The “No Desk” Experiment – Working Closer With My Team

Ever since becoming a manager, my motto has always been “People before Projects”, meaning that ultimately, if I provided my team everything they need, then the project work would take care of itself.

Working for a big corporation which has a lot of moving parts, meant that for a while, I was consistently in 6 hours plus of meetings per day, each one believed to be the most important by it’s respective organiser. It got to the point where the only time I would read emails would be in the evening after the kids had gone to bed, and as for having time to spend with my team, well apart from my scheduled 1-1s, there was very little. Sure I would stop by their desks and try and check they were ok in between my meetings, but I felt I was failing them as a team. So i decided to try and change my days in the office.

Firstly, I made the assessment on the meetings I HAD to attend, compared to the ones I wasn’t compulsory for and could either decline or pass on to one of my team to attend instead. This in itself, cut my meetings down to an average of 4 hrs per day which can still be a bit overwhelming some days, but is certainly more manageable.

The next step was, how do I give more to my team, at least now in the period where I have two junior new starters? Firstly I changed my 1-1 structure, I left my laptop at my desk, took a notepad and pen and asked them how they were, how I could help them and tried to show support for what they needed. The problem with taking a laptop was that if emails fly in during the meetings, it was easy to get distracted.

Secondly, I came up with a drastic solution, which I trialed for a week. Whenever not in meetings, I decided I would literally hot-desk around the Development and QA team members, meaning I would spend time sat with the team, understand the projects in more detail and offer assistance in any way I could.

This meant I could start doing what I’d been trying to get around to before bureaucracy got in the way and that was coach my team members and use snippets of the years of knowledge I had to share. If one of my team was putting together a Test Plan or Test Scenarios, I was able to review them while sat with them, rather than them sending it to me via email and my thoughts being sent back maybe a couple of days later.

I was able to respond straight away to any concerns, we could go for coffee and discuss the issue as soon as they came to me, rather than me telling them I’d get back to them when I was free.

I felt more aware of the day to day project work and the technical difficulties the team may be experiencing, I was hearing it all first hand, rather than through chinese whispers by the time it reached me.

I was worried the team would respond negatively to me being around, maybe see me as “checking up” on them or trying to micro-manage, but the response I got from the team was hugely positive. Mainly because I was more plugged into the day-to-day work, they were able to start conversations on that level, rather than bringing me up to speed first before getting to the point.

I took them all out for lunch that week too and it all just added to the point I was trying to make with the whole week, I value them all and I want to ensure I give them all the tools and time they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

While the obvious solution is to try and engineer a desk in the middle of the team, that isn’t immediately possible, but what is possible is to find every moment I can to be available for them. That still means I have work to do and emails to read, but it’s about being organised enough to allow the time while you are all in the office together, to be as around as they need from me. The team will grow and develop and in the same way children become more independent from their parents,  the team will grow and become self sufficient, then the job of coaching them will take a back seat and the focus for me can then switch. But while they need me, I will continue trying to make myself free for any time they want from me.

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A Change in Perspective – Moving from Tech Lead to Manager

I’ve been in Software Engineering since I left University as a graduate in 2006 and have performed many roles such as Software Developer, Scrum Master, Build Engineer and then in 2010, I moved into Software QA. At that point, I had several awesome mentors who I owe so much for fueling my love and passion for all things Testing/QA.

Fast-forward 6 years and I had moved teams and become the QA Tech Lead in my new team which are an Operations Engineering team. I finally got my head around the complexities of the systems we were responsible for as a team and was starting to move the teams focus to processes and ways in which i felt could move the team forward. So at this point, I felt I had got to grips with the production process.

In 2017, I started working towards becoming the manager of the local team and also taking on hiring a new team for a second project. That team were to be located in Ireland and I took on building that team from scratch. Hiring that team was my first real taste of management responsibilities. I had previously been involved in hiring from a “who would I work well with?” perspective, where as now, I was looking at the overall dynamics of the team, how they fit salary wise with the rest of the team and whether there was anything about them that might make them difficult to manage. This really opened my eyes to how things would change with my new role.

Over the next year or so, to now, there were several other parts of the role which opened my eyes to there being more differences than me just taking on line management duty of my team mates.

1. Trusting the team to be Technical

Once I got the Irish team set up, it became obvious that I couldn’t be the technical point of contact for two teams and had to start backing away from the deep down technical details and trust the teams to pick that up. It really became clear that I had to trust my team to pick up the details and I needed to enable to do them that.

 2. Time is for your People

I soon learnt that to enable the team, it required them to be my main focus. Therefore, giving them all time with me, through 1-1s and spending time sat with them at their desks, meant that I started working longer hours to give them the time they wanted/needed and then still performing the other duties i still needed to do. Over time, this has got easier to manage, but with two teams on completely different projects, it’s certainly been a challenge.

3. Difficult Conversations

One element of the role which I needed to adjust to, was having to have conversations which I wouldn’t have previously had to worry about. It really was about working out where the line is in situations and then being strong enough to talk to team members when that line is crossed. Then also being consistent to ensure that everyone is treated the same way.

4. Technical Advocate rather than Technical Leader

With having to trust the team to take on the technical leadership role, it became clear that although I still need to understand the technical detail to some degree, I would give the team the freedom to advise me on technical directions, then be their advocate when talking to others about the technology, ensuring the team know I have their back and support their decisions. While also still offering my opinion and helping to guide the team, the directions of the team would not be down to just me.

5. Someone Resigned! Was it Because of Me?

This was a tough lesson, and caused a lot of over analysing and over thinking. But ultimately, I had to try and not take it personally. Then, secondly, try to turn it into a positive as it would give me a chance to re-build the team in the way that I feel works.

6. No Favourtism

Before I became a manager, I felt I got on well with all the team I worked with, but becoming manager changed the dynamics. Some suddenly started being more formal with me and I couldn’t understand why as I hadn’t changed. There were some members who I found very easy to talk to, but I had to show that I valued all members of the team. That meant backing away from socialising with them regularly over lunch or out of work and only really doing so when all the team is present.

The Future

I love my role and I love the fact that I am learning and developing every day. I value the work my team are now able to do, with my guidance and seeing them become more self sufficient, means I am starting to be able to focus on more strategic work and still see my teams move forward, knowing I have their back, encouraging them to do the best they can.