7 collaboration ideas to make remote pair programming more fun

6 minute read

Prolonged remote-only work can be depressing. Here are 7 remote-pairing collaboration ideas to inject fun into the teams we are coaching!

Drawing of 2 remote pair programming buddies throwing a ball through at each other through the screens and a cloud. There are some fun collaboration activities that we can use to make our coaches enjoy remote pair programming!

I can’t wait to meet my colleagues in person again! [Someone interviewed during the COVID lock-down]

I’m the first to agree that no such solution is the same as being in the same room [Larry Brunelle in extremeprogramming@groups.io]

As far as teaching it (Note: evolutionary design), nothing works better than sitting with them […] [Jeff Langr in extremeprogramming@groups.io]

I met my friend Ahmad 6 years ago when he joined our Paris based team from Beirut. He was spending most of his time remote working alone. After a few months, the isolation was wearing on him. We decided that one of us would spend a few weeks at the other office every 4 months. This was a tremendous improvement for Ahmad! Many of us are currently forced into prolonged remote work. Unfortunately, going to the office is not an option!

The default remote break is to remove your headset and move away from the computer. The default in-person break is to find a buddy, walk to the coffee machine, and have a chat! Teamwork builds on an invisible network of tight social bonds. These bounds have very little to do with work topics! Remote work makes it way too easy to only talk about work with your teammates. We need substitute activities!

Solid humane collaboration is the foundation of any teamwork. It is our job to show how to sustain and grow this humane collaboration through remote work. We spend a lot of time remote pair programming with the team members. This is an excellent occasion to show how to inject some fun and humane collaboration into daily work!

The obvious

I’ve already blogged about remote pair programming in the past. Here are two pre-requisite to any form of more humane remote collaboration:

  1. Put your cameras on: “Without the cameras on, we wreck what’s left of non-verbal communication.”
  2. Take regular breaks. It’s impossible to have pleasant or fun interaction when we are tired. On top of that, many of the following fun collaboration ideas happen during breaks!

A slide from Holly Cummins' talk 'The importance of fun in the workplace'. The slide reads: "Failing at Fun, Forgetting to fix the other stuff". Likewise, trying to add fun and humane collaboration activities of top of exhausting remote pair programming will not work. Regular breaks are mandatory!

Now that you have set up face-to-face interaction and a sustainable pace: let the fun begin! Here are remote work collaboration tips to make pair programming more fun.

1. Pause and chat

Take the time for regular pauses and have a non-work-related chat with your coachee.

Are you wondering how to get this started? Here are a few example questions you can ask your buddy:

  • “What coffee do you drink?” (When you come back after a break with a coffee)
  • “What book are you reading currently?”
  • “Have you seen any good movies lately?”
  • “What is your next holiday plan?”

(If you wonder, I get my incredible inspiration 😉 from The 25 best icebreaker questions for team-building at work.)

2. Have a snack together 

[…] pretty much anything you can do to get them (Note: team members) to take care of each other will help – team lunches, birthday parties, etc. If they are used to taking care of each other away from the code it will feel natural to take care of each other within the code. [Phil Goodwin in extremeprogramming@groups.io]

Sharing food builds deeper connections between humans. Take a moment to share your afternoon snack together. If you have more time, you could even have a remote lunch!

A slide from a Thoughtworks team presenting how they are doing remote lunches in their distributed team.

We had our first remote lunch at the office with Ahmad many years ago. It looked like a wacky idea at the time, but it was actually a lot of fun! We even learned why Lebanese people don’t cover their roofs with solar panels!

3. The Home Tour

Here is an idea I got from Rachel Davies in her talk “Sustaining Remote-First Teams.”

Photo of a sign written 'Welcome to our home'. Running a 'home tour' with your pair programming buddy is a fun remote collaboration tip that will kick off constructive work.

The practice is straightforward. Take a break and carry your laptops to walk your buddy around your home. It’s just as you would do with a first-time visitor. It’s a great way to welcome the collaboration and kick off constructive work!

4. Unboxing ceremony

Just a sec, I have a delivery!

Photo of a young child who just opened a delivery box. Deliveries are like presents. We can share the joy of discovering what's in it for us with our remote pair programming buddy.

We’ve all heard this sentence a few times during 2020! First, we can use this interruption to take a short break. Breaks are always welcome 😉. Second, we can have an ‘unboxing ceremony’ (this is another excellent idea from Rachel Davies.) Shake your box around and try to have your buddy discover what is in there!

5. Window Views

I’m lucky enough to have a garden and to a nice home-office window-view. Sharing what we see helps us to connect to the other’s point of view.

Photo of an outside view from a window. Sharing what you see from your window is a great way to kick start positive collaboration with your pair programming buddy.

This can also serve as a great morning energizer!

6. Fun Videoconference Backgrounds

Hopefully, your video conferencing system lets you set custom backgrounds. It turns out this feature is an excellent way to build elaborate pranks. Here are a few things I tried:

  • Use a weird-for-work background, like a circus, for example.
  • I am using a walking treadmill for a few hours every day. I set up a “Great Wall of China” background to make it look like I was traveling around the world!

I depend heavily on putting provocative things up on the wall and seeing the reactions. [George Dinwiddie on extremeprogramming@groups.io]

  • Sticking posters on the walls is a well-known coaching technique. Remote work prevents posters, but videoconference backgrounds are the next best thing! Any presentation software makes it easy to hack messages on top of pictures.
  • I once had to go to the company building during the lock-down. I seized the opportunity to take a picture of my real office background. Using it as a videoconference background surprised everyone: “How did you go to the office during the lock-down?”
  • Finally, you can combine any of the above. For example, here is a background I prepared on a late Friday afternoon! It really looks like Darth Vader is looking over my shoulder! This made my colleagues laugh a lot the first time they saw it.

A made-up video conference background where we can see Darth Vador looking over my office chair. It is written 'I find your lack of unit tests disturbing' in one corner!

7. Online Kudos

Sending Kudos is a cheap way to show your coachees how to bring more humane collaboration in the workplace.

Kudo boxes are the usual way to send Kudos to your teammates. I remember we used to send Kudos cards to Ahmad by mail. He liked to receive a letter full of kudos. Unfortunately, we did not stick to the practice for very long…

A screenshot of our Kudos channel. Online kudos is an easy remote work fun collaboration tip to build teamwork up.

A more straightforward way is to use your team chat! For example, Microsoft Teams has a ‘praise’ plugin that lets you send short kudos. When you notice your pair is doing something worth a Kudo, send him one through a team channel. Everyone will see the Kudo, and the habit is more likely to spread.

Coach by example!

Next time you remote pair program, try some of these fun collaboration ideas. As technical agile coaches, it is our responsibility to show that:

  • There is a better way
  • Humane collaboration is the foundation of effective teams
  • We need to embrace change

Here is a summary infographic that you can print and stick on your wall to keep these tips in mind!

An infographics titled '7 ideas 4 remote fun pair programming'. It shows a pair of programmers playing with a ball through their screens and a cloud. It also lists the 7 ideas: Pause & Chat, Snack Together, Home Tour, Unboxing Ceremony, Window Views, Videoconf Backgrounds, Online Kudos
By Philippe Bourgau, under CC BY-SA 4.0, high resolution image

Most of all, I would love to read your own ‘humane’ hacks to remote pair programming! The comment section is yours.

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