Episode 23: Forced Remote
A couple months ago, working remote was considered a perk by many employees and employers. While definitely gaining momentum, it was still considered a luxury for most companies, one they hadn’t totally figured out how to support at scale. But, times changed. Quickly.
On this episode, we talk with Elizabeth Wilson, our resident SAFe & Agile expert about the challenges and opportunities companies face as they are suddenly being forced apart to work remotely.
Elizabeth is interviewed by Andrew Powell, OST’s Application Development Practice Manager, who is far from a stranger when it comes to helping remote teams work together.
Be well and please reach out if we can help you navigate these challenging times.
Andrew Powell: Hey, everybody. We are recording today’s podcast from our homes, a place most of you are intimately familiar with right now. We find ourselves in an interesting time where we’re all sort of forced to adjust the ways we work together. So today, I’m talking with Elizabeth Wilson, our resident Agile expert, who is helping many of our clients navigate this new working world. We talk about Agile. We talk about tools and we talk about the human condition. We also talked a bit about the future what it looks like given this weird, weird time we’re in. I hope you’re taking care of yourself. Enjoy.
Andrew: So, Elizabeth Wilson, thanks for joining me.
Elizabeth Wilson: You’re welcome, Mr. Powell.
Andrew: It is a weird, weird world with running ourselves in, isn’t it?
Elizabeth: Sure is. It definitely is.
Andrew: I mean, I’m just going to speak to this first. I don’t think we’ve ever recorded at podcast where we were in different rooms. I have done a couple episodes of Ten Thousand Feet with you and we sat across from each other.
Elizabeth: Different rooms, miles apart.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah a lot has changed in our industry and in all industries in the last four weeks. How is that impacting you?
Elizabeth: We are definitely, from our team’s perspective, having to get very creative with how we handle all of our workshops and our team meetings just to have the field connection. Right? Like it’s all for the good but it has been a little bit of a struggle getting there.
Andrew: For sure, yeah. And I think what you’re dealing with and what we’re seeing in our industries is true everywhere. There has been this big shift as people move to their homes to try and accomplish their work. There has been this big shift in how we think about our work. Even in some cases, what is work? You’ve got family at home. You are juggling two full-time jobs plus two children. That has got to make you think through everything a little bit differently. Yeah?
Elizabeth: Yeah, definitely and thankfully, OST has been very helpful and supportive of everybody, especially families, on how we can modify our schedules. For instance, for our family, what we found is I block out my… an extended lunch, 11:30 to 1:30, and I’m not on online and with my kids. I’m feeding them lunch. We are going through as much of a lesson plan I can say that I can put together as a non-teacher, but to feel like I’m helping them. At least, connecting with them—not just in school time, even sometimes it’s just us hanging out so that they don’t feel like they are being, hate to say it but neglected because I’m in office. My husband is in his office and we’re working. We have full-time jobs that we’re maintaining.
Andrew: What you just said is so true and so real. Who would have guessed that one of the outcomes of people shifting their lives to do their work from home is that the people in their homes feel neglected.
Elizabeth: I know, right?
Andrew: Because you’re present, but you aren’t really present. You are present and focused on your work. You are present and distracted. I have been saying to my family, you know, the good news is I work from home now. So I’m always home. The bad news is I’m always working. Right? You got to figure out how you redraw those lines.
Elizabeth: Yep, exactly. Because you find yourself, you try to maybe work a little bit later, sometimes at night. But other times, just the exhaustion from the day of bouncing between parenthood, workhood, being supportive. By the time night gets, you also just need a mental break of everything.
Andrew: Sure sure. Yeah. Yeah, and I think sort of retooling how you think about what you do is exhausting work anyway. So you’re doing your job and taking care of your family and also rethinking how you do what you do in a way, that it should not surprise any of us that that’s exhausting.
