Welcome to our podcast.
This series is the «Keeping Connectivity in a Hybrid World» with our guest host Dan McNeil, Director of Engineering at Comply Advantage.
Sarah Foster: Would you like to tell us a little bit about your job at Covéa Insurance, and a little bit about you?
Paul Pilling: Okay, so I’ve recently moved into a new role at Covéa, and I’m now the Engineering Experience and Process Principle, which is the world’s best job title, or worse, depending on your perspective!
Basically, I look after the engineering’s wellbeing, their career progression and their growth as people — because engineers are people too. I also make sure our processes for getting things through to live, and through the pipeline are as good as they can be and champion engineering when we need to make the changes. I’ve been a Covéa for about 17 months, I came there as an Engineering Manager, and I’ve been in this role for about three and a half weeks.
Sarah Foster: So obviously keeping in mind connectivity within a hybrid world and high performing teams in the hybrid world which is what this is all about today. What does it return to work, look like for you?
Paul Pilling: To me personally or the engineers?
Sarah Foster: To you personally and your team at Covéa.
Paul Pilling: So, for me, so it’s one of the things that I’ve sort of really pushed on at the moment because we’re obviously we’re doing some recruiting at the moment and that’s the biggest question that people have now, you know, the pandemic has caused this massive flux in how people look at work, and look at where their base, look at the social interaction, etc. So, what we did today was, we did a survey, and we just asked people what they felt they will be comfortable with. Obviously, we don’t know quite yet you know how things are going to move. Hopefully, June 21st is still when everything gets lifted, but we need to make sure that we’re meeting our engineers needs as well now, so we’re yet to make a full nailed on decision on this.
But for engineers we’ve worked in cross site teams now so for Covéa we’ve got three locations. We’ve got Halifax, Reading, and Westmoreland, and some of our squats and our mix. So, return to the office would actually be detrimental to some people because they’re returning to an office to then remote into the rest of their team. Engineers don’t need to be in the office all the time. I personally think that we will probably have a, you can come into the office as well when you want, because some people want that social interaction, some people have lived on their own by themselves and apart from like last few weeks when they’ve been able to the pub and order a pint, they’ve had very little social interaction, so maybe they need those water cooler chats going forward. So, people that want to come into the office will provide access, people that don’t will then make sure that they’re set up in a way that they can actually work remotely and not be impacted by anything and not miss the water cooler chats. Part of my new role is to know how we put that experience in and how we make sure that they’re in the right place.
Sarah Foster: Yeah, so obviously you mentioned the water cooler conversations. Do you think the hybrid model will see those conversations fizzle out for those who don’t come into the office?
Paul Pilling: I think it depends on your workforce and your culture of your organisation because those water cooler chats over the last 14 months have been slack or teams. People have done little things here and there to make sure they’re still checking with people. They might have a network where they got colleagues and workmates with him. They still have a chat on the phone or WhatsApp, so I don’t think they’ll necessarily miss out on them, it maybe the spontaneity of them that you miss out. You might need to be more structured, you might need to make a bit more of an effort to have those, you know there’s little initiatives that we’re thinking about maybe just having a day where or a meeting a team meeting open, so people can just drop in if they just want a for a bit of downtime, like a downtime breakout room and you can get scribbler on there, play some music and, just try to break that monotony.
Sarah Foster: That’s a good idea! So with that, obviously, with having kind of a mix of some people working in the offices, some people working from home, do you think that we’ll see a lot of companies scaling down their offices if they’re also doing the same approach or if Covéa will be scaling down their offices.
Paul Pilling: I think it’s an interesting thing, so you’d think that if people were working more remotely and that was the normal hybrid, then you don’t need as much office space. But actually, you might need the same amount because we actually need to space the desks out a little bit differently, and we need to reconfigure the workspaces, so they are more secure and whatever this new normal is that we’re going to talk about when we don’t quite know how it’s going to work and how people want the office configurated. So, we have quite a nice open plan office in Halifax, and the office in Reading is pretty open plan as well, and in Westmoreland, so it could be that we just returned we might need to configure the office slightly differently. To some organisations though, it might be a good opportunity to downsize their outlay on, electricity, rents, network, data centres and things like that. It might force them to move off prem, into more cloud-based data centres, so there’s opportunities to cost save in some of those things. And then think if you look at the marketplace that might actually just be offset by slightly different salaries and things like that because people are now working remotely across the whole of the UK.
