Work Small

This is something that helps every Agile team I work with but especially the distributed ones: make stories as small as possible — especially where “as small as possible” means “the smallest amount of work I have to explain to someone else”.

If your UX person is in Location A, your Java Developer is in Location B, your Product Owner is in Location C, and your Quality Engineer is in Location D, it is inevitable that assumptions over what’s in scope and out of scope for a story (not to mention how it looks and behave) are going to be made.

Let’s say we’re redesigning a login page. On any of my co-located teams, the story would probably be:

  • As a user I want to log into the site

The acceptance criteria would include:

  • Create the page with its title attribute and heading set appropriately
  • Put the fields on the page
  • Put the content on the page
  • Put the client-side validation on the page
  • Put the server-side validation on the page
  • Handle n use cases of validation (where each would be its own acceptance criteria)
  • Ensure the whole thing matches this wireframe when you’re done
  • Ensure the whole thing passes accessibility criteria

When the story is written this way, the story represents a deliverable piece of business value. Before, the user could not log in, now the user can.

For each of the acceptance criteria, we would discuss the details of the acceptance criteria, how to put it together, and how and when to test it — and the story would probably take about a week to be completed. This “works” for that team because everyone is co-located so theoretically we can yell over the cube walls at each other for clarification on details.

In reality, the Developer makes a lot of assumptions while the PO and I are at other meetings, the QE makes a lot more assumptions, I get the story after QE and start asking questions about the assumptions, and we open probably 2 to 3 defect tickets late in the sprint. It gets worse when we’re not co-located because it’s easier to just not ask questions when asking questions involves typing and not, say, hollering over the wall.

On the distributed teams, a single story would be:

  • Create the page with its title attribute and heading set appropriately

In this case the acceptance criteria would include

  • Here’s the URL it should be set to
  • Here’s the H1 content it should be set to
  • Here’s the title attribute content
  • Here’s the accessibility criteria
  • Here’s the wireframe for visual reference, remember we’re only looking at the H1 from the wireframe.

Now, the team still put the acceptance criteria together, and they still sized it together, but this time we’ve written all the details at the microscopic level, so there’s a lot less relying on memory and a lot less sending each other messages on Slack that say “hey do you remember what we said about…?” Yes, we probably still make assumptions, but there’s a lot less to make assumptions about. And there’s a much lower chance that we’re opening defects against this story.

While the single story for the co-located team would take a week, this team has 5-10 stories for the same work, and it still takes a week. Testing feels like it takes a little longer, but that’s because the testable criteria is better outlined. (And it doesn’t always feel longer because when stories are small sometimes the QE can knock one out in the time between meetings, whereas big stories have to be saved for larger chunks of time.)

When the stories are written this granularly, a single story doesn’t represent business value, the business value is captured at the epic/feature level. But that’s OK because:

  • both teams get the same amount of work done in the same amount of time
  • both teams still release the same amount of work to production before the user sees it
  • the “smaller stories” approach delivers higher quality software with less rework

Most importantly, the “smaller stories” approach provides written documentation that anyone on the team can quickly read and understand to know what the heck they’re building that day. Nobody has to be in the same room — they don’t even have to be working the day the story was written — to recognize what a story is asking for when it arrives in their queue.

It doesn’t mean we’re not collaborating. Instead of collaborating mid-sprint, we’re collaborating during planning.

It doesn’t mean we’re not making changes when they’re necessary. Because the work is smaller, we can be more agile in our approach to problems when they arise, and other parts of the story can still be marked as complete.

And yes, it does mean we’re writing more “documentation”, but we’re still not writing 70-page requirements docs. Remember, when the Agile Manifesto referenced “working software over comprehensive documentation” they were reacting to the Waterfall requirements-specification-first approach to developing software. They were not saying “OMG never write anything down”.

It’s always important to ensure that we’re writing stories that anyone can pick up and understand. It’s even more important when we’re in the middle of a global crisis, work isn’t normal, and we’re constantly distracted. Let’s face it, folks, our heads might not be in the game right now.