Elizabeth: Right. Now, you know how the psychology of it works, right? You have an employer that’s very supportive of you having family first. But you as the person on the other end, you still want to do as much as you possibly can to continue to show your value in that OST or your employer is important to you and figuring out that right balance. You are not also, just to your point, never stop working because you want to continue to make sure that you’re filling whatever voids are there. Right? Like it’s a hard almost psychological balance to come through.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, you’re right on. There is a catch-22 there that your employer is being so good to you that you feel like you have to be good to your employer so that you’re worthy of it.
Andrew: Makes you feel like you are never doing enough, which is such a weird place to find ourselves in at this time when maybe the world has slowed down a little bit.
Andrew: Elizabeth, you hosted a round table. OST has done a few round tables just to help businesses think through what’s going on. You did a round table last week. What was your round table about?
Elizabeth: The title was “Slow Down to Speed Up,” which I know at first can probably kind of cause a little pause, but that was what we were intending. We were seeing a lot of companies just in conversations with our different clients or peers or friends that are working in the same environment right now that they are moving quickly to support their employees or team members to work remotely, or because of all the things that are happening with like stimulus packages or tooling that they did not have in place that they needed to. For instance, one company had e-signature on their road map. It was down the line, but right now, they definitely need it because it cannot have people in the office or customers coming in to do what they call like a wet signature, right? So just what we’re seeing though, is a lot of companies were kind of throwing out all their common practices of how they would work as a team to get work done efficiently and they were working in silos. They had dual efforts that were causing conflict because you have multiple people working on the same thing or you had key decision makers out of the loop until too late in the process. And so things were thrown out or started over, or now, there’s more work to be done because do offers were in place. And so that was what the premise of the conversation was.
Andrew: Sure. I wonder. Are you seeing that this last four weeks has had sort of a transformative impact on some of those businesses? I think through for us and for lots of businesses, you had to suddenly make those things that might have been on your road map like e-signatures or even remote collaboration—you had to find out how to do that now because now, it’s a business imperative. Four weeks ago, no one thought you could run your business without some degree of proximity. And here we’re saying, “you know what, proximity no longer matters. At least, for now, proximity doesn’t matter.” So what are you going to do? That has got to leave some businesses really wondering “How do I do what I need to do?”
Elizabeth: Yeah, we heard a lot of that and it was a mix of… Those that do work with me or know me, I very much focus on the Agile methodology and how that can improve efficiency, even when we aren’t in the state that we currently are in. But the audience that was at this round table was a mix of companies that follow Agile practices and those that are very unfamiliar even with that term.
So it’s interesting to actually hear how some companies that aren’t adopting that methodology right now—how this is helping them just figure out how to work collaboratively remote, regardless of what processes they have in place. So for one small nonprofit, they were finding unique ways to come up with fundraising videos or marketing tools from a remote perspective because one way that they would raise funds is a group of young ladies would put these videos together to music.
Well, with them not being very tech-heavy that became a very big challenge for them to do especially remote because normally it’s something that they will do together. But they have found ways and tools to do that to make it more accommodating for them to work together. But then, even there’s some companies on a larger scale that deal with hardware and firmware and they felt like they are at a standstill like, how are we going to test and be able to move that forward when we can’t go into the office or go to the manufacturing, get this updated hardware and firmware? So during this round table, just briefly, we just talked about that concept of building simulators. How can you build a simulator so the team could continue to move forward? And this is something that really that would be a good practice to have outside of this quarantine, right? Like being able to empower the team to move forward even if they can’t get their hands on the latest firmware or hardware.
Andrew: That’s fantastic. This is the sort of transformation, that for a lot of businesses they knew they needed to make but they could not figure out how and—I feel uncomfortable saying this—now they’re being forced to figure out how. Which is actually a great thing for them and their business.
Andrew: Even though, against the backdrop of you know of a pandemic of literally millions of people trying to figure out how they work from home.
Andrew: So, Elizabeth I originally thought we should talk because I know you have got a lot of experience with agile tools. How much of sort of the agile toolkit do you see adapting naturally to distributed workforce like the world has now?
