Donal Kissane of Liberty IT is sitting at his home work set-up and smiling into the camera.
Donal Kissane. Image: Liberty IT

How coaching from home can lead to ‘richer conversations’

2 Jun 2020

Donal Kissane, a technical capabilities manager in Liberty IT, discusses leading and coaching his team as the company adjusts to working remotely.

Donal Kissane is a technical capabilities manager in Liberty IT. He has more than 10 years of experience in leading people and teams in the IT industry and, like many others, has had to pivot this work online in the past few months.

A typical day for Kissane sees him having career-coaching conversations with engineers, working with his unit’s architect to review or discuss the next emerging technology or capability on the horizon, and meeting with the senior delivery lead and account director to discuss the future strategy for the unit.

So, how does he achieve all of that while working from home? We spoke to him to learn more.

‘Now more than ever it is important that we stay connected and make ourselves available to our employees’

Was Liberty IT prepared for remote working?

Liberty IT operates in 18 countries, therefore Covid-19 was on our radar for a number of months before it escalated in the UK and Ireland. We’ve always had flexible working with many of our teams regularly working remotely. However, our infrastructure teams make sure our entire organisation of 550-plus could sustain working from home in the longer term in advance of lockdown.

What have been the biggest challenges so far and how have you been approaching them?

The main challenges for a lot of my colleagues who have children was balancing work with home life and, in particular, homeschooling. Thankfully, Liberty IT have been very supportive in this regard and have been very clear that we need to put ourselves and our families first. Many people have adjusted their working hours to prioritise their family.

I think another challenge our teams faced was readjusting to the new norm. Working from home presents different challenges (and opportunities) than office life. When adjusting, you can find it difficult to separate work life and your personal life as there is little to no physical separation. As a result, it’s easy to find yourself working longer hours, which isn’t a good thing.

To help with this we have been encouraging our teams to find a routine that works for them and giving them some tips and techniques to help with the separation. My favourite is exercise – nothing beats getting out in the fresh air after work, even for a walk to clear the head and remind the brain that work is over for the day.

If you’re not into exercise, cooking a nice dinner also helps and we’ve set up a recipes Slack channel to share our kitchen successes – and failures! I know for me, it’s about getting separation from my laptop and closing off my workspace every evening and weekend. I have two young children, and nothing beats that knock on the office door at around half five every day to remind me it’s time to go out and play.

People are also missing the water-cooler conversations and being able to walk up to someone’s desk to ask a question. Something which really helped our team was hosting ‘remote-team norms sessions’ to agree guidelines for how our team will work together. It covers a variety of things including frequency of meetings, preferred ways of communicating and more.

We would typically have these meetings at the beginning of a project or when there are major changes to a team. These sessions are very useful for remote working as they provide clarity and certainty to all team members when it comes to how we are going to communicate and collaborate with each other.

Have there been any positive impacts that took you by surprise?

From a personal point of view, it has been great to be able to replace my daily commute time of three hours with quality family time. As a result, I definitely feel more balanced when it comes to work and home life.

From a work perspective, I have been pleasantly surprised how well our remote coaching sessions have been going. You don’t have the distractions of trying to find a meeting room and I feel people are more relaxed and comfortable in their own home environment, which is leading to richer conversations.

Another big difference is that there is less context switching when working remotely and this allows for more focus time. You don’t have people calling up to your desk.

This is something a number of team members have commented on. In particular for engineers, this is great as context switching is one of the main causes of burnout. They are seeing an increase in productivity.

How is Liberty IT maintaining its culture and people engagement remotely?

As a technology organisation, we are extremely fortunate to be operating business as usual and have the infrastructure to make working from home really work for us. We are working really hard to keep connecting with each other.

We’ve always been a social bunch and that hasn’t stopped! Our wellbeing committee has set up regular pilates, meditation and healthy-eating sessions, our charity committee continue to raise much-needed funds for our charity partners and our social committee even set up a virtual games night a few weeks back, which was great.

In addition to that, we have a fantastic employee assistance programme open to employees and their families, and we meet as a full organisation every two weeks. This is really beneficial as our senior leaders are extremely visible and fantastic at keeping employees updated.

Within my own unit, I have leadership responsibility for almost 30 people and I would have regular check-ins and one-to-ones with individuals. Now more than ever it is important that we stay connected and make ourselves available to our employees.

What is something you would recommend for other companies adjusting to remote working?

Experiment with the different collaboration tools and find what works best for you and the teams. We are lucky that we have all the tools we need to stay connected and work effectively together and are continuing to learn how best to use them. For some that’s Zoom and Skype, but for us it’s mostly Microsoft Teams and Slack.

I would recommend that teams review their team norms and agree, as a team, what tools they will use to stay connected. Working remotely changes the way we communicate with each other, so it is important for the teams to agree on their communication strategy so that everyone feels supported.

For most of our teams we have found Slack to be a great tool for collaboration. Each team has their own channel where team members can post messages looking for help or just have a general conversation with colleagues. It is our preferred tool for pair programming, where different team members jump on a call, share their screen and work on a piece of code together.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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