Healthy Environments

If you want to grow, whether as a team or individually, you need a healthy environment that allows you to thrive. There are so many things that could contribute to a healthy environment, so I am going to pick just a few as examples. (I’ll skip development environments other than to say I use vi when I write code or websites.)

The most tangible components include your desk, or wherever you work most days. I was lucky enough to have my study set up well before we had to work from home due to COVID. An adjustable sit-stand desk and two large monitors connected to a Mac mini meant my transition to long-term wfh was fairly easy. I had recently upgraded our home wifi and already had pretty much the fastest available internet connection. My company generously gave everyone a budget to upgrade their home office, so I took the chance to buy a chair that I’d wanted for a long time. I’ve made a few small tweaks over the year or so of wfh, but you can find many of the main items on my kit page.

The next area that people tend to think about when setting up a healthy environment is related to ergonomics. Big monitors are great but if you don’t set them up at the correct height then you’re going to strain your neck. Stare at them without a break and you’ll strain your eyes. Sitting all day (even on my nice new chair) can cause other health problems. It’s important to have a comfortable place to work, so it may require a few adjustments before you find what works for you.

The big trick I find that helps me is to move often, whether that’s switching between sitting and standing, or walking away from the desk for a short break. I already used the Pomodoro Technique to help with focusing on tasks, but now I have incorporated reminders to move more.

Part of the impetus to write this post is the (literal) pain in my neck – I know I need to stretch and exercise more, and I should probably put some small blocks of time in my calendar to remind me to do that each day. Thanks to Matt for recommending another stretch that I’ll be incorporating.

So far it’s all been about the physical environment, but it’s also important to think about mental health. I am very quickly going to be out of my depth on this topic, so all I’ll say is it’s really important for everyone to pay attention to their own mental health and to be supportive of those around you. Many companies are providing additional mental health support because the COVID restrictions and extended isolation many people are experiencing are causing additional strain. Here are some resources:

Like so much of what we observe and how we understand things operate in agile organisations and in the world in general, there are many interrelated factors and that’s why we should consider the system, recognising that changing one element can have an impact on others. It’s important to acknowledge that there are many components of a healthy environment and it takes effort to maintain them; ignoring them can have dire consequences. This can be daunting and that’s why it’s important to ask for help – no-one is an expert in all aspects so we should not be afraid to seek assistance, and hopefully we can support each other.


It’s been a year since we were told we had to work from home, thanks to COVID-19. WFH has always been an option for us, and it can be useful for the odd day or maybe two, but a year of it is way too much if you ask me! (I do appreciate that I’m fortunate to still be working and that my company has been very helpful in making WFH sustainable, but I miss the face to face chats even more than I miss the free snacks!)

Let’s go back to March 2020 and start at the beginning. COVID was hitting the news and there was talk of us doing a few days “test” to see if our various systems could handle hundreds of people working remotely. I remember that was announced on Wednesday, and so my coaching team decided to do a pre-test on the Friday… but before we could start the test it became the real thing, and we’ve been working from home ever since.

Why do I mention this on my agile blog? Because there’s lots to learn from it: agility is the ability to react and change rapidly; working from home requires a lot of adaptation; and of course “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley” or, if you’re not fluent in Robert Burns, no matter how good your plan is something will go wrong 🙂

If we didn’t already have some degree of agility throughout the company then some parts would probably have broken or at least been very taxed to cope with the sudden changes. Our IT teams quickly dealt with issues as they were reported, but then most IT teams are used to reacting to waves of tickets – kanban (or more often some process based on aspects of kanban) supports the flexibility and unpredictability that they face. Dev teams were empowered to experiment and find tools that worked for them; for example, we had a preferred video conferencing tool but teams are used to chatting with the people around them, so some used Discord and others tried Sococo – the emphasis was to focus on the outcomes (e.g. ad hoc conversations).

One adaptation that I had to make was due to the lack of (or at least greatly reduced) visual cues that I observe when sitting in a room with the people that I’m coaching. Combine that with physical interruptions, internet connections that drop every third syllable, the increased possibility of multi-tasking (e.g. having a conversation on Slack in another window) and general fatigue, and unsurprisingly it’s a challenge to have deep conversations. Shorter, more focused discussions followed up by text chats seem to be working, but it does seem to mean slower progress… but at least it’s progress!

I also find that I am using whiteboards even more than I did BC (Before Covid) and after trying a few websites is a firm favourite – it’s simple enough that anyone can contribute with a moment’s introduction, but powerful enough that we can build templates for a variety of purposes (retrospectives, story mapping, roadmaps, popcorn improvement boards, etc.).

What adapting to COVID restrictions has shown me is that flexibility, empowerment, experiments, and adaptation are key – now if only we had a word to encapsulate all that. 😉

The new norm

Everyone seems to have posted their tips/tricks/techniques/tools for the new norm with dev teams working from home, so I’m probably not going to post anything groundbreaking (wow, way to convince people to read this post!) but simply what we currently find works for us – it’s just some hands-on experience which might be helpful.

We still have access to our regular tools for kanban boards, wiki (lightweight docs), code repositories, etc. but there are some things which we are just used to doing face-to-face, with sticky notes and whiteboards so these were the tools for which we needed to find alternatives.

Firstly, it was important to let the teams find what works for them – there’s no point in telling everyone to use a particular tool if it doesn’t meet their needs, and who knows better than the teams themselves. Even though we use BlueJeans for video chats and Slack has built-in video calling, when asked how they’ll stay in touch throughout the day they picked Discord – they’re familiar with it (as gamers) and it’s proven to be stable under heavy load.

For retrospectives, we tried a variety of tools; Retrium works well but has a limited set of formats; for more freedom we picked Mural (i.e. it’s just whiteboard) although Google Jamboard or BlueJeans’ built-in whiteboard are great for impromptu discussions as they don’t require us to send out invitations. (Note that when the BlueJeans call ends it just wipes the whiteboard so remember to grab a screenshot!)

One feature we like with large groups is BlueJeans’ facility to set up breakout rooms; using that in conjunction with 1-2-4-All from Liberating Structures.

Obviously, we need to make sure not to put anything confidential or sensitive on these public tools but for ephemeral discussions, they seem to do what we need… at least until we find a newer, shinier alternative 🙂 so what are you finding works well?

Update: The addition of Snap Camera has made video calls more entertaining – it’s owned by SnapChat but it can be used with BlueJeans.