Elizabeth: Definitely seeing a lot of tools that we were using. I could say more on an ad hoc basis beforehand and now we’re realizing they are a necessity to how we work and they’re going to become a necessity even when we’re out of this quarantine state. Some of those tools have been—well, Zoom, what we’re using today to do our podcast, right? This is a tool that has some controversy around some of its aspects in regards to security and such. But on the other side, it has this breakout session feature that was extremely helpful when I was in a two and a half day remote planning session with a client. And it enabled me to assign people into breakout rooms and I could basically feel like I was teleporting between each of the rooms which in and itself was fun.
Andrew: That’s cool.
But the teams were able to work in a separate sessions and then we can pull them back all together in the main session and during that also, the other tool that was great was Miro. I know a lot of our design peers use that on a daily basis and it’s not something that I have dabbled in but now, it’s something that I can’t imagine working without even outside of us. It is basically a workshop tool that allows you to move post-its around, do wireframing, mock-ups, whatever you need to do. And actually, Maria and Bethany from our design team were sharing how using it via an iPad with an iPad pencil and doing quick concept work during an online meeting like maybe you’re connected to Zoom and you’re sharing what you’re doing in Miro on your iPad. She was able to draw out a concept for a client very quickly and show it to them just as if they were in a room together. So just how quickly we’ve developed or found these tools that we can piece together to make a wholistic, I guess, approach on how we handle these gatherings has been crazy how fast we’ve done it. Really. I mean, there’s other tools too but…
Andrew: Yeah, but I hear what you’re saying is it’s a fascinating thing to me because these aren’t new tools. Zoom has been around for literally years. Miro is not new. These are free tools that were already in our tool sets that we did not realize how valuable they were.
Andrew: We had to rethink how we do what we do. You know, I hesitate to give a quick shout-out, but for those who are listening who are actually trying to track down some of the tools we are talking about: Zoom, Zoom.us, freely available to anyone. The basic Zoom for forty-minute meetings costs nothing. Miro, I think, is similarly structured. You can get a Miro account for next to nothing. If you want to do some whiteboarding or play around with some of the post-it, note drag and dropping. So you can get started with a very low barrier to entry too.
Elizabeth: Yes. Now, even tools like Trello, right? That’s a free tool and that’s great for just managing work and being able to share what your team is focused on. A lot of times, we use it in agile for high-level Kanban board, right? What is in your backlog? What are you working on? What is done? But you can structure it any way. We even use it personally at home when we have projects. Now, probably not to pull it out, too, just as we manage things with the kids. We will use it for we what we call Wilson project board. Things we want to get done around house, I know we’ve used in the past, too, and how we assign projects to individuals and it’s a free tool and you can have as many boards as you want and I think that’s a down and dirty way to get through setting up an Agile team or any kind of project with tasks.
Andrew: So, your work is changing. My work is changing. Everybody’s work is changing. The other thing I wanted your perspective on, Elizabeth, is we’ve always had some people in our teams and most teams who were remote, who were the one who was always calling into the meeting, the one who is always on the speakerphone or always on the WebEx instead of actually being in the room. How do you think our attitude towards those people has shifted now that we’re also one?
Elizabeth: I think it will be that they will not be those people anymore. Right? We all have that empathy towards them of what they were working through to be a part of the team. And now we’re all finding ways that we can be more integrated and work as a team no matter what our circumstances what environment we’re working within or sitting within. I think we’ll all be a lot less frustrated when we’re sitting in a room or even in separate rooms and somebody is having technical issues. We all are giving a lot of passes right now as we’re working through that because we know everybody is doing the best they can and making the most of it.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, you’re spot on. You are spot on. We are all the one now.
Andrew: We suddenly understand the frustration and, you know, the unhappiness. No, that’s the wrong word. But we all understand that sort of sense that “I wish this was easier than it is,” in those moments where it isn’t easy and we overlook the fact that most of the time, this is actually super easy, super well-thought out technology that mostly works. It will make it a lot easier for us to be empathetic going forward. I think you’re right.
Elizabeth: Yes, agreed.
Andrew: So, Elizabeth, in addition to being OST’s resident SAFe Agile Expert, you’re also a manager of people. How is that going? How is that new world where you’re managing people with the way different than say the way a lot of us are taught to manage which is by walking around. You can’t just walk past them and have informal conversations. You have to be intentional. How is that impacting how you do what you do?