So take those stories and make them smaller, and give your brain (and your co-workers) a break.

It is OK to say “I need to cancel” in the middle of a pandemic

This is your official permission slip to stop in the middle of anything you’re doing while working from home and say, “I have to go.”

That’s all you have to say.  Add “I’ll catch up later” if you want to set expectations. Then disconnect and do the thing.

Let me explain.

I don’t work from home on an everyday basis, but I do work from home quite a lot. If it’s my scheduled day, it’s because I like to work from home and I feel more productive here. Sometimes, it’s because I physically feel like crap but mentally I can work… I just don’t have the spoons necessary to both drive to work and actually get any work done.

If I’m out for a significant amount of time — a week or two or three — it’s usually because my husband’s Cystic Fibrosis is flaring up.  I’m in my home office, doing my job… but I’m also keeping a half an eye on the household. On “good” days that means I’m mostly just letting dogs in and out a dozen times so he can sleep. On bad days, I’m helping him set up an IV run,  ensuring we both eat something, ensuring he’s taking drugs on time, etc. All things my employer is not paying me to do, but which have to be done, and which my husband can’t do at the time.

The biggest challenge I experience in mixing work and home is remembering that it is ok and expected to drop everything for your family.

Compartmentalizing is a human coping mechanism. It allows us to put work first when we’re at work and family first when we’re with our families.  It prevents the cognitive dissonance of believing both work and home come first at the same time. It’s pretty necessary.

Most of us can’t succeed at our jobs if we always put home first every minute of the day. (This statement null and void if your job is stay-at-home parent, and also you deserve a raise.) We have to get the work done or at some point we are probably going to have a crucial conversation with the HR department.

Simultaneously, if we always put work first, it’s a challenge to keep the household functioning. There’s a lot to be said for bonding and caring for your family. They love you and you love them, even if you don’t always see eye to eye. There’s also a lot to be said for getting the laundry done, the trash outside, and the bills paid. Living in squalor because you got that powerpoint deck done on time is not recommended.

Our kids, by the way, have the same challenges. School is for being your school self with your classroom friends and your teachers. Home is for being your home self with your chores and your neighborhood friends and your homework and your family.

Most of us compartmentalize work and home physically as well as psychologically by being in different spaces for each. In short, when we’re together at home, we think like it’s “home time” and when we’re apart, it’s “work time” or “school time”.

Then a pandemic comes along and puts work and home and school all in the same physical and cognitive space and that really does a number on our brains.

I speak from experience when I say you won’t endure this every day. In fact, you may have days on end when you can work from home with almost as little cognitive dissonance as in the office. It’s not an every-moment thing or we’d’ve all collapsed into a heap of sobs by now.

The moment will come. Probably you’ll be presenting or listening to a meeting or participating in something important to work. Someone in the family will make it clear that they need you right now and the cognitive dissonance will kick in.

Brain: I need to respond to this thing
Brain: But I’m in the middle of a meeting! I can’t just walk out of a meeting!
Brain: But they need me now!
Brain: They’ll be fine for another minute, won’t they? Kitchen’s not on fire
Brain: But the meeting isn’t important either!
Brain: But we could be fired!
Brain: But they need us now!

When this happens, stop. Say “I have to go.” Leave the meeting. No matter who it is. No matter what it’s about.

Your family comes first.

This is when the rubber hits the road, folks, not for us as the employees, but for our employers who have espoused “Family first” or “Work/Life Balance” values at us for years while simultaneously asking us if we could get that extra thing done after the kids are in bed or on the weekend or whatever. Our employers have no choice but to face the facts that the work/life balance is going to tilt in the “life” direction while we all deal with the physical, mental, and legal impacts of the social distancing, quarantines, and virus spread that’s going on.

