Pandemic: Ushering in the Virtual Office

Virtual working is with us for the foreseeable future and should no longer be viewed as an emergency measure but as an opportunity to thrive with new ways of working.

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New Beginnings

I joined RegulAItion Ltd as a Senior Frontend Developer in mid-April 2020, just a few weeks after the initial lockdown measures were enacted and my usually sedentary lifestyle was upgraded to one of zen-like inactivity.

My previous company had been of a similar scale but the role at RegulAItion represented an intriguing technical challenge due to the complexity and cutting-edge nature of the product I was being hired to work on. Our AIR Platform represents a breakthrough in data access and collaboration and we’re in an exciting stage of product development.

I was one of four new employees to join the company during lockdown, and I was still acclimatising to the idea that we were unlikely to be seeing the inside of an office within the next few months. My rather naive expectation was that the transition to full remote working would be simple for tech companies like ours.

While the office environment was the norm, my previous roles had always included days of working from home, but that mixed remote/in-office experience didn’t provide me much foresight into the complications that would present themselves in an exclusively remote team.

The Challenge of Social Disconnect

It became clear within the first few months that this new environment was presenting challenges. Complete social separation from one’s colleagues makes it much harder to be embedded into a culture, and eliminates a lot of the fun of going to work.

In my experience #Watercooler chat channels have never been a success. You don’t bump into a colleague in the kitchen and have a chat when you post in the #Watercooler channel… you send a group message to the entire company. It’s not organic and it’s intimidating for newer or less extroverted members of the team. This problem was obvious to us even at our relatively small team scale, and I believe it grows exponentially with the size of your team.

We addressed the social disconnect as best we could by holding regular video meetings, both collectively and in smaller groups. Then as soon as lockdown rules were eased, our CEO Sally Sfeir-Tait arranged a socially distanced picnic where we were all able to meet face to face for the first time. It’s remarkable how quickly you get to know each other in that environment compared to spending weeks interacting with one another online when tackling development challenges. The task-oriented nature of a standup or dev call reduces the social discourse to a footnote and we become our roles.

The Importance of the Day to Day

The second problem presented itself as we began to see examples of miscommunication occurring between departments.

Pigeon-holed into our roles and only conducting meetings to discuss specific problems meant we were missing the benefits of the petri-dish which is the startup office environment. Cross-pollination of ideas was difficult, new members of the team were slower to understand the wider context of the business and its goals, and misunderstandings of requirements persisted in bubbles for longer than they would have if another member of the team with a better understanding was working within earshot and able to interject.

This problem was further exacerbated by our scale. Understanding is expedited when problems are tackled collaboratively, as it is in pair-coding sessions, but when you’re a small team you don’t necessarily have multiple staff covering every discipline.

Those day to day interactions which are taken for granted in an office are not bound by designated discussion points or agendas and are a crucial aspect of developing a brand new product. Everyone on the team has useful insights, but when lockdown removed those organic interactions it made it harder for those insights to percolate through the team.

Creation of The Virtual Office

Sally and I spent time throwing around ideas to encourage a more social atmosphere; one which would allow product knowledge and requirements to disseminate more rapidly through a relaxed medium. One more suited to the company culture she has endeavoured to promote.

We landed on the Virtual Office concept: two hours every Thursday with everyone on screen. No agenda would be set and everyone was encouraged to shout out any questions or ideas that they had; professional or otherwise. If we don’t have anything to add to the conversation we’re free to continue with our work, the traditional office murmur bubbling in the background.

We wanted to recreate the petri-dish, and the past months have shown that it’s already making a difference. We’ve grown closer as a team and the virtual office has spawned several product-altering ideas which have since been added to the platform’s roadmap.

Don’t get me wrong, not every session is a jubilant yet revelatory collaborative experience… it’s just an office. Sometimes we’re all too busy to spend the time chatting or bouncing ideas off one another, and that’s fine. We want to encourage interaction; not organised goal-oriented fun. And it’s worth mentioning that this approach also makes it much easier for newcomers to be meaningfully embedded into the team.

Joining a company during lockdown was a confusing avalanche of slack notifications. Generic avatars attached to faceless names, and one to one video calls with senior figures which often left holes in context large enough for the recruit to fall entirely into.

We’ve worked in the shadow of COVID-19 for 7 months now and the sands continue to shift beneath our collective feet. We’ll be continuing down this remote road for the foreseeable future and we will continue to support and leverage the ingenuity of our team while doing our best to cultivate a positive and enjoyable social environment for all our staff. The Virtual Office has been an effective first step in that process, and I genuinely hope that others can benefit from our experiment.

Leo Kyrkos, Senior Frontend Developer, RegulAItion Ltd

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