Sarah Foster: And if that was the case, what’s the answer when there’s more heads wanting to come in the office than desks available?
Paul Pilling: Actually, we talked about this this morning. So, we chatted about this because we’re talking about people working in tech, not using tech to their advantage. It takes two minutes to create a QR code, put it on every desk, build an app that then shows what desks are allocated or booked for that day. And then you have a certain amount of desks that are free. You just go in and you scan the QR code and updates the app, it’s not rocket science. If you gave that to a bunch of our engineers, they probably knock it out in a sprint. Not a problem. You know, probably in a couple of days to be fair to some to some squads, so let’s use technology, let’s use our skill sets to actually make it better for us so there’s things like that we can do, I think, really, really simple.
Sarah Foster: Okay, so with that hybrid working world, how do we stop bias to those who aren’t working in the office and those who are, so encouraging fair treatment and welfare?
Paul Pilling: I think this comes down to good work and practices and respect. If you work in an agile scrum type area then one of the core values is about respect and honesty and so having that courage to do things so set up things, set up a team charter, set up a clear meeting agenda if there was a meeting that’s happening and there’s six people in the office and four people remote, make sure that everyone, if you’re facilitating that meeting, make sure everyone has a voice, just because they’re a laptop screen. I think back to like old films, I’m quite old, you can tell by my beard. There’s a film called Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes and they have this meeting, and it was just like chairs with people’s faces on in that meeting. Why can’t we just have a laptop screen with someone’s face on. You can see that person and everyone just shares their laptop and gets a laptop screen with those people are all made of and if you’ve got a big TV, then everyone that’s remote has an equal size pane on the TV and you make sure that you involve them in all the conversation. You know little simple things like the wooden spoon so whoever’s holding the wooden spoon or the pig or whatever you want to have is the is the person talking and set it so that people know that we’ve got these remote people, and this is what we’re going to do with them. So, you’re involved and it’s about people, isn’t it? People miss people as well during this so I’ve been feeling part of it.
Sarah Foster: Yeah, that kind of leads us quite nicely on to, how will you ensure that your team have the feeling of being connected?
Paul Pilling: We will try, without bombarding them with polls and surveys, we’ll have places where they can raise challenges and we’ll try and reinforce like that 360-feedback loop. We’ve got tools already that can provide feedback, so let’s re-promote them let’s make sure that people understand that if they’ve got a concern. Maybe we’ll have like a welfare champion, maybe we’ll have the part of these things that will grow and hopefully my new sort of area and team, that will grow because the more you grow to help and guide that cultural maturity in a slightly different work environment.
At Covéa, we have strong core values for across the whole company not just digital. And I think it’s about using those values
Where things aren’t working, we want you to challenges, and we want you to respect. We want you to tell us when things aren’t right, and how you will make them work. And we want you to help us be better. Those values are not there as a thing to stick on the wall or something on the website. It’s about making those better as people and making us better as a company and as an organisation. So that’s how we’ll try and do that.
Sarah Foster: And with those values and ethos, how will you ensure that they remain the same when not everyone is in the office? For example, new people joining the business.
Paul Pilling: So, we have just been working on this. So, we have been working on an induction pack that everyone will get, and it’s related to where they fit. We loosely follow the Spotify model, so we have planets instead of tribes and in squads so what we’re doing with these packs is we are assigning the new starter a pack that is bespoke to them, tells them where they fit in the planets, show them good people to know, good people to speak to. We’re also assigning them a buddy. So, a buddy within their squad and a buddy outside of their squad. So, the buddy in their squad will help them with their navigation around JIRA backlogs. Git repositories, etc, and help them in that respect. And so we’ll understand where, where the squadders come from or where they’re going, and then the person outside at the squad will be there to help them with that welfare bit, help them with fitting in at Covéa, letting them know where they can get the wage slips from online, letting them know how to request for holidays, little bits like this here and there, just to make them feel part of the family, and make them feel wanted and valued. I think that’s the key thing is, to remote setup someone, we’ve remote set up quite a few people over lockdown, but this is the next iteration of that and then if that works well then maybe we set up like a little web page for them, that Welcomes them, to add some videos from their line manager from like the Head of Engineering, things like that, just to make them feel on that first day or before that first day that they really wanted.
