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Solutions To Common Remote Work Issues During COVID

Two of the clients I have been working with this week have interestingly similar issues, despite being in radically different industries. One client is military, a strategy group rather than a warfighting force. The other is a major player in the healthcare industry. 

They are both struggling with the same thing we all are, the switch to the world of remote working. 

These clients are both known for their innovation, creativity, and vision. And I want to share some solutions they have found to common work issues in the time of COVID. 

When The Workday Includes Kids And Distance Learning

Efforts to contain the spread of Coronavirus have shuttered whole cities, states, and even countries. Schools across the globe have sent students home with the expectation that lessons will continue online.

My wife and I are wrestling with this ourselves. 

We have two young children at home. We both work. This week we have somehow drifted back into the traditional gender roles of previous generations. She is doing the bulk of child care while I’m locked in my office all day. Besides being incredibly unfair, this also makes her miserable because she feels she’s now doing a poor job as both a parent and professional. So next week, we are going to try an approach I learned from our healthcare client. 

I find their approach amazingly transparent and productive. They began by labeling this sudden need for their members to also be partial teachers and full-time parents as an impediment. They crushed it by allowing members with kids to set or change the team schedule. 

For example, if someone puts ‘kid stuff’ from 8-9 am on the calendar then no team meetings or Scrum events are scheduled for that time. The Team Members without childcare adjust their workflow to match. And for Scrum teams, parents adjusted capacity to allow for this shift.

Our military client took a similar approach. They saw parents needed more time in the middle of the day for childcare. So they insisted those team members take a 2-hour break instead of 1. Simple fix. It took a lot of pressure off of the parents and the team stayed focused on the task at hand. 

I’m inspired by both of these moves. Realizing the work-life balance has gone through a tectonic change isn’t easy even though it’s all around us. And both of these can add more to the plates of non-parents. But to see teams bond together and have each other’s backs - that is amazing.  

Surviving An Avalanche Of Meetings

As soon as work from home became the norm, both of these clients noticed an unexpected increase in the number of meetings they had to attend. There was a lot of talking about what work needed to be done, would be done, should be done. And after all that talking was done, there was no time to actually do it. 

My colleague, Matt Jacobs, shared an approach that had an immediate impact: all meetings are now working sessions. Something tangible must come out of each meeting that demonstrably advances the team towards an outcome. A document, plan, or a pitch deck. Whatever it is, meetings are now collaborative creation sessions in which solutions are built. 

To help create this mindset, the task at hand and a definition of done are laid out at the beginning of the meeting. The attendees begin with a quick discussion to ensure everyone is on the same page about what needs to be accomplished, and then they roll up their sleeves and get at it. This approach ensures every meeting materially advances a priority. 

Another way to deal with this is to create regular meeting-free time. I’ve started to block my calendar for dedicated heads-down work. Because the same thing was happening to me, meeting after meeting. 

Who Is Working On What?

Our military client is having problems with clear roles, responsibilities, and accountability. Not at the team level, mind you, but across the organization.

Multiple teams were working on the same thing without realizing it. Clearly a huge waste. Worse yet, it created rework because the work done wasn’t quite right and did not meet expectations. 

This seems to be happening to everyone as we adjust to what is being called the new normal.

To me, it sounded like they didn’t have a good, clear, and accessible backlog and work wasn’t visible. Which makes sense now that they can’t simply walk over to their colleagues to see what is going on. The need to call or email someone creates a real barrier to communication.

Alignment requires more discipline in virtual work environments. It also requires direct communication. 

And something more. Have a Scaled Daily Scrum, or call it something else. The name doesn’t matter. What does matter is having a focused conversation about who is working on what will make a huge difference. 

When Other Teams Are Slowing You Down

Our military client is one of the first Agile teams. They were seven sprints in when they suddenly all had to work from home. 

It wasn’t easy, of course, but the structure and rhythm of Scrum allowed them to make the switch in 24 hours and keep projects on track. The real problem, one leader said, was the other parts of the organization, the parts that aren’t Agile.. 

As a result, this group of teams is going so much faster than anyone else that they became blocked by needing critical input from non-Agile Teams. Teams who are still reeling from the shift.

Understandably, the Agile teams are incredibly frustrated. 

Another colleague of mine, Alex Sheive, told them what we tell any Team with external dependencies: Write the story so that the definition of done stops at the dependency. This Team has done their part and passed it on to another Team, or has requested something from a different group. Just submitting the work or making the request is when the story is Done. When it comes back, you start a new story that captures the rest of the work needed to finish it. 

Individual teams may not be able to solve for a dependency. This at least lets you build a backlog that accounts for them so you minimize how much they will slow you down. 

The Toughest Question

I spent the bulk of this blog talking about two particular clients. I want to step away from them to address a question I’ve heard from people across the globe this week.

Does my work have any value at all? 

Meaningful work is one of the primary motivators of humans. Working on something seemingly unimportant, unrelated to the crisis engulfing at all can seem pointless. Demoralizing. 

I always say the same thing in reply. Pandemics end. Crises end. The world may be shaped differently on the other side, but it does pass.

It is incredibly important for people to be thinking about how they want to shape that future. It’s not enough for you to just survive. You can come out of it stronger. To not only be resilient but to be better. 

Perhaps after this pandemic, we will have better ways of incorporating the demands of parenting into our corporate lives. Perhaps “meeting” will come to mean a powerful collaboration of minds, rather than a waste of them. What is happening is unprecedented in modern history. Ask yourself, what can we learn from what we are living through?

As we’ve all learned these past few weeks, the final value of the Agile Manifesto seems very apt right now. Respond to change over following a plan.