Working in times of pestilence

A stereotypical developer would be happy to hide in their cave and growl at passers-by when they get too close.

Woken up in the new work-from-home reality, developers get this feeling of a substitute of paradise, but over their heads the same unbearable wasps are still buzzing. Something doesn't work as it should. Some tasks are screaming for attention. Someone always wants something.

A developer is then tempted to pretend that "the communicator crashed on me, so I couldn't read your message, sorry", which is not quite doable when working desk to desk.

But then, messaging, even if filled with emoji, doesn't fully substitute real human contact. And we can't keep our cameras on all the time - it's the home office anyway, and different things can happen in the background. The privacy of our colleagues' family members needs to be taken care of too. They may not want to be seen, or heard when inviting their loved ones to a delicious home-cooked dinner.

Where we come from, or face-to-face comms

Seeing each other, we can control our message much better. The tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures - all this non-verbal communication works wonders, even now that everything is computerized and automatic, and the machines will soon take our work away.

Albert Mehrabian has divided the message in interpersonal communication into three components: the content of speech, the tone of voice (volume, word intonation, pauses, tongue slips) and non-verbal communication. He coined the 7-38-55 rule - it represents the percentage of the components in communication:

- Only 7% is the content of speech!

- 38% is tone of voice

- 55% is non-verbal communication

As a tester, I feel this every day in my work - I have to tell my colleagues the bad news about something not working. I approach their desks with a heavy heart to tell them what is wrong. And although I have to interrupt someone, it is much easier for us to get along in this way. I am also 'blessed' with a pitifully silent voice, so I do much better in one-on-one contacts.

In addition, I don't like to slice things too thin when I write. I do write very synthetically, so for the person on the other end, talking to me via instant messaging is quite a task. That's why I value face-to-face contact over other forms of communication. However, I try my best to adapt to the current situation, when this type of contact is almost impossible. We all have to go with the flow somehow, so at least we're not alone in this. In a way.

What Agile says

And here it comes in, all in a virus protection suit - the mighty Agile. A software development methodology that's highly resistant to any plague. When they give you VPN tunnels, there's no mercy - you have to keep working, not in the same, proven way, but in dispersed teams. All of a sudden.

There are three degrees of dispersion when working remotely:

1) Remote development teams that work together, but are in a different location than the rest of the organization. In this case, product management is separated from product development - the product owner works in separation from the development team.

2) Remote team members working temporarily or permanently in physical separation from the rest of the team. This is a degree that is considered real remote work, which can be combined with type one. 

3) Fully remote team - we are at this stage. The most ambitious type in which we try to work as if nothing had happened, despite the fact that each of us is sitting in their own home.

We do not rule out the existence of other types, but now is not the time to look for them. Let's look at how a remote team can work according to the Agile Manifesto - after all, it values people and interactions over processes and tools, and in the current situation interactions should be kept to a minimum.

Theory is theory, life is life

My team is doing great, to say the least. Everyone is able to mobilize themselves to show up every day on Skype, and in the heat of everyday hustle and bustle, we also use Rocket chat. E-mails? Only when needed. But how do we manage to run sprint reviews, retrospectives or planning? It's very hard to imagine these meetings in isolation from the team, and yet it would be good if they were held on schedule and without unnecessary interruption.

Here tools like Cisco Webex Meetings and Parabol prove to be helpful. Due to the current situation, Cisco has generously expanded its offer for free accounts and offers a free business license for 90 days.

We successfully use this program during team meetings. But what about the retrospective, you might ask, after all, such a meeting requires a little more than sharing a screen and a chat to share thoughts. There’s an amazing tool, created for this occasion - Parabol. It allows you to simulate the exercises that appear during the retrospective, but also to create your own variants. Without any problem, many participants can do them at once, and then everyone gets an e-mail with a summary of the meeting. This is a very interesting tool that has successfully replaced the traditional whiteboard, cards and markers in this difficult time. During planning, in turn, we can use virtual equivalents of cards for the Planning Poker.

Where we’re going to, or let's make the remote stick

Despite the fact that we suddenly found ourselves in the new reality of working from home, we are doing quite well. Our experience in working with a foreign client has prepared us for the current circumstances, and a wide range of tools allows us to communicate and maintain continuity of work despite the fact that we do not see each other. This has its disadvantages, mainly because we are used to face-to-face meetings. However, I think that over time we will gain experience to communicate almost as well as in person-to-person. After all, responding to change is part of the famous Agile Manifesto, and the changes that have affected us are quite considerable.

You could say that fear makes things look twice as bad as they are, because working remotely has turned out to be quite a pleasant experience. I don't see any special difference with or without face-to-face. I keep doing my tasks, meetings are held on schedule, only I don't have to turn up with make-up on, because we don't use cameras. We were afraid of the great Frankenstein monster, a cluster of elements created separately in private laboratories by crazy scientists, and it turned out to be no scarier than the one created under one roof. I can see it perfectly well - as a tester I look into his eyes, teeth and wherever I can.

We just have to relax and get used to it. It may even be difficult for us to return to the old habits of working together in one place when the situation finally normalizes. It remains for us to wish each other lots of health and patience.

Karolina Sujecka
Junior Software Quality Control Engineer, Comarch

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