Sarah Foster: So with that, can the fear of failure, be supported within a hybrid world, and how will you manage that without human interaction?
Paul Pilling: So fear of failure only comes from your culture. A fear of failure is something that everyone has. So, I don’t care if you’re Bill Gates, Simon Sinek, Steven Bartlett, then you will have a small amount of fear of failure or imposter syndrome, intrinsic in just the human psyche. And I think the culture is something that can either amplify that or help you manage it. So, we don’t seek to blame people for anything in what we do, and there’s a Thomas Edison said that you know you tried 999 different ways to make a light bulb, before we found the right way. So you just found a way not to do something. So, it’s not a failure, it’s just a success because you’ve successfully learned that this thing won’t work. You have to do a different way. So, it’s about reframing that and making sure that people understand it so, they can speak up that this ticket hasn’t been delivered and this thing didn’t work this spike didn’t quite work out how we thought it might work out. But, actually that’s not failure, it’s just changing that perception of feeling, and, and helping challenge them and helping them coach along to make sure that they feel supported and letting them know that there is support in case they are struggling. We have a great employee assistance programme. We’ve recently launched things with vitality and we’ve got vitality health care and discounts and all those things across so it’s about the people. Because we’re not clever enough yet to have made robots that can code as well as people and change and do that and the day that comes down we’ll have, maybe a bit of a worry but I think we’re a long way away from that.
Sarah Foster: So without being able to pick up on those kind of human feelings from, how do you think the hybrid model will affect attrition in the business?
Paul Pilling: So I don’t think we’ll stop being able to pick up on those human failings, I think that’s about still having those regular catch ups and still having those 121’s and still having that interaction with your squads and I think it’ll be more onus on like the lead engineers and the senior engineers to have that and to help coach and guide people through. I don’t think we’ll lose that human interaction; it will just be over a different medium. So, if we needed human interaction and Tinder would never get off the ground, you know, you’d still go to a nightclub to find someone you know you wouldn’t just swipe left and swipe right. The technologies that you just use it in a different way and you have to get used to it. So, you’re not going to lose that, unless you didn’t have it in the first place.
And if it was a false, sort of like, Five Dysfunctions of a Team where there’s false harmony because no one addresses the conflict or challenge because they don’t think anything will work then. They don’t trust people, then that will just exemplify that and amplify it, whereas if you have that trust if you respect people. If you make them feel part of your family and know your family or your, your, your organisation’s family and part of the, the value that they feel, then they will be open and honest, when if they’ve got a mechanism and a tool and an output, whether that be the buddy that they’ve got, if they’re new person, whether that be their line manager, whether that be a coach or a mentor that they have within the organisation, there’s a way for them to get that message across, and suppose what we need to work out is around that. The challenge around sometimes people, if they are feeling vulnerable, and the anonymity that they might want. So, if we could have a problem box where people can drop stuff and maybe two replies, you know, just put like a general reply in obviously no those come from what we can say like you know, if you fit in this way then you can go to this person, this person we’ve got Mental Health First Aiders. You can have this, or we’ve got Technical Principle, Engineering Principles that you can even if you got a problem with this thing, you could go and speak to this vigas, it might be a great person ect. To do this one, you know, so there’s ways we can get around it and I think it’s understanding those challenges and tackling them head on and getting nowhere in like the, the worst problem that we will have is if leaders try to implement the changes.
We need to empower the people back to own their challenge and own their problem and come up with ideas. Then as leaders, enable that to come to life. So, you know, the best thing about leader is seeing someone grow. It’s not about telling someone what to do. That’s a manager, and what we need to do is create that culture of leadership where people will come through, people will feel that they can step forward. And I think that that’s the best way to approach, it is to get you know if someone sees a problem, change the mentality. So like there’s a problem over here, so like I saw this challenge of his era and I think this might work to help us overcome it. And then you go okay, I like that idea, I can see it’s got like, go away and try and work it. Get all the people on board, share it. We’ve got Slack channels with guilds and wellbeing and all these other comms channels out there. Let’s use them and let’s maximise their impact and effectiveness.
Sarah Foster: Yeah, and do you have anything in place that of how you want to encourage people to speak in those situations at the moment or is it something you want to implement?
