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Work in the Time of Corona*

Submitted by Sean Robertson on Mon, 03/23/2020 - 16:05

Like many people across the country, my husband and I have been stuck at home for a bit with no end in sight. My husband actually works in a job that typically would not be conducent to remote work (transit scheduling) but has largely been able to make it work, albeit with a good number of workarounds for inaccessible systems, etc. It has been very interesting to watch non-tech jobs find ways to make that work.

Those of us in technology, especially open source web development, are no stranger to the complexities of remote work. Even if we aren't normally permitted to do so for our day jobs for various reasons, many of us work on the side on OSS projects which are by definition purely remote. We're used to Slack (or for the gray-beards among us, IRC), Zoom, and other online collaborative tools. I myself have worked remote on two different jobs, including one before we even had most of these fantastic tools, but we managed to make it work with email, AIM chat, and phone calls (can you believe that?). The other one had full advantage of all of the modern collaborative tools and was obviously a lot smoother.

I think the current crisis presents those of us with experience a unique opportunity. We now have a wealth of experience and technical knowledge that we can share with those around us who do not (as I have with my husband). I hope that we can view this, in spite of the chaos, as an opportunity to make the workplace more collaborative, humane, and resilient in the face of future crises. I would like to share here some tools and techniques that have worked well in my work and my observations of coping mechanisms employed by others outside of the tech space.

Communication

I list communication first because it is the most critical piece. Communication is always important in any job, but it takes on an order of magnitude greater urgency when people are not in the same physical space together. When you can't just drop by someone's desk with a quick question, it becomes all the more important to maintain open lines of contact online.

  • Daily standups - the idea here is a quick team meeting (emphasis on quick) that essentially consists of a quick round of individual status updates. Each participant should state what they did the previous day, what they are working on today, and briefly any issues they are having (these can be addressed by only the people who need to be involved after the standup has ended). Ideally these meetings should be held near the start of the business day, but giving people enough time to catch up on email and remember where they left off.
  • Zoom - Zoom is a video conference service that allows teams to conduct video meetings. This is a perfect tool to use for standups as well as any ad-hoc meetings you may need to call. It provides the standard features including screen sharing. There are mobile apps for both Android and iOS, including tablet versions. Note that the free version limits meetings to 40 minutes in length (shorter meetings are better anyway!). https://zoom.us
  • Slack - Slack is essentially a hosted group chat service for organizations. There is a free version of the service that will retain a history of up to ten thousand messages (IIRC). You can create separate channels for different teams or even at a project-specific level within a team (it's completely arbitrary) and they can be public across the organization or invite only if you want to restrict just to those on a given project. https://slack.com
  • Trello - Trello is an easy-to-use task management tool for teams. In the free version, you can create up to ten project boards. These boards can have as many lists (columns) as you want, a common scenario being "To do", "In progress", "In review", and "Done". As tasks are added to the To do list and assigned to users, the tasks can be dragged from list to list as they progress. Tasks can also be commented on so the conversation can continue throughout the day on an item-by-item basis. One of the great things about Trello is it has Android and iOS apps as well, so you can continue checking and commenting on things even when you're away from your computer. https://trello.com

File Sharing/Collaborative Editing

  • Google Drive - Drive is the most obvious one if you have access to it in your business. Most smaller businesses and even some medium-sized businesses use it by default now already and the collaboration features have only gotten better in recent years. I've worked on massive year-long projects across multiple teams, even including the client in the collaborative process with ease. It has many of the same features as MS Word, like tracking changes and commenting on parts of the document (including the ability to assign things to people), and of course, being web based, updates in real time. Personally, I recommend using Chrome as your browser with Drive, but of course the others will work as well. There is also work offline functionality where it will push your changes up once you regain an internet connection, though this can cause significant hiccups when multiple people are in the same part of a document simultaneously.
  • Dropbox - Dropbox is the industry standard file sharing service. The free version supports up to 2GB of storage, while the next plan up, Plus, supports 2TB for $9.99/month. If you work with larger files that can't be sent via email (images, Photoshop documents, etc), this is essential. One of my favorite features is the ability to sync across multiple computers and devices using the same account. I keep all of my active client stuff in Dropbox and have the iOS app, so even when I'm outside, I can quickly share a dropbox link with someone from my phone. https://dropbox.com

Managing Distractions

  • Children - Since we're all stuck in the same homes together with schools and businesses both being closed, parents of younger children face particular challenges, especially during meetings and the like. One suggestion I've seen is that if both parents are working at home, stagger meetings so that one can be keeping an eye on the kids while the other one has a quiet space for their meeting. Another thing that came across my radar was this excellent resource from Axios of free content to keep kids occupied

It's Not a Vacation

It is easy to become complacent sitting at home all day, but remember, the most important thing you can do is stick to your usual routine. Get up at the same time (though maybe subtracting the commute time), and stick to your work schedule as much as you possibly can. Resist the urge to work from the couch in your pajamas - you'll be much more productive if you start the day as though you are going to the office, and if you can, set aside a space in your home dedicated to work, even if it's just an alcove or corner in a room. That mental separation is very important as it places your mind in the appropriate context. As always, stay focused.

Obviously, many people also have kids stuck at home with them, and I think everyone is pretty understanding of that, but you need to clearly communicate with coworkers and clients your situation (again, it always comes down to communication). I am not, nor have I ever been (or will be) a parent, so I can't fathom the myriad difficulties around that, but I do know many parents in the tech space who have worked around many of them. Sometimes a kid popping up in the background of a standup can even give folks a much needed laugh. If you need to shuffle your schedule for reasons beyond your control, by all means, do so, but do it in the same way you would in the office and keep everyone in the loop.

Conclusion

We're in it for the long haul, but we now have the tools and experience at our fingertips to do it. A mere ten or fifteen years ago, much of this wouldn't even have been possible. I was only able to do it fifteen years ago with serious determination and a very constructive and understanding boss who himself frequently worked from home (shout-out to Chris, who is the best boss I ever had!). Keep your head up and stay focused - not just on your work, but also on the opportunities this situation gives you: losing that commute give you more time with your family, or time to work on pet projects outside of work, or anything else you can think of.

I will continue to update this post with more resources as I think of them.

Side Note

It is not just people working from home that are taking advantage of these tools. It has come to my attention that PIX11 News in New York City ran a story that local AA meetings have moved to Zoom for virtual meetings in the face of bans on even small gatherings of people (precluding physical meetings, some of which would normally have as many as a hundred people in attendance). I'm sure there are many more such creative examples out there. If you know of others, please reach out to me via the contact form in the main menu.

* Shamelessly paraphrased from the title "Love in the Time of Cholera"