And maybe your office isn’t pushing you too hard (mine isn’t) but you still have expectations about what you need to get done or how you need to behave during work time. I am one of those people who constantly holds herself to unreachable standards in the first place, so I’m really prone to getting angry at myself for not being able to supermom my way through the work day.

Throw your expectations of yourself at work out the window, and embrace lower expectations.

This isn’t “business as usual”. This isn’t even “working from home as usual”. This is a pandemic, and during a pandemic there is no “normal”.

Kids need our attention more during a crisis than on a standard work-from-home day. They may rationally understand that there’s a virus going around and we have to be careful not to catch it or spread it, but they may not understand how to emotionally process that. They may understand they don’t have school, but the whole “no sleepovers / no parties / no gangs of roving neighborhood kids” is weird. And while your kid(s) may be the exception, most kids don’t know how to process stress.

The CDC has information for parents on what to expect from stressed out kids, and it’s worth reading not only for parents but also what to expect from stressed-out adults. This isn’t normal, and we can’t expect that any of us will be at our best.

So please, accept this as your “get out of cognitive dissonance free” card, or your “meeting hall pass” or your “emergency escape hatch”. Whatever you need to know that it’s OK to drop everything in the middle of that meeting to go straighten out the issue taking place a room over. It’s okay. It’s expected. And it’s what we all need to prioritize right now, for our collective health.

High stress and culture change, aka 2020.

Due to this pesky virus thing that’s making the rounds killing people, a whole bunch of web folk are suddenly being encouraged or ordered to stop traveling, start washing their hands, and work from home.

If your company has a remote-first culture, you’re going to find everyone is more stressed than usual, but assuming it’s a healthy culture, you’re probably going to be fine.

If your company has a co-location first culture, and work-from-home is a flexibility option or there’s only a handful of remote-work employees, this is going to be a  learning experience. I don’t just mean for you — your team and your organization are coming along for the ride.

If you’re a manager or decision maker, please do not take what happens over the next few weeks in your new work-from-home culture as an indicator of what it’s like to work at home when there isn’t a novel virus pandemic.

The experience we’re having now is not typical. If you were given the option to create a remote-first or remote-friendly culture, you wouldn’t start by announcing that contingency plans are going into action and everyone has to bring their laptop home now. They’re called contingency plans because we hoped we’d never have to use them. We certainly didn’t design our corporate cultures around them.

Contingency plans are both reactions to stress (because something horrible has happened) and causes of stress (because now we have to do something different from the norm). Judging the success of a cultural shift by whether it works in a contingency plan is bad planning.

Stress is  the body’s reaction to change. It evolved as a protection against the natural world constantly trying to kill us. Sometimes that’s a mountain lion. Sometimes it’s a pandemic. Sometimes it shows up in the form of  burnout. We’re going to assume that you’re at least passingly familiar with it.

Most non-natural-disaster days, we may be in a group at home or at work where one or two people are experiencing high stress but the rest are not. We might be surprised to find that being around people who are under high stress suddenly makes us feel stressed, even if everything was calm between us. It turns out stress is contagious. Secondhand stress is a real thing.

It’s not coincidental that being around someone that’s stressed out makes you feel stressed. It’s chemical. Their body is telling your body to look out for the murderous lion they spotted without making a sound, and your body’s not aware that it’s a murderous lion but it is aware it’s time to go on high alert.

(A whole bunch of readers just when “OH THAT EXPLAINS 2019/2020” and I feel you.)

When it comes to COVID-19 though, this is not a scenario where “fight, flight, or freeze” will do any of us any good. Viruses aren’t alive, so they’re not only incapable of being bullied, they’re incapable of recognizing that they’re viruses. That means we can feel the stress, but there’s not a lot we can do about its cause.

Some people (hi!) have had good reason to fear respiratory infections for most of their lives. My husband has Cystic Fibrosis, so his experience of a common cold is closer to my experience of bronchitis, and his experience of bronchitis would be my experience of pneumonia or worse. (And, it’s worth noting, I have asthma so my experience of bronchitis was already worse-than-normal.)

