Notes from a lockdown

How Covid-19 changed how we work.


Written by Stella Crowhurst and Oludayo Fafiolu
01 June 2020

It all happened so fast. Although reports of the coronavirus had grown more persistent and alarming, instructions to lock down and stay home still involved major, sudden upheaval. Millions scrambled to set up home offices and learn how to juggle family responsibilities while staying productive and focused at work. We asked some colleagues how exactly Covid-19 has changed their working life.

The most obvious change - transforming bedrooms into office space - turned out to be the least complicated. This was largely because many teams were already familiar with remote working. "We were already conditioned for this kind of work," says Gareth Halliwell, a product owner: "In that respect, it was relatively seamless and we've adapted very well."

Expanding the toolkit

This isn't to say that nothing has changed. Before the lockdown, teams primarily used Slack and WebEx to talk to each other. Since March, their toolkit has expanded further, with Discord leapfrogging MS Teams and Zoom to become the platform of choice. "Discord is good because it runs on," says Rob Derbyshire, another product owner: "When it's meeting time, people just unmute themselves and we're ready to go."

Although the tech side has proved fairly straightforward, other issues did not. "I don't have a dedicated space to work from and I'm very new to my product owner role as well, so I've found this quite difficult," says Adam Cook: "I'd like to finish sooner rather than later and get back to the office!"

Valuing physical proximity

That's hardly surprising, because Access Worldpay values proximity. "All our squads and product owners are located in the same place because we understand how much shared understanding is created from sitting nearby," says Nana Yaa Mensah, who leads a team of product owners.

Gareth agrees: "I miss that face-to-face contact - you understand a lot more, learn a lot more and pick things up more quickly when you're around people," he explains. "It's the ability to just put your head up and ask a good question - you can't do that now."

Providing greater clarity

Feelings of isolation are a common by-product of remote working and teams have adopted a range of methods to address this. "We're keen to make sure that, just because you're working on your own, you're not completely isolated," says Jo Parsons, a product owner. "We've got people pairing up with other squad members much more now for development and for cloud work."

Remote working also makes clarity and detail more important than ever. "We've been very explicit about our needs, our timelines and what sort of commitment we're looking for," says Nana Yaa: "That's really helped people understand what we're asking them to do and to call out when there's going to be a challenge to deliver."

Balancing dual roles

Beyond work, teams have also tried to replicate their office social life, arranging virtual meetings for breakfast, Friday beers and even a pub quiz. Many schedule daily tea breaks or coffee meetings: "We have a half hour catch up every morning - just checking in on each other and trying to put the world right," says Janka Bergner, a technical writer: "It certainly keeps me going."

That's because, for her and many others, the primary challenge has not been solely professional or exclusively personal, but balancing the two. "It can feel like a rollercoaster," she says: "You get to spend 24/7 with your children - and I want to savour those moments - but you somehow have to make a full-time job work at the same time." For Jo, the issue is home schooling: "It's a juggling act between making sure that I can be here at my desk when I need to be and yet help my children if they need it."

Acknowledging the struggle

Naturally, people have found their own ways of managing this conundrum. For Janka, it's the 45 minutes of peace during her daily walk; for Nana Yaa, it's establishing clear boundaries. "Work was dribbling into my evening more than I'd like," she says. Now, regular actions show her children that work is over: "Packing things away, changing clothes - this really helps establish that ‘Now we're starting the evening'."

What also helps is recognising that the situation is difficult for everybody, but often in different ways. "Just acknowledging the struggle is helpful," says Nana Yaa: "People assume that everybody else has got it all figured out so encouraging people to share unique challenges - when things haven't been working quite so well - has really been key."

She argues that this isn't just desirable, but necessary, too: "We can't pretend that everything is business as normal and expect people to deliver on their commitments exactly as they normally would." Nana Yaa let her colleagues know that, like her, they should take some time to sort themselves out "before they could really be super-efficient."

Good news, but…

So far, so good. Despite teams being scattered into hundreds of new locations, productivity has not suffered. If anything, says Jo: "We've seen a slight increase in the amount of work going through." Janka agrees: "All the squads have become more productive, which has an inevitable knock-on effect on my role - I've learned so much about the different products and people in the last few weeks."

Since lockdown, Access Worldpay has also successfully navigated some major milestones, including its first-ever remote PI Planning event. "We also had a week of innovation and planning which was absolutely incredible," says Nana Yaa: "The volume and quality of work produced was extraordinary."

That said, few want the situation to continue for long. "Catching up more on screen and less in the cafeteria keeps the chit-chat in check, which is great for productivity," says Janka. However, she adds: "It's a shame for me - I never knew I'd miss our cafeteria and I'll certainly make sure to pay it a long visit with a beloved colleague once we're back in the office."