Post-pandemic work life will not be what you expect

ยท 1556 words ยท 8 minute read

Introduction ๐Ÿ”—

In my team I act as a technical lead, and also play a role of scrum master. I have an allergy on some foods, pollen and (in this context) most importantly - too many a meetings. Consequently, we are not super religious team in terms of Scrum principles when it comes to the meetings. I try to keep our retrospectives condensed within 45 minutes, and I schedule them for 1 hour. Our planning meetings, in terms of the load for the rest of the team, typically take anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes (and are also scheduled for 1 hour).

That being said, about some things we are religious. Without exception, we have predictable sprint lengths (2 weeks), we always do stand-up meetings for reporting and planning purposes and we always do retrospectives of the previous sprints when the new one begins, and we always plan next sprint at the end of the current sprint. There are things I work to improve in all this as nothing is ever ideal; but this is the gist of it.

On top of that, company I work in has fun as one of the core values, so I try to keep retrospectives fun, and am still trying to find a way to keep other mandatory Scrum meetings fun.

Historically, we have allowed for our retrospectives’ discussions to be flown away by the wind of daily duties and task prioritization - we would do at the end of our multi-sprint development cycles look back on our previous retrospectives, but that always turned out to our most boring bi-annual meeting and we would not act on that data.

This time, I’ve decided to bite into “bigger picture” development cycle retrospective slightly deeper. That gave me, surprisingly, some insights into what I can expect from my team in the post-pandemic return-to-the-offices era. And I have realized it might be applicable to much wider outlook than my own team and the company we work in.

Tracking sentiment ๐Ÿ”—

One of our established data points in the retrospectives is touchy-feely graph, which we use as a very subjective record of the overall team mood.

Touchy-Feely-Graph Teamplate

On the X-axis we tack workload sentiment - far left/west of the graph means team member is bored to death, while far right/east side of the graph means that team member is under a lot of stress due to unmanagable workload. Ideal comfort zone of the team is if all team members lean towards the middle of the X-axis on the graph, within about 50% of its center.

On the Y-axis we track subjective happiness of team members. Bottom of the graph indicates zone where team member is looking for, or should look for, some help.

Green area indicates “gold-zone” of team comfort and happiness.

Retrospective feedback model ๐Ÿ”—

Another retrospective data point is a variation of the standard feedback model. This is where we put “post-its” on the more or less standard “start/stop/more/less/keep” board with addition of the area to brainstorm about “experiment ideas” for some of the next sprint cycles.

Feedback Board

So, this is how I’ve collected this data I am going to base my blog post on.

Conclusions of our development cycle retrospectives ๐Ÿ”—

This is where we come to some interesting takeouts. Some of them I have expected, some of them actually surprised me.

People are over-worked ๐Ÿ”—

When all of us who could have moved to remote work arrangements and stopped going to the offices at the beginning of the pandemic, there were two school of thoughts on the long-term outcome of that event. One was that everything happening is by all means temporary, and in few weeks or months we are going to return to the offices full time.

Another school of thought was equally religious and biased - people who were already advocating for the remote work model in the past, have now started spreading the prophecy that somehow everything will change overnight - companies which don’t go full remote will lose majority of the work force, will not be able to hire anyone new and that future is solely all of us sitting in our homes during working hours.

As counter-pandemic measures drag on to this day, first school of thought is obviously defeated. Lot of companies embraced hybrid work model for the future and promised to their employees that they will be able to combine on-site work with work-from-home in the future. Very few companies with workforce which can work from anywhere went back (at least for now) to demanding of their employees to return to work full-time no matter what.

But also, other camp’s pink-painted picture of working from home has collapsed equally spectacularly. Employees realized that in order not to seem like they are slacking while sitting in their cozy homes even during working hours, they need to give more of impression that they do actual work than when they were on-site. As time went by, for most of us at least, lines between work and that other life became more and more blurried.

And that also shows on the sentiment feedback of my team - despite having a manager who constantly encourages the team to keep healthy work-life balance, and despite that being very explicit and applied company policy too, most of the feedback points for the team morale show clear lean towards team members being overworked:

Feedback Board

(note: data points are simplified for the presentation purposes)

This is despite our team not really experiencing effects of the “the great resignation” and employee retention for us being same as it was in the previous years. Hiring efforts also have not been much harder in 2021. than they historically were to start with.

Another interesting conclusion from this graph is that team morale is, despite high workload, almost surprisingly high. That can be attributed to the few factors; for example as I’ve mentioned above, one of the company’s core values is fun and we do very conscious effort for that not to be only one word in the promotional materials. But also, I like to think that my personal mission to minimize “zoom fatigue” for the team contributes to that.

In short: people are over-worked while working from home. That applies even if the company and the team management structure is explicitly encouraging healthy life-work balance.

Thiis is something which hardly surprises me, to be honest. I’ve wrote early in the pandemic period in my “work from home guide” for people who have never experienced it on the importance of having boundaries between work and the rest of the life. We have collectively, it seems, failed in this still.

And this alone will be in better part solved by partial (or where insisted, full) return to the office. Staying in the office until 8pm or later is not a healthy work environment but a hostage crisis. Therefore nobody does it, typically. Trying to work productively from home deep into the evening or even night is fairly typical voluntary move by employees trying to catch up after distractions during the regular working hours. And in the long term that only harms both employees and employers. Healthy work/life boundaries are much easier to set up when your work ends by leaving through the office doors.

It’s also worth saying that I am not being ignorant about other big part of the workload sentiment feedback - for sure it can also be hugely improved by better planning, which can be done before we return to the offices and I myself am always trying to improve in this.

Team Building is not yet dead ๐Ÿ”—

…it is just on life support.

After two years of almost exclusively working from home (I have visited office once since the German lockdown in the beginning of 2020, and as I write this it’s 2022), surprisingly many retrospective feedbacks from the team were in one form or the other the following:

More team fun events.

This has, honestly, surprised me. Not that I didn’t miss team hangouts in some way in this period - but we are a sofware development team. By any reasonable measure, we are bunch of introverts. Do people really want office parties, team lunches and team building events?

Mad Men - about that office party and the lawnmover…

That brings me to the point how the reports of the death of the team building events have been greatly exaggerated.

Back in the time, we’ve all complained about semi-mandatory office parties and team building events. But in the retrospective, it seems to have been a very first world problem to have. People, even introverts among us, want to spend some time with people. Hopefully, once we start doing that again - we will use it better than we did before.

Conclusion ๐Ÿ”—

So, here is what you came for. I am making a low-key bold claim here:

Post-pandemic return to “old normal” work will not be what you expect.

Yes, some things have changed, and likely for forever. But many of the things we tend to consider dead today will actually return.

So, here are my bets:

  1. People will want to return to the office. Hybrid is likely the way it will happen though.
  2. People do miss team building events and office parties. And trust me, nobody is more surprised of that than myself.

Take care, stay safe and see you soon - likely at some office party. ๐Ÿฅ‚