One year of the pandemic - A look back at the past year of work at subshell

The pandemic has been with us for just under a year now, and with it, working from home - it's really not a reason to celebrate, but it is an occasion to reflect.

Conference room in the subshell office
Nobody there. In the corona pandemic, the subshell office remains empty (Image: subshell/CC BY)

What does our "new normal" look like and where is it possibly headed? I discussed this topic with Andreas N. (tester), Isabelle (student developer), Philip (developer) and Sebastian B. (tester).

Andreas, we see a virtual background on your screen, where are you currently connecting from, where are you sitting and what do you see from your home office?

Andreas N.: I'm sitting at my desk, in my study where I usually sit, surrounded by four monitors. And behind me is a big pile of totally personal stuff. I'm looking out the window in front of me, at the Schanzen water tower.  

Sebastian, Isabelle, Philip - where are you connecting from?

Sebastian B.: Our workspace is located in the basement, but I can relate to the pile of stuff in the background.

Isabelle: I'm in Hamburg with my boyfriend right now. Otherwise I’m normally at home with my parents,  in my room.

Philip: I'm sitting in my apartment in my study, with a view of the neighbor's house, the neighbor's balcony. From the other window, I can see the other neighboring houses; it's nice and quiet here, there are no water towers and there is no traffic.

We've been in the home office for just under a year now. Do you miss working in the office? If so, what do you miss the most?

Isabelle: What I miss is the spontaneous interaction during in-between moments, playing foosball and table tennis. I also miss the possibility to go for a walk together with others after long meetings and to have lunch together.

Philip: I absolutely miss working in the subshell office. I was never enthusiastic about home office before the pandemic. I've come to realize a lot of the benefits of it, but sitting with colleagues, calling each other over, having lunch together, that's an essential building block of the workday for me, and now  it's just missing. Even though we can now sit together virtually in Teamspeak and call into the room via audio, it's not the same as the office.

It's also harder for me to separate work from everyday life, as there's currently no time spent commuting to get to the office or return home, during which you can mentally prepare for work or switch off after work. I'm sitting here in my room, where I also live my private life; two meters away is my living room. It's just not very nice. When things get back to "normal", I will also work from home, but guaranteed not more than once or twice a week.

Sebastian and Andreas, do you miss the office?

Sebastian B.: What I miss a bit are the conversations that don't relate to work, as Isabelle already said, those spontaneous interaction in between work moments. If I had the choice again, however, I would continue to use home office because I find it more pleasant and the disruption factor is lower. And conversely, it's more communicative - if I want something from Tommy, I can do it directly without annoying Feri, who sits in the same office. During the past year, I've had the impression that communication in our team has increased overall. But of course, the home office is no substitute for a round of foosball.

Andreas N.: I also think that communication has increased and is now more intense, because you talk directly to one person and can share your screen. That works better than ever. What's missing is the casual contact, when on occasion someone came into my office and pointed something out to me or drew my attention to an issue. I wasn't a fan of home office before, but now I really like it. It's not so hard for me to separate work and free time.

What was or is the biggest challenge for you personally when working at home?

Andreas N.: Getting up in the morning (laughs), no - maybe the problem of finishing for the day, but that's okay too.

Philip: Getting up in the morning is really one of those things for ME. The home office has turned my everyday life upside down. Before, I managed to get up just before seven, my train left at 8:29 and I was in the office at a quarter to nine. Now I'm happy if I manage to get out of bed before half past eight. With luck, I manage to have breakfast before the Daily Stand-Up - and it's been that way since I started the switch to home office. Previously, I used to have breakfast by this time and be sitting at my desk in the office. I also used to walk from the main train station to HafenCity and back, and I miss the exercise, too.