Elizabeth: That’s interesting. And personally, I’m an introvert hidden in an extrovert. I don’t have the energy working with people and seeing people, but it also could be draining to me. So while we’re in quarantine while there’s a part of me that loves that I can be stuck in my house and that’s okay because that’s what needs to be done. But the other part I still crave the interaction with people and what we’ve done is we’ve been very purposeful so that we don’t start to go hide in our corners and be comfortable and good with that. We have a daily stand-up. So every morning, we get together for fifteen minutes regardless of if we have a topic or not, and on top of that we still have team meetings every other week where it’s an extended amount of time to cover more in depth topics. We will do a team happy hour every so often. Well, we actually did one last night actually just for like forty-five minutes. Just nobody had talked about work. It is just how are you doing like what restaurants have you tried? What delivery services have worked for you? What wine have you ordered? You know, it was just real casual—how are you surviving during this time and what are your tips and tricks, basically. But we’re eating our own cupcakes since we changed it not to eating our own dog food and we’re making sure that we’re over-communicating and pulling each other in when we need to get other opinions, like we aren’t trying to just stay in our own shell so to speak.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s weird how much more connected you can feel in this period of time where we’re actually physically less connected because now it’s intentional and now you’re working at it. And now you’re seeking it out in a way that maybe was not true before. We are also eating our own cupcakes meaning I have made cupcakes twice in the last four weeks and I made cookies three times. I made my second cake last night in the last two weeks. I feel like there’s a lot of eating going on. Maybe that’s another coping mechanism for me. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m doing a lot of eating.
Elizabeth: Nope. We’ve done a lot of baking at this household too.
Andrew: Yeah, fills the house with delicious smells.
Elizabeth: It does.
Andrew: That’s good. Makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.
So let’s circle around and sort of talk about how you think this changes the future. Do you think what is going on right now will profoundly impact the way you do your work or the way businesses do their work on the other side of this when we essentially quote “Go back to normal,” and walk out of our houses and actually stand near someone again?
Elizabeth: I do. Even clients that I’ve worked with in the past that have been very much—they want to see faces at their desks everyday, even if they are working in an Agile environment and the times that we’re dealing with right now are forcing them into a remote work environment, which is only going to make that company stronger and better after this. Because what are they going to do? They’re probably going to start to be more open-minded about how there’s other ways that people can be functioning and high-delivery, even if they aren’t sitting in the same room with you and that there’s tools in place that will help accommodate that. If somebody is slightly under the weather, but they can still, you know, they still want to work they can do that from the comfort of their home and still be an active participant in all the key meetings you have that day, or hitting any of the delivery dates you have. So I think from one it’s going to be a huge cultural shift for a lot of companies, which will be very positive for them.
And I do think which as I was sitting here thinking, one thing that I think that will be different that you might not expect is phone calls. I think people are going to pick up the phone more after this than they did before this. A lot of times we would find comfort in just shooting over an email with what we needed, what we needed to ask. If it was a challenging topic, let’s get it in email and send it over. But as we all know there’s a lot of tone that can be read into that unnecessarily. It could be misconstrued. And in this time, I think people are finding that having those personal phone calls not just even video conferencing, right? But having a conversation with a person is necessary and needed and has a lot of value even maybe more so than it did prior to this. And when I kind of was thinking about that, it kind of caught me off guard because in your mind, you think we will know we’ll just be digital. We’ll be using Slack, we’ll be using teams more, email, but I do think that the phone conversation—an actual conversation with a person, whether it’s face-to-face or not, is going to increase as well.
Andrew: Yeah, and that’s great. That can only have positive impacts on our ability to effectively communicate. We are really developing some new communication skills here, not just you and I, but across our business and across all businesses as we figure out what is important and how to express what is important in a meaningful and powerful way. I was talking to someone the other day who was talking about how they never checked their email from home, which I know seems crazy to you and I because we have phones and computers and we’re working all the time. And just being able to have access to your email at home changes your ability to think about how you do what you do. You talked a minute ago about when someone’s sick and do they feel that pressure to come to the office because that’s what they have to do because their bosses or their business expects people in seats?