We may be  experiencing fear of an infection for the first time, wondering if our parents or friends or kids are going to make it through, especially if we live in North America or Europe, where epidemics are rare events. We’re used to going to the doctor, getting treated, and going home. “Cancer” is something we think will kill us. “The 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic” is just a bunch of stories biologists tell us to fund their research, right?

Yeah, turns out no.

We may also be stressed about the pandemic’s consequences: schools closing, workplaces closing, supermarkets or other stores shutting down, food delivery disappearing, work disappearing, quarantines, medical bills, regular bills, shortened hours… In the US, where healthcare is tied to your job and sick days may be nonexistent, catching a virus that requires you to self-quarantine for 14 days may very well cost you your job, your home, and your future.

If you and your family are healthy but the schools and offices close, it may  mean facing down family stress. I know lots of people who choose not to work at home because they love their kids and if the kids are home, they want to spend their time as a family. I know others who find it difficult because their kids’ schedule is disrupted, causing stress, or there’s other family stress that is ramped up when everyone’s in the same building together. (Cue stereotypical comment about “the teen years”.)

If we actually do catch the virus, we could be facing not 14 days of quarantine but 3 or 4 weeks of quarantine as the disease makes its way through the household from oldest to youngest. In a best-case scenario this means everyone’s home sick coughing together wishing their fairy godmother would heat up the soup. In a worst-case scenario someone’s in the ICU and nobody from home can visit because they’re all sick too.

So almost all of us have reasons to be feeling stressed, whether they’re firsthand or secondhand stress responses, and whether they’re fears of things happening now or fears of things that could happen.

For many of us, when home life is tempestuous, work life becomes our anchor (and vice versa). Our desire is to have some space where we can stay the course for eight hours a day, go to the office, do what we always do, “keep calm and carry on”…  except that the things we always do, including bringing large groups of people together on a daily basis where they can share infected surfaces and breathe each other’s air is how COVID-19 spreads.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

If we’re working at a company where remote-work is not the norm, and our corporate contingency plan is everyone shifts to work-from-home, we’re about to make huge cultural shifts in our workplaces, under a time of extreme and contagious not-work stress.

This isn’t going to be your routine work-from-home situation, even if you already have one. Organizations are going to learn a lot about what tools, social structures, and expectations they have do and don’t transfer from lower-stress co-location culture to higher-stress remote-first culture. Some of our teams are going to fail.

We all need to go into the next few weeks with the understanding that not all of the lessons we learn are going to transfer well into future decisions.

There are dozens of things that will help us be successful (but not guarantee it). I’m going to recommend two tonight.

One is learning about good work-from-home behaviors and cultures if you don’t have one already. Abi Jones wrote a Twitter thread on work-from-home tips over the weekend. Abi’s a manager, so her threads generally cover advice good for both independent contributors and managers. (And she does great threads on lots of UX-adjacent topics so you should follow her.)

The second is learning about the biology and psychology of the stress cycle.  When I said earlier that we can feel the stress of a pandemic but there’s not a lot we can do about it? That’s only half-true.

We can’t individually solve the source of the stress. Viruses are gonna virus.

We can individually take actions that bring our own bodies through the physical stress cycle so that we feel less stress and are more prepared to deal with the next stress-causing event.

The book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle has all the details. The following video by the authors will give you the top tips to help release the stress we’re feeling so that we can recover and get well.

So stress: it’s high right now. Because of the pandemic conditions, it’s higher for some than others, and it may be affecting both our lives at work and our lives at home, especially if we’re asking entire teams to move to work-from-home cultures that have never experienced them before.  It’s not a good idea to use this petri dish of change as a baseline for other less-disaster-oriented cultural changes in the future. It is a good idea to read up on what we need to know about working from home, and learn how to release ourselves from the physical stress cycle.

Be well, and take care, my friends.