Sebastian B.: For me it's just the opposite - my daily rhythm has hardly changed. I start earlier because I don't have to commute. Conversely, I usually don't manage to finish on time. I used to finish at 4:15 p.m. because that is when my train leaves; that's missing here because my commute is gone. It's hard for me to sign off at the end of the day. But as Philip said, exercise is an issue for me too. If I do nothing and sit at my desk all day, I'm exhausted in the evening. I have to get up at lunchtime to go for a run, which influences the rhythm of my day.

Isabelle: For me, there is no challenge, but simply a change. My morning routine is different now. The alarm used to go off at 4:30 in the morning so that I could start at the office at seven at the latest, get off work on time and go to university. It's certainly healthy that I don't get up so early anymore, but now, I'm happy to get out of bed at nine. The positive thing about home office is that I finally get enough sleep and therefore have a healthy daily rhythm again.

It's fascinating, how differently you assess working in from your home office. I think that's a good reflection of how things are at subshell, which is very individualized. Everyone works under very different conditions.

Isabelle: Yes, although the attitude towards the term "home" is also changing. I now see the possibility of not necessarily having to live in Hamburg or the surrounding area after graduation; someone from our Korora team is planning a move to the countryside now, because that's possible when you work remotely. Another possibility is to theoretically work from your vacation home.

Country home
Country home: Rethinking workplaces (Image: subshell)

Speaking of which, how do you see co-development and teamwork changing?

Philip: This new situation has forced us to try out new tools has certainly improved joint development. I can concentrate here at home just as well as at the office. When there was too much chatter in the office, I put on my headphones and listened to music. That always helps me concentrate anyway. Roughly speaking, not much has changed.

Isabelle: Communication is really strong within our team. We sometimes use IntelliJ with Code With Me to develop together. But mostly someone shares their screen and we talk on Google Meet.

Andreas N.: Technology has led to the improvement of communication, especially regarding new meeting procedures, through the use of screen sharing. We will certainly continue to use such technologies after lockdown ends, if there is a mixed office concept, with some people at home and some in the office.

Philip: I agree. Now that we've been forced to test tools that we were rather skeptical about before, therefore in the future, we'll be able to better integrate people who are in home office. In a mixed office concept, we should keep all the advantages of the communication styles that we learned during this home office experience.

What will working look like in the future?

Isabelle: I think in the future people will work in a mixed format. I would like to see presence in the office not enforced, so that some people can move to the countryside and others who really like being in the office can also have a fixed workplace. I can imagine regular days in HafenCity, like for team day* or staff meetings.

*Team day: A team has the office to itself on a predefined day and can hold retrospectives and reviews and other meetings in the conference rooms in person, taking into account the applicable distance and hygiene regulations.

Sebastian B.: I see it similarly. I like to hold retrospectives and other personal meetings on site so that we can look each other in the eye. Technical matters can continue to be handled online.

Andreas and Philip, how do you see the future of the office?

Andreas N.: I also think there will be a mixed or hybrid working arrangement, but I think we need to use more virtual spaces like Teamspeak for very low-threshold contact and small talk. Working in the future should include hallway conversations. But I think that it will evolve on its own.

Philip: For me, the work environment of the future is in the office, provided that others are also there. I like to chat, when I am in the kitchen, about the mac and cheese I'm preparing, while my coworkers ask disgustedly where that smell is coming from. All that non-work talk must come back. We currently compensate for all the small talk that we no longer have in Team Weasel every few weeks, after work, at a virtual game night. I'm looking forward to being able to come into the office and catch up with everyone again soon.

Mac and Cheese - sometimes found in subshell's kitchen
Mac and Cheese - sometimes found in subshell's kitchen (Image: Texasfoodgawker via Wikimedia/CC BY-SA)

Finally, can you imagine another year in the home office, yes or no?

Philip: No.

Isabelle: Yes and no, it depends on the circumstances.

Sebastian B.: I can definitely imagine working at home for another year, but I would be happy if everything else in everyday life was partially functioning again.

Andreas N.: I wouldn't mind.

This interview was translated from German by Cassandra Hergert

Hêvi Sari
Hêvi Sari
2/18/21
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