Working from home – remote teams and culture at Zuhlke Manchester

Working from home - blog series about working, hiring and leading from home

Nine months ago, Covid has changed our home and work life drastically and imposed new challenges on all of us. At Zuhlke, we have been blessed that our business kept thriving despite the recession, which allowed us to further grow our teams. Our Manchester team in particular has seen unprecedented growth this year, going from 8 employees to 27. Two Software Engineers discuss the challenges of working and growing a team remotely:

Ioana joined in January 2020 and witnessed the transition to working from home quite soon after she started.

Eadred joined in 2015 as one of the first local employees, and is the most tenured engineer in our Manchester team.


Working from home – are you a fan?  

Ioana: I'm definitely a fan. I enjoy the lack of a commute. I think some people like using that as a headspace, but for me it was just hurrying to the train station, waiting for a train that I could actually get on, and then being sardined. Now I just have to roll out of bed, get ready for work and that's it. I miss people though I have to say.  

Eadred: Yeah, I'd say, on balance I'm a fan. I would agree with the commute: Not having that allows for more time with the family – although, I do like it for that separation. Generally, I’ve been finding working from home quite useful in the past, but having worked from home for a prolonged period of time now, it's made me realise that it's not something I would want to do full-time. It’s those interactions with people - ad hoc, sometimes - that I miss. 

  

Is there a difference in how you interact with colleagues in a remote world?

Ioana: In the office it's more ad-hoc, you bump into someone in the kitchen and just start talking, whereas now it's less spontaneous. On the other hand, people around me are really friendly and always happy to have a chat. The team is very supportive and if anyone wants to talk, everyone always has an open ear, especially if someone is having a difficult time. 

Eadred: Yes, definitely. Regarding the ad-hoc conversations I’d also add that you tend to get siloed more at home: My day-to-day interactions are really with the people I'm directly working with, whereas in the office I'm around people who are involved in other things and there's more cross talk, or gossip, for the lack of a better word. 

  

You have seen the team tripling in size over the last months – do you still know everyone on the team?  

Eadred: I have to admit, I’m struggling... I'm one of those people that need a face to the name. So I was alright as long as everyone’s face appeared on the screen in our weekly team meetings, but now with 20+ people that's no longer the case. So, I'm afraid, I might be calling people the wrong name when we get back to the office. 

  

How do you still make new joiners feel included, despite these challenges?

Eadred: On form is our buddying system. I've been the mentoring buddy for a couple of recent team members; and I believe that having such a slightly closer 1:1 connection with someone on the team up front is quite important. And for myself it's also been a nice way to get to know some of the newer team members. 

Ioana: Having joined at the start of the year, I was lucky to meet people in the office. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to buddy up with new members remotely as well, and you do get to know them – even if it's from a distance. And I always encourage anyone to give me a shout if they need a coffee break or a chat. 

  

Which challenges did Zuhlke as an employer master well in transitioning to the remote set-up, and which ones are still to be addressed?  

Ioana: The transition to working from home was quite smooth: We had collaborative online tools in place already and the VPN has been working fine, so the technical workplace challenge has been mastered. What I miss is a proper whiteboard and being able to move sticky notes. The virtual tools just don’t quite beat the real-life option. 

Eadred: Yes, in terms of the tooling we've got what we need. We’re also proactively sharing best practices: Kevin (Regional Director), for example, did a great job at presenting back after his first fully remote discovery phase very early on in the lockdown. In terms of general support and the mental health aspect, there's been lots of help offered and check-ins, and I know there are people who’ve got my back for it. So that's been very good. Zuhlke is a very supportive environment in that regard. 

A challenge that people (not just at Zuhlke) are yet to master is the different etiquette of online video meetings. Lags can easily lead to people accidentally interrupting each other, and then it’s not quite clear who goes first. It’s almost like you need to say “over” after every sentence, and I think this can sometimes rob meetings of a bit of their spontaneity. 

  

Which abilities have been increasingly important in the new remote set-up?

Eadred: For me it’s the ability to shut down interruptions, usually popping up in the form of a chat notification where you don’t know if it’s urgent or not. It’s much easier in an office where you can just overhear the banter when you're focused. So, I've learned to limit the number of channels that I have notifications on in the chat.  

Ioana: For me, communication has been a key aspect of this. We have to be more conscious of expressing our opinions, but also listening to other people. Ask for clarification when it's not as obvious what they mean, because visual clues such as body language are missing. 

Another aspect are breaks: If you don't plan for them, you easily end up working for too long. We usually apply the pomodoro technique in pair programming to avoid this, and maybe I should try implementing that for myself as well to better manage my time. 

  

Do you tend to work longer hours now that you work from home?

Ioana: I believe I do. I tend to feel a need to “make up” for time when my work gets interrupted during the day. And even though I just quickly wanted to reply to an email or fix this one bug – next thing you know, you’ve spent an extra half an hour. So I think so we have to be extra conscious not to overwork ourselves accidentally.

Eadred: I'm not sure whether it's actually been the opposite for me: With my family around, they’ll let me know when I’m working too long. They’re almost like my work alarm – my pomodoro technique. Different situations, different perspective, isn't it? 

 

What helps you keep the balance?  

Eadred: I've been enjoying some extra time with the kids, it’s been nice that I can see them for example before they go to school or when they get home. I’ve also been cycling regularly to mimic that commute and catch some fresh air. With the weather starting to turn, I’m doing it less frequently now, but I’ve managed to keep it up once per week. 

Ioana: For me it's also been the fitness and nutrition aspect that help keep me sane. Whereas before, I’d usually see what I can find in town for lunch as a quick fix, I can now eat healthy, cooked food. I’m very spoiled in that regard, I live with my mom and she will bring me food to my desk. I’ve also really been enjoying home workouts: I can now do a high intensity interval training over lunch, have a shower, and be back at my desk in time.

  

And lastly, what was your funniest video meeting moment?  

Eadred: Maybe stretching the definition of funny, but you might remember that BBC report a few years back where a South Korea correspondent’s kids came bursting in in the middle of a show..? It wasn’t quite as bad, but I sat in a video meeting with the kids playing outside on the trampoline, when suddenly a very overexcited 3-year-old came marching in and going: “Daddy, daddy, I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty!”. Oh, and I've had more than one occasion where someone said, “I like your couch!”, and I've had to say that it's not actually my couch, it’s my bed.

Ioana: Sometimes my mom will bring in the food while I'm in a video call, so once I had a team meeting when she placed a pizza behind me, and my colleagues pointed out: “Your food is ready!”, and at the end they cracked a joke about ending the meeting before my pizza gets cold.


Ioana Grigoriu
Software Engineer
          Eadred Birchenough
Software Engineer

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