OTTAWA, MAY 11, 2020
By Marlene Alt and Alex Linchieh
BluWave-ai operations went fully remote mid-March, to ensure the safe physical distancing required to combat COVID-19. Nine weeks later, we’ve experienced the ups and downs of adaptation. But to be frank, it’s going surprisingly well. We wanted to share how we pivoted to find this happy place, however temporary or extended it may be.
Fortunately, BluWave-ai already had favourable conditions for everyone to work remotely. We all had laptops to take home, good Internet connections, and no reliance on any physical infrastructure at the office. We were already using Google’s G Suite and Microsoft Office 365, so all our tools for general productivity are hosted securely in the cloud. Our product is software, also safely residing in various cloud services for internal development and customer deployment (IBM’s Watson, Microsoft’s Azure). Our technical teams were already using a VPN for secure access to our development platform.
We’re all accustomed to a face or two on the screen since we have two remote employees (New York City and Dubai) plus most of our partners and customers are located beyond Canada’s borders (we operate on four continents). But the 18 bodies in the office were physically together in meetings throughout the work day, not to mention getting a coffee, eating lunch and chatting together in the office kitchen.
The Challenges We Expected
There were going to be challenges inside and out of the company. Would productivity decline? Would some employees suffer from isolation? Could we make our product release deadlines? Would customers and the accounts we’re chasing still be fully functioning? And how would our AI-enabled software, installed to optimize energy use at utilities around the world, react to unprecedented changes in electrical demand?
Solution #1: More Touch Points, More Often
We tackled the challenges immediately. All meetings were booked on Google Meet (thanks again to G Suite) and all employees were directed to turn on their cameras – which you just have to do or many of us keep the camera off and eventually faces disappear. However, it was a judgement free zone – being well-groomed was optional and a ballcap is a perfect bad-hair-day accessory. Getting to see everyone’s ‘home office’ helped draw us closer, too.
As a substitute for the pop-over-to-ask-a-quick-question process that was no longer possible, the company rolled out the Slack messaging app to the full team. Prior to that it was thought that only the Engineering groups needed it. We also used WhatsApp to participate in a significant international incubator event that went virtual at the last minute.
A few new meetings showed up in everyone’s calendar. Managers would do a quick video check-in with their teams once a day and with individual employees daily as well (feasible since no one has too large a reporting group). Functional groups that didn’t previously have weekly touch-points (like Marketing) started them. At 6:00pm daily, the Engineering teams and Product Management sync up. This was originally a 10:00pm call, to avoid homeschooling and child-minding conflicts, but after a couple weeks schedules settled down and the earlier time worked. Lastly, everyone was invited to an all-hands meeting every Friday afternoon.
The 'Before' Picture
Solution #2: Curated Icebreakers
The all-hands, which was previously a quarterly occurrence, took a new focus. Each week one employee sends around an icebreaker topic in advance, which everyone responds to in the meeting. Some of the topics included, “Tell us about someone who had a significant influence in your life”, “Now that we know remote ops works, where in the world would you work from once we can travel again?” and “What new hobby have you started with your extra free time?” It feels like we’re socializing again, and at the same time learning so much more about each other as people (as opposed to as our corporate roles). Who knew we had so many musicians and wannabe sourdough bread makers? The all-hands also includes an update on corporate activities that week from the CEO.
Not everyone shines in a group so we also have a moving watercooler session. Initiated by one of the employees, one person selects three others who they don’t work with directly or otherwise know well, and toss them a topic for a quick 15 minute chat. It’s the online equivalent of a random watercooler conversation. One member of the chat group is then designated to start the next foursome.
Solution #3: Reconfiguring Release Schedules
Key to our continuing corporate success is meeting aggressive product release deadlines, which were on a quarterly release schedule. But a three-month release cadence was too long to adapt to a world with priorities that change almost hourly. Initially we were addressing last minute client changes individually, but the brainpower diverted to do that was then not on the next product release, threatening to derail the entire schedule. So shortly after we all scurried home that release cadence became every two weeks. Instead of creating and hardening new features and putting them through quality assurance four times a year, we broke deliverables into smaller chunks and scheduled 26 releases a year.
Each release naturally has fewer features, and if one is missed it’s only two weeks until we can get it into the next one. Product Management agreed we could be late with a feature as long as the release still goes out and the team is consistently breaking down the backlog. Building in this pressure release valve eased the stress on Engineering that the accelerated cadence could cause. We leveraged our ‘continuous integration, continuous deployment’ (CICD) infrastructure, and leaned on our well-established Kanban and Agile processes for workflow management and cloud-based planning tools, including Atlassian's Jira and Confluence. (Note that this article isn’t sponsored by any of the corporate names we’ve dropped, we just feel that it’s important to acknowledge the important roles of these products.)