Remote pairing, how do I even?

I’m fortunate to be one of this year’s REA Grads (http://careers.realestate.com.au/graduate-programme/). A great part of the REA Graduate Programme is the opportunity we get to rotate through six different teams within the business over an eighteen month period. My first grad rotation was in a distributed team, which posed a challenge as half the team and the majority of developers were in China. I often needed to connect and share my screen to collaborate with the developers in China when working on a task (remote pairing). During the rotation, I picked up a few tips that helped reduce some of the challenges that surround remote pairing, which improved the overall experience.

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Remote pairing challenges

Connection issues

Sometimes, the remote connection is weak. For applications such as Screen Hero and Jabber a weak connection results in a compromise on audio and visual, making remote pairing for anyone, let alone a grad, nigh impossible.

Going back to basics and using a wired Ethernet cable produced fewer dropouts and better overall results. If for whatever reason the connection is not playing nice, take a break and try again later; don’t try to force remote pairing.

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Blurry-screen whilst remote pairing

When either the screen goes fuzzy, you only hear every third word or your pair suddenly sounds like they are underwater, send them a message and make use of the downtime to reflect on the problem.

Language barriers

When working with an international team there will always be some language or cultural differences. Considering the pace of conversation and easing off on native slang and idioms will help with breaking down these barriers.

Visualisation

Not being physically present makes it easy to lose awareness of pairing schedules. When one section of a distributed team is small it is easy for them to be forgotten. Setting up a digital remote pairing wall to get better transparency and planning over who is pairing and when is important.

Scheduling

The biggest challenge I found with remote pairing was not the intermittent connection problems or resisting the urge to drop everything due to a Level 4 cake announcement (there be lots of cake at REA). It was the time difference and resulting scheduling issues that remote pairing involves.

For example, the two hour time difference between Australia and China may not seem like much of a barrier, but a busy schedule quickly sees it becoming one. When you factor in a routine daily meeting, lunch times, grace periods, the occasional guild and other activities, a possible seven hour day of pairing is often whittled down into a few rushed thirty minute pairing calls.

Scheduling tips

Synchronise all the things! (lunches, breaks, meetings)

In order to remote pair effectively, it is vital to synchronise lunchtimes and other breaks throughout the day. Some clear benefits of synchronised schedules are an increase in pairing time and consideration for your pair’s schedule. A less obvious benefit is that your pair will be in the same frame of mind. You will both subconsciously think about the problem during breaks and as a result be on the same wavelength when you resume work.

Altering work times

If possible, moving your day back or forward by at least an hour to compensate for the time difference is key. For my team, standup was at 11:00 and generally no meetings were scheduled before this. Adjusting my working day back one hour increased the chances of solid pairing time in the afternoon.

Free time effectiveness

If you are unable to alter your workday start and finish times, then looking at how you use that downtime effectively is important. Utilising the morning downtime allowed me to knock off rogue emails, reflect, learn and decide on possible stories and pairs I could work with that day. I also found I was far more effective at retaining knowledge whilst remote pairing when my mind was free from questions like “Will there still be spots left for that training in 2 hours? Am I missing a meeting right now? I wonder how my Tycoon (an addictive game played at REA) profile’s looking.”

Respect the pair

In an Agile environment, finding solid blocks of pre-organised remote pairing time is rare, so respect them by adding a public event in your calendar and encourage your team to schedule meetings around these.

The liberties of being five minutes late to a local pairing session are not available when working remotely. When working locally, often you can see the person you will be pairing with and know they will come over to pair soon. Remote pairing is a different kettle of fish, because a five minute delay in response can lead to uncertainty of what task to proceed with while you play the waiting game… Ugh, let’s play Hungry Hippos.

Summary

Remote pairing is no easy task; I would be lying if I said any of my experiences had been ideal, or even as good as local pairing. The importance of remote pairing is undeniable though, and I will continue to try and improve on my skills.

Remote pairing can give an organisation and its employees great flexibility. More teams within your organisation making it standard practice (be it international or local), increases the likelihood of other people and teams adopting it and not shying away. Regardless of whether you currently have a genuine need for it, I encourage anyone reading to give it a go! Practising in-house by moving to another area is a great place to start.

Our work is becoming increasingly more digital, the need for remote pairing to help collaborate on work is rising. For this reason, despite the complications that come with it, we should encourage our distributed teams to adopt it into their daily routines. Remote pairing will be prevalent in the future and could soon become one of the potential ways to work within tech companies and your organisation. Advancements in video conferencing as well as virtual / augmented reality mean that geographical location will no longer pose such a barrier for working together effectively.

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