If you need to keep people on a short leash, something’s off
Clemens has been working at bevuta since 2016, making him one of the old guard. As a requirements manager, he has occasional touch points with almost all his co-workers. This makes it easy for him to stay in touch – even without a shared office space. That said, he wasn’t a fan of remote work when it all began.
We talk about a home office in a one-bedroom apartment, work meetings via video conference as well as ﬂexibility and control.
You’ve been working for bevuta for a long time, and you’ve experienced times when the entire team wasn’t remote. What was the transition like for you?
At bevuta, we’ve always had the option of working from home, but I rarely used it. I’ve always liked being at the office and I liked the inherent boundaries. You’re working when you’re at the office, and you’re done when you’re at home.
When everybody was supposed to start working from home in 2020, I originally really hated it.
Why was that?
For some reason, it was much more difficult to put in concentrated work at home than in the office.
Maybe that’s because I was still living by myself in a one-bedroom apartment at the time. Everything took place in one room. There was no physical separation between work and personal life. It took me a long time to get used to it.
For a while, my girlfriend and I would meet to work from home together. That did make it easier, but the constricted space in small apartments still made that trying over time.
A year ago, we moved to a four-room apartment where we each have our own office. That changed a lot. We now have shared space but also a physical separation within the apartment that emphasises the distinction: This is me in my personal time, this is me working.
Sounds like a perfect solution. Could you imagine going back to working in the office ﬁve days a week?
Great question. I think a few days would be OK, but I would also like to keep on working from home a few days a week.
You have a direct comparison: Have you noticed a difference in how the team has been working together since everyone went remote?
Not really. Or, more specifically, mainly only in superficial aspects, organisational stuff.
Things just used to happen more in person. Daily stand-up meetings meant that we all gathered in a room and tossed a ring around to pass on speaking rights. That was very physical. And, of course, we worked in offices together with our co-workers. Today, we just do that over video in Jitsi.
It used to be that if you wanted information from someone, you’d pop over and see if they were available. Now you message them over chat, which works just as well in most cases.
It probably used to be a little easier to reach people who are very busy and sought after, like Pablo (one of our Captains). You could stick your head through the door and see if it was a good time. Nowadays, if I write something in the chat, I might get an answer straight away – or I just might not. That’s the biggest difference, but that’s basically it.
Was everyone always in the office before the pandemic?
No, never everyone, but most of them. That changed gradually over time, not necessarily because of Covid.
For one thing, we grew significantly as a company. And more and more of the colleagues who joined the team didn’t live in Cologne.
And then other colleagues moved away. That’s why already back then it had started that some of us physically attended meetings while increasing numbers dialled in via video.
In some cases, it made more sense and was more stable for everybody to meet up on a video call from their own computer right away. That also made it fairer for those who weren’t at the office.
This applied to all work meetings, not just to the stand-up ones. For example, if we met up for a discovery call with two in the office and one at home, all of us would join the video call from our own computers. Over time, it got more and more normal to meet over Jitsi.
Do you think that video calls are a good replacement for meetings?
Overall, I do. What really matters to me is being able to see others. If everything took place via phone, I’d have a different opinion. But on video calls, you still see how people react. If you’re on the phone, you might miss someone frowning because they don’t like an idea or don’t get it. If you can see people, you notice these things and can address them.
One of my neighbours works at a bank and does everything via phone conference, sometimes with 20 people on the line. I wonder how that’s feasible.
How often are you on video calls?
I probably spend about half the day on video calls. But that’s not just in meetings where we discuss and coordinate things. We also just work together. Take requirements management, for instance, we work on documents together while discussing them over Jitsi.
That works great with Google Docs where we can all write in the same document at the same time. Depending on the subject, other tools might be helpful, like Figma for designs. If you can see in real time what the other person is doing, you can easily work in parallel on texts, drafts or prototypes.
Have you only started using these tools since everyone started working from home?
