Pair Programming in a Pandemic

You can’t apply the same best practices as before and expect them to work now.

Hands up who has tried to pair program 100% of the time while working from home? I know I have. At some point or another it becomes exhausting. You feel this overwhelming urge to carry on as normal, because we all know that this is the best practice and “I’ll be damned if my productivity suffers just because I’m working from home now”.

Iteration 2 of my working from home setup, and incredibly depressing

Even at the best of times, in a pre-covid world, no-one enjoyed pair programming all the time. There are exceptions to the rule, obviously, but before covid hit and the world was turned upside down — pair programming was a very different experience to how it is now. Breaks were common, expected and timely. You could see the person you were working with, get a sense of their body language, their temperament and know when it was time to try something else. You could do something as simple as point to something on a screen and say “No, not there, there”. You could allow for comfortable silence, or random conversations to break the task up. You could ask the person two desks away for their opinion or to solve a stalemate.

Probably most importantly, you didn’t have to wear a headset.

To take that concept and attempt to drag and drop it to the current situation, expecting it to work, is madness. Yet many people still operate the same way. I have seen colleagues on 9 hour slack calls, both as burned out as the other but doing the same thing day after day. I’ve heard of people becoming unwell after having to work on a headset for days in a row.

Tensions are rising, tempers are fraying and everyone is a bit fed up.

So what can you do?

I will hold my hands up and say that I probably don’t pair program enough now and I am absolutely ok with this. How did I reach this conclusion? At the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was new to working from home, I was the opposite end of the spectrum. I was rarely off a slack call. I ended each day upset and headachey and dreading the next day where I did the same thing all over again. Until one day, I had enough. I made some rules for myself and advocated for myself. I was honest.

One long week of constant remote pairing too many and I was done.

Here are some of the things I have done which have helped me. Of course, I am not you and these things may not work for you, nor be possible for you. You might even be enjoying things as they are now. In that case, feel free to carry on as you are! Everyone is different.

Make an office space for yourself

Easier said than done, especially if you don’t necessarily have the room but I have found that a dedicated space for working has helped me mentally prepare for my day, away from distractions and other noises as much as possible. It’s not just about you either, if you are pairing remotely with another person it is your responsibility to make it easier for them too. If you can’t get youself to a quiet environment then consider the use of the mute button, or even, whether you are able to pair with another person at all. Working on a headset will be more like torture if neither of you can hear each other.

This is also my bedroom but it is the best setup I have to date

Be honest and stick up for yourself

Some days, I just don’t want to wear my headset. My ears hurt, I have a headache and I need time by myself to think. This is how I work sometimes and I accept that fully. Regardless of whether everyone else does, this is something I need to do for me.

Take breaks

You may have only had a 5 minute break every couple of hours before now, maybe you liked to do the majority of your work in the morning in one massive block and then break the afternoon up. Great, that worked then. It won’t work now. Working on a headset is exhausting. You need more frequent breaks than you think. Take them. If not for you, then for your pair programming partner.

All that said, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t throw collaboration out the window. You may not want to pair all the time so maybe come up with other ways to keep in touch and engaged instead. Consider ping-pong pairing or delegation of tasks with regular check-ins. Set a timer if you are on a call and stick to it. Ask the other person what they need to get on with things.

Most importantly, aknowledge that things are not normal right now and we need to do what works, not what used to work.

Stay safe, stay connected and see you all on the other side.

Sharon x

Software Engineer, expert worrier and mum

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