Paul Pilling: Should we have an «Ask Us Anything session» that goes to SLT and then you slide out. So obviously some people put my name on some people are anonymous and they can ask to members of our senior leadership team any questions that they want so that’s there. I’d like to see that filter all the way down. So, it’s not just SLT so it’s maybe like that layer of middle management in between SLT and the actual people that do both — the day job and bring the money in. So maybe like we have like that Boyzone moment you know where everyone is sitting on stools, and they just don’t get asked questions and someone picks it up or whatever. We need to try and take that model and then filter it down so everyone feels that, so it’s something that’s there, but we can make it better.
Sarah Foster: So within quality and a hybrid world, how will this be managed? So for example trust, co-sharing, the day to day side of things.
Paul Pilling: I think that’s something that we’ve had to do. You know over this last year or so, the scrum of scrums has become probably the most important ceremony in the scrum world where your different squads come together to share what they’re doing shed highlight dependencies and get that, so I think as long as you’ve got time and dedicated resource to make sure those things happen. And then that’s okay. And if they’re not, then that’s probably where your Engineering Leads and your Principles and your Gatekeepers or, you know, if you’ve got the DevOps and the platform side people making sure that they’re happy, making sure that your Automation Engineers and your Quality Assurance people are fully up to speed and engaged all the way through. So, they can ensure the quality of what you’re outputting from a requirement or a feature or product point of view.
And then just, making sure that your scrum masters. I think this is one of the internal problems isn’t there like you know, a scrum master is a servant leader who was supposed to be there to make sure that everyone does the job that they do in a mature organisation, without them, you know, without them being there so they hold their stand up, they hold their retros, they do their planning. When there’s dependencies and blockers, they go out and actively do that rather than relying on the scrum master to do it. And I think like, we almost need to put that mentality into everyone that everyone is a servant leader and everyone has the potential to be a leader in their own right, so they can go away and fix these problems by themselves. Give them the tools give them the channels, give them the names, give them the access to do whatever they need to do.
Sarah Foster: And what about on a personal level, for example, ensuring that people work the allotted hours, if it’s a 9-5, or flexible working, how are you managing that?
Paul Pilling: So people can see if you’re working more or less, when you need to. But I think, in going forward, is it about hours? I think, do we need to change how we address these types of things. Do we need to treat everyone more as a contractor in that contractor mentality where you actually given the Statement of Work, and this is what you. And you know when you can put like 700 hours into it, or five hours, as long as you get that piece of work done to the right quality measures, then that’s what you need to do so. I think the world of a busy fool is gone. Yeah so I think this is maybe where one of the advantages of the lockdowns come around is that the world of the busy fool is gone. People that you’d go from meetings and meetings and meetings and then it’s become more like just calendar stacking and looking important, I think that’s gone for people. I think the respect for that has gone a little bit as well.
I know one thing that we did is we realised this was happening to our engineers. We blocked out the afternoon of everyday for engineers. So that’s engineering focus time. So, if you’ve got sprint ceremonies, scrum ceremonies, whatever, they happen in the morning — meetings happen in the morning. The afternoon is focused on engineers, so they can code, an engineer cannot code if we’re constantly context switching dipping in and out and stuff so we put that in place. And because we realised that engineers may be working longer hours, because they were trying to catch up on. It’s about your passion, you know if your passion is code, then you will naturally not feel like you’re at the burnout stage because you enjoy doing it. It’s all the other stuff that goes with it. That is going to pull that burn out and that tiredness feel.
It’s all very well saying, find your passion, but you know, it’s hard for as long as you believe in the purpose of what your organisation is doing. And the purpose of what your squad, and your team are doing, then that can help. And get into people as well, so if we are going to measure hours and output and stuff then let them know that as an organisation as a business, if you’re assigned to do 35 hours a week, for example, and you’re regularly doing 50 hours a week 15 hours overtime, what you’re actually doing is masking for the organisation that, A) they’ve got too much work, or B) they’ve not got enough resource, because you’re covering over those cracks, and you can only cover over, so long before you burnout or you go, you know, I’ve had enough of this. I’ve been doing all these extra hours and I’m not get any acknowledgement for it, I’m off. But then you just find, you do the same somewhere else. You just mask those cracks over there as well. We have different ways to do that, you know, we have a timesheet, the bane of everybody’s life. You know people fill in and say what they’ve been doing and working on, you know, we can see when people are logging on people are logging off. See on slack when people are online and offline so you’ll sort of get a feel of it.