I wonder how much of that shifts, how much of the new order is… We have discovered… We, business owners in the world, have discovered that their businesses can run giving their employees a little more trust than they used to feel comfortable giving them. And that’s profound too. That’s going to have a long tail on our industry and in on the future of work.
Andrew: So let me switch gears just a little bit and ask you about this. So you’re at home with your whole family—
Andrew: What are you doing to keep yourself socially active? Are you–are you playing games with your family? Are you trying to use new tools to express how you enjoy what you do? Are you doing things beyond happy hours with your coworkers? What are you doing to keep yourself fit and functional in the world?
Elizabeth: Yeah. So we have a lot of game nights. So we flow between movie or a game night and our whole living room has been changed. It is a portable movie theater. Our daughter will rearrange it so that popcorn can be made and all the chairs can be facing the TV. We played a lot of Jenga, a lot of puzzle making. Whenever the sun pops out, we make sure that we go do an extended walk to the mailbox. Do a few laps and stretch your legs. And the great thing, too, is we’re seeing additional creativity from our kids. Like they are building stuff together everyday like whether it’s forts inside the house or now, they are actually creating a hideout in this little batch of woods that we have in our backyard. They create whatever they can with all the pieces of wood and branches. They are pulling out of the garage and in the woods, but it’s been interesting. I mean, these kids, when they come out of this, are going to be different in a good way.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that’s fantastic, too. I remember building forts in the woods behind my house when I was a kid. It is good that we’ve found time to create those opportunities now. It is so weird to me how much good stuff is happening right now in this world where the constant news cycle is about, you know, about a pandemic and about people being sheltered in their homes and about life being inexorably altered at least for the short term. It is amazing to me when I lift my head up just to look at all the fantastic things that are happening in terms of how people connect and how we do our work and how we move our lives forward. It’s reminded me how amazing humans are.
Elizabeth: Agreed, a hundred percent.
Andrew: So we like to wrap up the podcast by talking about what game you’re currently playing. Is it Jenga? Do you have another one?
Elizabeth: Monopoly is another crowd favorite in our household.
Andrew: Monopoly. How do you play Monopoly with your husband and kids and not find halfway through the game someone is flipping the table every time? Is that just at my house where we flip the table and storm out of the room?
Elizabeth: My son did that once. He did not flip the table, but he did get pretty mad and went and sat by the couch for about three minutes and then slowly move, meandered his way back to the table.
Andrew: In my house, we actually, this isn’t even a joke, we have a no-Risk rule. We aren’t allowed to play the game Risk in my house because invariably someone gets mad for like three days and/or flips the table.
Elizabeth: That is so funny. Well, the great thing is Monopoly has so many variations. They have the kids version. So it’s only dollar bills so they can actually each count their own money and because they are four and seven so they can add things up, figure out how to sell/buy on their own. So it’s not like we’re doing everything for them. We are actually each independently playing against each other and we don’t give away any trophies in this household. You have got to legitimately win.
Andrew: Oh, there you go. There you go. You are building strong future leaders.
Elizabeth: That is the goal.
Andrew: Well, Elizabeth, I’m so appreciative that you took some time out of your very busy schedule to do a Zoom meeting with me and so appreciative that we got a chance to talk about these things that you’re dealing with and I’m dealing with and literally, every American is dealing with. Everyone, every global citizen, is dealing with some aspect of rethinking how we do what we do and I believe if we keep talking and we keep working at it, we’re building a profoundly different and more powerful future and that excites me.
Elizabeth: No, thanks for the discussion. I think every time, we are collective groups and have these conversations, we all learned something new and our empathy grows for each other and the different things that each person is up against.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s so easy to see. No, let me restate that. It is so powerful to see how much more empathy we find in these moments where we’re suddenly seeing new lenses in looking at the world differently than we’ve been trapped and seeing it.
Lizzie Williams: OST, changing how the world connects together. For more information, go to ostusa.com/podcast.