No. We were already using online tools like this before anyone started working remotely. Take Google Docs again, we always worked directly in it. If we were in an office together, one of us would share it on a large screen.
That was a solid strategy from the start. It would be hard to imagine doing it differently today. If you’re working on a document together, but only one person can do the writing, it gets boring real fast for everyone else. And sending different versions of documents back and forth is out of the question.
I’m sure that companies that lack these tools struggle more to get remote teams working efficiently together.
So, it hinges on the right software?
More on the right solution. I don’t think that you always need ready-made tools. Our developers have told me that they built solutions for pair programming that let them work together just as if they were side by side in an office. The editor they work on the code in runs on a virtual machine that both can access. They write the code together, working in parallel on the virtual machine that both can see. These interactive solutions are key.
You said that you struggled a little at the beginning, but now you wouldn’t want to do without working from home. Why did that change?
I’ve done a complete 180 on this. I really enjoy the benefits of remote working. For one thing, it’s huge that I no longer have to commute.
I’m also much more ﬂexible: I can answer the door for a delivery, prepare some food or take a quick break when I feel like it.
Everything’s really fallen into place for me. And, since I constantly see everyone, I don’t miss the office much.
Is there something that could be improved even more about remote teamwork?
I can’t really think of much, to be honest. I like that we kept the stand-up meetings and do them on video calls now. When you think about it, it’s just a small meeting, but it’s so valuable for team spirit.
At the office, it’s the short breaks like grabbing some coffee together that foster team spirit. But why wouldn’t it be just as ok to occasionally chat about personal things for a few minutes when you meet up on a video call?
Obviously, when you’re working from home, casual contact happens more rarely with people you don’t directly work with. In my position, I have touchpoints with almost everyone. That means I talk to everyone from time to time. For others, that’s probably different. There might be room for improvement for them. Still, many just create their own opportunities for interaction.
Developers, for instance, keep a shared Jitsi channel open all day that they use to talk about things just as if they were in the same office together.
Do you keep regular work hours from home?
More or less. I usually start between 8:30am and 10:30am.
I log off at very different times. And in my eyes, that’s one of the largest benefits of working from home.
When you’re at the office, you have your eight-hour workday. Usually, you go home at the same time. My work hours shift a lot now. On some days, I only work six hours, and, on other days, ten or more. It depends on what’s happening or how much mental capacity I have. Handling this ﬂexibly is so much easier when working from home.
Sticking around for two more hours on those days when your brain is fried after six hours is so useless – only to have those two required hours on the clock, but you never really get anything done. It doesn’t make any sense.
If I notice that I’ve reached capacity, I just log off for the day. I might have an idea later. Sometimes, I log back on for that.
For me, this increased ﬂexibility helps me recharge better. Because I don’t have this rule to follow: “My office hours are from then to then, so I have to hang around for two more hours.”
It’s a win-win situation: it’s more restful for you, and your company gets more productive hours out of you.
Exactly. It balances out quite well for me, meaning I work an average of eight hours a day. Sometimes, you get so deeply involved and you’re in a ﬂow, so you want to ﬁnish the job. Working longer on these occasions isn’t a problem either. In the same way, if I notice that I have nothing left to give that day, I feel free to log off earlier.
Obviously, it’s a question of personal responsibility and being fair to your employer. After all, nobody’s checking up on you. But I always think: If you need to keep people on a short leash, something’s off. In an ideal world, you’d like working because you enjoy your job and ﬁnd your work meaningful.
With remote teams, employers have to relinquish control to some extent. Some struggle with that. But there is a payoff for them alongside the increased productivity: for example, employees might stay longer at a company.
Some colleagues who have worked for bevuta for a long time might not be here anymore if not for the option of remote work because, at some point, they wanted to leave Cologne for personal reasons. And that would have meant a significant loss of knowledge and experience.
Yes, we absolutely agree. Thank you for your valuable thoughts and insights on this interesting topic!
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