And I think that’s where your line manager and your scrum master really come in, is to go, you know what, this person committed a bit of code at 27 minutes past nine last night, and they were on first thing in the morning, so they done a 12-13 hour day there, what’s going on there? Is it that they were struggling, you reach out and find out, was it they just really want to get it done because they want Friday off, and then just stick an extra hour in and working flexibly? So yeah, I think, just honesty and giving people the focus to deliver what they need to deliver. Maybe don’t look at ours look at how many points in how many tasks they got through in the sprint.
Sarah Foster: Just kind of touched on it there, so burnout. Without that commute online downtime, with further risk of accelerating burnout with this work from home and having your offices around your dining room?
Paul Pilling: Yeah, we probably are to be fair. I think that certainly found my challenge. I used to love driving 45-50 minutes into the office and driving home at night because I can listen to music that my kids think of rubbish, no sing away to my heart’s content. Or I can listen to an audio book or a podcast and I can do things like that, so that was definitely the benefit of going into the office for me. But then at the flip side, I’ve seen my wife and my sons more than I’ve seen in the last few years, over this last year and that’s been great. I can take them school, like once or twice a week, I can be here when they get home. That novelty of that hasn’t worn off for me. There was a stage where probably bought more alcohol than I ever bought in my life during lockdown because, another busy day and stressful day I walk downstairs, and I just get a beer out of the fridge. Because that was that was the only way to get the wind down. And you know when there is that sort of lockdown bulk that people have put on because we just drank so much and then they’ve added kebab and whatever.
We also introduced the digital pause. People are encouraged, that we put it in this calendar invite and everyone diary, people are encouraged at that stage log off that person go for a walk, do some exercise, sit down watching TV, catch up on Netflix or whatever they wanted to do, get some lunch, people need to eat and have a drink. So those are the things that you need to manage yourself, you know, we talked about taking some ownership or some things. You know, you’ve got a family, you’ve got friends. Some people don’t have family and friends, but you might have hobbies, and they might have activities, you might have sport that they can do again now you know what, everyone could go out for a walk, or you know just get outside and sit in nature. I’m quite lucky I live not far from the Yorkshire Dales so I literally walk five minutes out that way and I’m in a field by a river and stuff so that’s been really useful. Not only because now we have vitality I get points, because I do a lot of walking. I’ve heard on a welding podcast or something. This chap used to walk around his village. He used to get up at the same time that used to go to go to work, and he just used to walk around his village for the same amount of time, as it would normally take him to get to work and do the same on the way home, he would just get up and walk around. And someone asked him, what are you doing? And he goes, I’m just doing my commute to work, or I’m just doing my commute home. Because then in his head, he could figure out the things that he would normally figure out on the way home. He would psych himself walk by walking around, getting ready, his mind ready for the day’s work. And that’s a great thing to have done. If I didn’t have kids, I probably do that myself.
Sarah Foster: And just finally to finish this off, is there anything from our conversation that’s made you kind of think about what you’d like to implement with your team, or anything you would like to add at all.
Paul Pilling: No, I think these sort of conversations are brilliant. I’ve reflected that I’m actually quite lucky working for an organisation that are doing a lot of these things and are trying to address some of these things or give me the scope to be able to implement some of them as well. So that’s quite good I think what we need to remember, like I said right at the very start, is that engineers, software engineers, developers, automation engineers, QA’s, platform, whatever, you know, product owners and Scrum Masters even those people as well. We’re all people. Do you know what I mean, and lockdown is probably emphasise the human need for humans? So, if we are working remotely going forward and are more hybrid, then make sure that you understand that those people have their challenges too. Focus more on the person that you’re speaking to, rather than treating them as just a colleague or a workmate and focus more on getting to know that. If you only look at a person from the shoulders up, how do you pick up on those little things. Get to know people’s facial expressions, if you have a meeting that’s cameras on every day, and this person turns up with their camera off, just drop them a message on Slack, just reach out to them. It may or may be all they need is someone to reach out and let them know that someone cares. So yeah, just think about people, think about what you would do if you were in their situation.
Sarah Foster: Fab! Thanks for your time Paul.
Paul Pilling: Good, I’ve enjoyed it. Cheers Sarah.