long before the current situation came into place. As part of our planning, we had decided to move all staff from using desktop machines to having a laptop and docking station, all connected to dual screens. Apart from the apparent cost savings, aligned with the University’s Sustainable IT initiative, this has enabled better integration and synchronisation of environments, files and configurations.

Colleagues who have had a preference to work from home on specific days, have been encouraged to do so. This hasn’t only been of help for colleagues to take advantage of a quieter environment to focus, it had created more familiarity with this approach and helped quickly identify potential issues that might hinder the wider team.

Different teams have different requirements in the daily working life, let alone when working from home. Service teams require access to support and monitoring systems, graphic designers need to use larger screen space and sophisticated applications, web developers must be able to access code repositories under a carefully configured environment, user experience experts to reach audiences to conduct their research. Thankfully, we had been monitoring these needs and responding accordingly in previous events, for example the “Beast from the East” snowstorm a couple of years ago, and had put recovery plans in place which are now used.

Finally, official advice from the University has been really helpful

Coronavirus (Covid-19) University of Edinburgh guidance and advice.

Communication is key

Ensuring everyone is on the same page is fundamental in any working environment. When working remotely, this becomes even more important as there is no physical presence and interaction. Thankfully, technology is a big ally. Our tool of preference is Microsoft’s Teams. Office 365 is the main collaboration platform for the University of Edinburgh, and the ability to integrate between emails, calendars, online meetings and file sharing has been a key component of enabling a seamless remote working experience. Of course, there are other equally capable platforms, and want I really want to highlight is to choose these carefully to ensure that they will not create more overhead than convenience.

Communication is not only about the technology, though. We have agreed with all team managers on a daily framework of communication to enable better flow of information between us and our colleagues: Morning check-ins for all teams individually and two (morning and afternoon, just for the first few days until we all set up) managers’ check-in meetings. All these are run as regular stand up meetings, everyone having a turn in summarising where each team is focussing and if there were any issues we need to resolve.

An online link was added to all meetings, via Teams, and all new meetings were created with that setting as a default action.

Supporting each other

One of the most important aspects of any working environment is not necessarily work or technology related: socialisation. This becomes even more important when switching to a remote working environment, since the physical interaction is missing. There are big risks, in this way of working, including loss of motivation and morale, lack of focus and deconstruction of the existing team culture. Surely, more issues and challenges will arise the longer the current status quo remains.

An integral part of our team’s culture is collaboration, honesty and transparent communication. This is a time that these values become even more important. We all, both as managers and, mainly, as people, need to be there and support each other in any useful way, while taking into consideration each individual’s personal situation. We are openly encouraging changes in working patterns to ensure that colleagues can adjust their day in the best way possible, ensuring there is enough time to have breaks, long walks or anything that helps us all to be on top of the game. Revisiting some older techniques, like the Pomodoro time management method, is always useful.

Pomodoro time management technique.

We, as well, already have set up a social space in Teams, where the obligatory cute cat and home photos are creating a more intimate and relaxed space. The idea of an online bake fest, essentially meeting online to enjoy our cake and coffee, is still on the cards.

These are unprecedented times, so we would need to tread carefully, monitor and be ready to react as new guidance and change coming through. I will try to keep a live blog post flow to reflect on how we approach this.

A cat named Julio sits on chair.

Our cat, Julio, relaxing at his favourite post wondering why everyone is at home on a totally random Wednesday.

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