10 Tips For Remote Pairing
26 May 2020 | by Alex Cuff
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I, along with much of the country and in fact the world, have been working from home since lockdown started in the UK back in March and it looks like this style of working will be part of my life for the foreseeable future at least.
For a year or two, I regularly worked from home in an admin capacity. Since becoming a developer, I occasionally worked from home. Though I preferred to go into the office as I had always found working from home rather lonely. Even if I am working independently, I enjoy having the buzz of activity going on around me and the ability to stop for 5 minutes and chat with a co-worker while we get a cup of tea.
So you can imagine, I was really not looking forward to having to work remotely for months on end. But then, I’ve never had to pair remotely before.
It changed everything! There’s social interaction! There’s problem-solving! There’s proof that there is a world outside these four walls!
I should probably begin by pointing out that our company pairs as a matter of course and typically spend approximately 70–80% of our time working in pairs for the sake of in-built peer review, writing better quality code and sharing knowledge across the team. Previously, when any of us has had to work remotely, we would try to take a simpler ticket that could be worked on independently but it was clear that this was not the solution for this scenario.
And so, we had to get used to pairing remotely. And honestly, it was nowhere near as difficult as I had feared it would be. My main issues with it are dealing with the occasional dodgy internet connection and not enjoying having my headphones on all day (necessary with my partner also working from home). But with the right attitude and setup, it can be great! Here are a few things I found really helped
It’s courteous to drop a message on Slack (or whatever your messenger of choice is), checking that your pair partner is good to go and start pairing. And not, for example, making a cuppa, on the loo or trying to shoot a reply off to the product manager
Reserve a minute or two at the beginning of the day to ask how your pair partner is doing and engage as humans. We’re not robots and many of us are feeling isolated. It can feel like once you’ve made a call, you should crack on with the task straight away but social interaction is important and showing a genuine interest in your colleague both feels good and is good for morale.
3. Find your road trip mojo
There are different ways of pairing with regards to driving and navigating, what role each has and how long you stay in those roles. Figuring out how you want to play this is important in pairing generally but it pays to be extra sensitive to this when you’re at a distance and be sure that you’re both comfortable with how it is transpiring.
4. Be receptive
Another one we should be doing anyway but which is particularly important when pairing remotely. As you’re not sitting right next to someone and in fact may not even be able to see them if you’re not using video, you won’t pick up on visual clues that may tell you if your partner disagrees with you, needs a break, is on the verge of a breakthrough or any of a multitude of other factors. You will end up sussing this out only from what they say and the tone of their voice. Or because you realise you have been going around in circles for the past half hour. Making sure you’re receptive to their needs and communicating your own will help with productivity in the long run.
5. Take regular breaks
Essentially, you are effectively talking for approx 7 hours a day. This is exhausting, especially when you are not physically present with the person you are talking to. Keep that brain fresh.
This is a big one with pairing anyway, but it helps to be extra clear about your thought processes when you are working remotely. You may find yourself needing to be more specific when talking about a particular line of code if you are not driving, or not jumping between files so quickly and explaining where you’re going if you are driving, so that your pair partner can follow easily even if there is lag or the screen is less clear on their end.
7. Share, just like your mother told you
While pairing remotely does prevent an over-zealous navigator grabbing hold of the keyboard, let’s not kid ourselves that sometimes writing a few lines of code to demonstrate a point isn’t worth more than many words trying to get communicate something. It’s ok to acknowledge this and temporarily switch roles if it helps.
8. Pay attention to lag
It’s unfortunate but it happens — sometimes there is a considerable gap between what you say and when your partner actually hears it. When we notice this happening, we try to leave a bit of a gap before speaking to be sure we don’t miss what our partner may have just said.
9. Don’t let tooling limit you
Yes, it can be trickier to describe concepts or demonstrate an architectural diagram when you’re at a distance. But it can still work. There are online tools which allow for whiteboarding or you can even be old school and draw a diagram and hold it up to the screen. It’s not ideal but it still gets the point across which is all that matters really.
10. Thank you!
Thank your pair partner for a productive day’s pairing. Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements. These are crazy times and it feels like the whole world has gone a little mad. But collaborating to create order out of chaos is a good way to feel sane and appreciating your partner is a great way to make them feel valued and you feel happier. So share the love!
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