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How I work remotely in an agile team

4-minute read

Egils Muzis

Egils Muzis

30 May 2014

Approximate reading time: less than 5 minutes

At Simply Business we work in extremely tight agile teams with a culture for free-flowing communication. This leads towards the ideal of everybody working together under the same roof in order to eliminate any barriers to communication. I myself have worked on-site since I started at Simply Business, however since we had a new arrival in my family a year ago I have been working 1040 miles away in Latvia yet seamlessly integrated into the team.

How have I plugged myself into the tightly-knit teams so successfully? Here are some of the lessons and tips I've learned along the way, which can hopefully be used by other individuals and teams working remotely around the globe.

I am from Riga, the capital city of Latvia. When we had the new arrival to our family, I moved back home so that I would have my family near to help out. Riga has a long history and was known as the trade capital for the Vikings in the Middle Ages and is more than 800 years old. It is also known for it’s beautiful countryside - another perk of working from here!

The Workday

Over in Latvia I am 2 hours ahead of London, which means my workday starts at 10:00 and ends at 19:00. You'd think that having the extra two hours in the morning would be great, but I have to admit that it is challenging sacrificing that free time in the evening. The saving grace, of course, is not having to commute at all.

At 09:50 GMT every day our team has a stand-up meeting. I join this meeting each morning via Google Hangouts. It sounds funny, but for this meeting someone holds a laptop up at eye level so that I can more naturally join the meeting as if I'm one of the standing members.

When the standup is finished, I remain 'always on' with video in the office so that it's easy to chat with people and feel present in the office. It's worth being aware that Google Hangouts currently has a timeout, so if no direct interaction occurs it will hang up. It used to be 20 minutes which made things really difficult, but is now fine with 4 hours before timeout. For meetings, whether it's a team meeting or an all-company announcement, a laptop is taken into the meeting with my video stream, which works well for me to be a part of that meeting.

My Setup

I've made one of the rooms in my apartment into an office. I've done this to keep myself out of the way of the day-to-day bustle of the home, and having an isolated work room allows me to focus much better.

I like to keep a fairly basic setup - a 15” Macbook Pro, a Philips UltraWide 29” monitor and a headset. 95% of the time I work from my apartment, however working remotely gives me the flexibility to visit far-away family members and I can work from their home. Being able to spend so much time with family is, for me, by far the biggest benefit of remote working.

The Technology

In addition to the always-on video connection & Google Hangout chats for individual teams, the majority of the tech team communicate with each other using Propane over Campfire. This setup is quite similar to using Hipchat which is a also good alternative for continuous team communication. One of the members in our Campfire chat rooms is 'SimplyBot' (post on this coming soon); our own flavour of Hubot which, alongside the usual Hubot comedy commands, allows us to do specific things like see the current deployment queue, request to join the queue to make a production deployment, or to see currently open GitHub pull requests.

Within our teams, we regularly code in pairs and have found the best tool for doing this, particularly for remote working is Screenhero. It's still in beta at the moment, but it works well for our needs.

5 tips for successful remote working

In the year that I have been working remotely, here are the five most important tips that I have learned:

  1. Use ongoing video chat to maintain the sense of being in the team. It can become quite difficult to work a whole day without speaking to any of your colleagues.
  2. Set an alarm to remind you to leave your chair and take a break, even if just to make tea. Working alone you really easily find yourself working longer and with less breaks which can quickly lead to burnout.
  3. Work on-site at least every 2-3 months where possible. Whilst today's video communication technology is great, nothing can replace re-connecting with the team in person.
  4. Exercise! Without the daily commute you end up less active overall and over time your cognitive abilities suffer due to lack of physical activity.
  5. Always have a backup means of connecting to the internet, such as being able to tether from your phone. If your primary internet connection goes down without a backup, you'll very quickly lose your tight integration with the team.

####About the author In my free time I like to play around with everything RC. Mostly it is electric powered airplanes, but starting to plan building a quadcopter with an first person view cam. Also I’m really excited about 3D printing and probably going to build or buy my own soon. It’s just amazing that you can make almost anything with it.

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