Post-lockdown Lessons About Shared Collaboration Infrastructure

The lockdown has put tremendous pressure on most collaborative projects by pushing them to go remote. In our case too, it tested our ability to use shared collaboration infrastructures, communication channels and management skills under conditions for which these were in fact intended: to facilitate uninterrupted remote and asynchronous work. Some projects struggled more because the infrastructure they were locked into was not designed for collaboration - as Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel says on 25 March 2020 on twitter: “If this pandemic doesn’t make people completely give up on Microsoft’s collaboration tools, I don’t know what will.”

We selected our infrastructure with eye to collaboration in the first place! But just like you don’t know whether you have a good backup until you’ve had to restore from it, nothing tests your infrastructure for asynchronous remote work better than a lockdown.

During covid19 lockdown in Denmark (15 March - 15 April), the lack of childcare for half the team meant inability to focus on extended computational or other work tasks and rendered face to face time difficult to arrange before 9pm. While other team members were theoretically available to work from home, lack of home office made extended work in uncomfortable positions hazardous to future health. Voila, ideal testing conditions were born.

Before we even knew of covid, we set up the following infrastructure to facilitate our collaboration on flexible schedules and while travelling. We had months to get used to it before lockdown imposed it mercilessly and split us by distance (V. locked in Czech republic), time (A and A working under limited conditions due childcare) and other issues (P. had a festering leg injury which prevented her movement).

The project infrastructure included :

  • Business G Suite for collaborative project administration, communication, cowriting of research documentation etc. (1 month) after previously using Vojtech’s G Suite for previous 6 months.
  • sdam-au github organisation containing repos with code related to projects;
  • SDAM shared group on for collaborative online storage that is shareable with non-AU stakeholders yet complies with GDPR and safe data storage and is computationally accessible
  • website (since project start/ 7 months)
  • JIRA for task management (launched shortly after project start/ 6 months, but not used seriously until in February.)
  • Slack channel for quick and ephemeral communication (since project start/ 7 months)
  • Outlook email account for official business with faculty etc. (since project start/ 7 months),

Team members expressed familiarity with most of these tools or the ability to acquire it independently. Some specific tools, such as GoogleForms or JIRA or interactions with, were less well-known and different teammembers developed tools and documentation or organized instructional sessions whenever the team needed to upskill.

In addition to the infrastructure, we had also discussed the priorities for offline/remote or asynchronous work being:

  • Monitoring of project channels to stay in loop and be aware of fires
  • Prioritizing to help others
  • Staying on track with tasks in Jira (mapped against project targets)
  • Documenting own work in shared project spaces online so as to keep it as FAIR as possible

While infrastructure kept functioning, covid revealed other deficiencies in our project coordination, which I now want to write down antidotes to:

  1. Maintain presence in your project communication channels: while working at computer was not feasible (e.g. A and A), Adela installed Slack on her phone, allowing her to respond to queries while in the playground, while Antonio could not. Phone apps can be useful! if you know how to switch the notifications off.
  2. Manage expectations: if you cannot be in on those channels, it is better and perfectly legitimate during times of duress (such as covid) to be straightforward and say, ‘I am completely off communication channels’ or ‘I won’t be online for the next two weeks’ rather than maintain a vague semblance of work and then have the team be wondering where you’ve disappeared to.
  3. Manage your tasks: given new circumstances, check about work priorities every time you (virtually) meet, and before you plunge into something new.
  4. Use of project infrastructure properly and document your work to be reusable by others when you are unavailable: granted, this takes some thinking and testing ahead of time but hey, our project happens to be precisely about that ;).