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Mitigating Drawbacks of being Remote

By Anita Jorgensen

There are many well-known benefits to being a remote engineer:

  • location flexibility
  • not having to wear pants to work
  • having a cat attend your stand-ups

But, I want to talk about the drawbacks of being remote, and how we at Appian have been working to overcome them.

Lonely. Lonely, I’m Mr. (or Ms.) Lonely

Working has always been a very social experience for me. My first year at Appian I was a part of a lunch club, I grabbed coffee with people in the afternoon, and went on walks if I needed time away from my screen. The very thought of transitioning to being remote was daunting.

Thankfully, working remote for Appian has been a great experience and one of the many reasons I stay.

Here are a couple examples of technologies and concepts that we, as a department, use in order to make the remote experience great (and social) for everyone — regardless if they are working from home for the day, or working entirely on the other side of the country.

Conversation

The Engineering Department uses HipChat (Edit: We now use Mattermost). This allows all squads, individuals, guilds, etc., to have their own chat rooms where anyone in the department can drop in and ask a question if needed. This not only builds a stronger sense of community within the squad, it also enables knowledge sharing; we encourage everyone to ask questions to the squad rooms, instead of individuals, in order to reduce the same questions being asked of only one person repeatedly.

Video

We use video chat so we can see each other while we work. Throughout the day we grab an appear.in room to use whenever we need to have a conversation. Asking for a quick face-to-face meeting helps keep everyone on the same page. It also helps team mates become and continue to be more comfortable with each other as certain nuances do not translate well through text.

Pair Programming

We use pairing to our advantage at Appian. Not only is this a great way to knowledge share, it allows for team members to get to know each other. It’s a practice we use even when either (or both) are remote. We have found ScreenHero to give us the best experience with remote pairing so far (Edit: We have switched to using Use Together since ScreenHero was bought by Slack).

Syncing Sessions

For remote employees, working onsite from headquarters for a week or two a year is highly beneficial to getting to know new engineers and reconnecting with ones you already know. These “Syncing Sessions” allow for engineers to re-sync in person with their team and the department.

Appian reimburses the expenses associated with coming back to our headquarters for these sessions as they would for any business trip — travel, lodging (hotel or set daily amount if you stay with family/friends), and food.

Participation

We encourage participation in Guilds. Guilds are groups that meet regularly during work hours to accomplish a goal outside of our normal development goals. They can be about anything Appian Engineering related: Community, Appian Education, Clean Code, Find Bugs, etc.

Feeling Like a Second-Class Employee

If your department is mostly on premise, it may feel like they forget about you at times. For me, the absolute worst meetings are ones where I need to interrupt constantly in order to be heard. Being forgotten means that every meeting is like that.

In order to lessen this feeling of exclusion, our onsite employees are the key to making sure we’re a part of the meetings.

Large Meetings

For large meetings where sound does not carry well, we have the speaker repeat any questions asked in the room. The person running the meeting is responsible for making sure everyone can hear the speaker, whether the attendee is in the room or on the other side of the country. Never be afraid to interrupt or contact someone in the meeting if you cannot hear or if there are technical difficulties (i.e. the sound and/or video goes out, the presenter is sharing the incorrect screen, etc.).

Smaller Meetings

For smaller meetings we use Hangouts with Chromeboxes in our meeting rooms. This allows for remote attendees to see everyone even if attendees are sharing their screen. This alone makes it easier to join in the conversation without feeling like you are interrupting.

Smallest Meetings

For squad specific meetings, we use what works best given the current situation. The point is to always be flexible. For quick discussions we tend to grab one of our open appear.in rooms.

Any Size Meeting/Daily Work

The big thing to remember is to always be seen and heard. If possible, have someone else share their screen during meetings so everyone can see your face. It is difficult to forget about someone if their face is plastered on the big screen TV.

The key aspect we remember in order to completely destroy the feeling of being second class, is that remote employees are as much a part of the team/department/meeting as onsite employees.

Ok but what about ACTUAL work?

It’s hard to be Agile and Remote

One of the big key practices of being Agile is the visibility of your work. Agile tends to be a big fan of sticky notes and whiteboards, neither of which work for remote employees. Instead of sticky notes for tracking our backlog, we use JIRA.

For our daily standup we use a google doc to keep track of our goal for the day. Everyone on a squad, no matter where they are located or what time of day it is, has access to the most up-to-date Sprint information.

IT is too far away if a hardware malfunction occurs!

Every engineer’s worst nightmare: you wake up refreshed and ready to tackle any and all challenges work could possibly throw your way. Or so you thought until you turned on your laptop and can’t get it to turn on/log in/load applications/etc. What do you do if IT is on the other side of the country?

Have a backup plan. Here is mine:

  • Create a IT support ticket. I can do this from any computer or the Appian App on my phone.
  • Contact the team and let them know of the issue.
  • Have a backup computer available. This will make meetings, pairing, and general work easier.
  • Contact the meeting owner of any meetings I am required to attend on that day and ask for them to add a phone number to the Hangout/WebEx. I also use the appear.in app if the meeting is team specific or short.
  • My backup has ScreenHero (Edit: Use Together) installed. I can pair as the Navigator even if I do not have access to my work laptop. If your backup does not have a mic have your partner call you instead.
  • My backup also has the VPN client installed so that I can login and access work sites: JIRA, Appian, etc. This allows me to do non-coding related work: backlog/ticket grooming, presentation prep, code reviews, etc.
  • Striving for the Best Work Experience

    We want the best work experience for all of our engineers regardless of their location.

    Hardware

    Appian provides all of the same hardware to remote engineers as the onsite ones: laptop, docking station, and two monitors. Just because you go remote, does not mean you need to suffer through life with only a laptop.

    We also provide high-quality headphones to anyone that needs them. These are essential for teams with remote engineers. They help to cancel out background noise and make communication much easier for meetings/pairing.

    Flexible Work Location

    You don’t have to live on the other side of the country to work remote at Appian. We encourage employees in the area to work semi-remote (i.e. working from home a couple days a week) if it makes sense in their circumstances: long commute, reoccurring personal commitment, etc.

    Proximity to HQ should not affect how much you enjoy and are effective at your job. At Appian, it doesn’t.


    Mitigating Drawbacks of being Remote was originally published in Appian Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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    Published on Nov 7, 2016

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