July 25 2023

On meeting up

A companion piece to on remoting. I thought I’d do it coming fresh from some meets all very close together. Then as usual the post took ages to pull together. I don’t know how people bang these things out so fast.

Everything changed in early 2020. All our office locations shut down with immediate effect, for “up to 12 weeks”.

We never went back.

Our office in Elephant and Castle was shuttered permanently and we’ve been remote ever since.

The org has a new office in Canary Wharf, but so far it doesn’t seem to have regained the atmosphere of the old. It’s rare for our team to be in at the same time, and desk booking arrangements mean we’ve no longer got a space to call our own. When I do go into the office, what I often experience is a very quiet sparsely populated environment. People there (including me) are often… on calls.

I’ve been mulling over how things have changed, and what it’s like when we do meet up.

What was it like before?

The team has always been split over several locations: Exeter; Leeds; London; Southampton.

We’d do standups with people in each office clustered around those big MS Surface tv things (when we could get them to actually work), and were quite used to doing that sort of “remote across multiple office sites” sort of thing.

We would always get together in person as a whole team for sprint ceremonies, and often we’d also make an effort to do UR analysis in person as a whole team exercise.

In effect the pattern of work was that most of us would be in a small office based team day-to-day, then regularly get together with the whole team.

What is it like now?

Nowadays the whole team gets together roughly once a month (every other sprint I think) in one of the three “base” locations that our members now belong to: Exeter, Leeds, or London. This might be in one of the offices, or it might be in a booked venue. Ironically enough, booking space in the org can be the tougher option.

We do the usuals:

  • a broadcast show and tell
  • an internal show and tell for all the juicy stuff
  • sometimes ceremonies like retro or planning
  • sometimes team scale things like healthchecks

There’s also an effort to organise low pressure social stuff at the end of the day.

Without fixed spaces, it’s not quite as easy to organise and not everyone can make it every time, especially as the team has grown - sparked by the need to deliver harder and faster during the pandemic.

I think the big difference here is that we go from individuals working remotely to a large group in one fell swoop.

On reflection

I used to sit with a handful of team mates during my work day in the office. This gave me confidence in the wider group — that thing where you know some people pretty well already, so you’re not immediately stymied by meeting everyone.

Group events can be hard. I’ve always struggled with similar things like conferences and meetups, sometimes literally sneaking off. In the aftermath of the pandemic I live a more isolated life, and the abrupt jump in scale between solitude and multitude can be difficult.

But while a meet up can sometimes be tough, there’s all the positives:

  • an opportunity to resurrect those little rituals — bring the bike into town, have a nice coffee somewhere
  • seeing people I’ve known for years now — products don’t move at the speed of light in the NHS, and there’s those of us that have committed to a longer haul than we might have initially expected
  • getting up and doing things in front of people, while stressful, is healthy (er… I think)
  • just the quiet physical feeling of being one bit of a larger thing

The missing piece of the puzzle has been that smaller, comfortable group, where the contrast between being performative (presenting, running workshops, etc) and just oneself is less extreme. Luckily over time I’ve ended up being involved in leading our team’s small design and content discipline and for me this group helps a lot. At some point I plan to write more about “leading”, LOL.

Finally, there’s the simple realisation that adjusting to changes of this magnitude can really, really take time.