Remotely collaborating on knowledge exchange & learning during a Pandemic

Staying motivated and continuing information flow and knowledge exchange is very challenging during a pandemic, especially for teams which are not used to the remote-only setting.

In today’s fast-paced and ever-evolving world, continuous knowledge exchange and learning are essential for keeping our teams up to date with the state of the art in technology, data science and medicine, as well as to stay competitive.

During non-pandemic times, we usually enable knowledge exchange at the office in an ad-hoc manner, through what we call BrainNet meetings. We use BrainNet meetings to meet up in subteams for short demos and discussions, often on architectural and process improvements, but also to share newly gained knowledge. Often times, the organizer would also create a few sketches to explain the topic, followed by short and (usually) intensive discussions in which almost everyone actively participates. In addition, the bi-weekly Scrum Review meetings are also a good opportunity to share knowledge within the subteams.

However, we’ve noticed that during pandemic-enforced home office, these BrainNet meetings are much rarer and participation is usually less intensive and engaging. While today’s modern team collaboration services, such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, are getting better and offer more immersive collaboration experiences, nothing beats physical, face-to-face meetings, especially for active learning and private interactions.

Collaborative Learning

Based on feedback from the team and our own observations, we decided to counter this challenge by introducing additional opportunities to learn, grow and exchange ideas and knowledge. The main goal was to allow our teams to deepen their knowledge on topics that other team members already mastered (knowledge exchange), learn about new topics that will be valuable for team members and ScanDiags in the future, and foster collaboration within and across the teams.

To that purpose, we introduced four new tracks:

New Technology Workshop

To level up our teams’ skills and allow them to learn and grow, we created learning modules with topics that currently are or soon will be relevant for developing and improving ScanDiags. Topics covered so far were SQL Server (database) performance and monitoring, General Adversarial Networks (GAN) and a deep dive into several Computer Vision topics. They are organized and guided by one of the seniors in our company, and usually include a theoretical session, followed by hands-on sessions, where team members work on concrete problems individually or through pair-programming. The learnings are documented on-the-go in a shared wiki. These short and intensive learning modules allow us to quickly apprehend new topics and are quite appreciated by the teams.

Cross-Team Hackathons

Similarly, we are working on two new web apps, which we’ll use for ScanDiags, one internally and one externally. Traditionally, these were developed mostly by our software engineering team. Nonetheless, it is beneficial for the data science team to expand their knowledge of how web apps are developed, and how the AI models they build are applied and used through the web apps. Hence, after some introductory sessions, we built subteams consisting of software engineers and data scientists to collaborate (and pair program) on these web apps.

Knowledge Exchange Talks

In company-wide or team-wide short and intensive sessions, individual team members prepare a short, usually 1–2-hour, session where they give an overview on a topic of their expertise. These knowledge exchange talks often include a theoretical part, followed by a demo, in which the approach, framework or architecture is demoed, and discussed afterwards. Some topics that we have covered include an introduction into React (web app development), Microsoft PowerBI (quick and powerful data analysis and visualization), Azure Active Directory, and cybersecurity-related topics. In addition, these talks have also featured deep dives into the ScanDiags’ IT architecture or topology of modules and clients that we develop.

Social Talks

Finally, this last track is aimed to simulate hallway chats or lunchbreak discussions, where people usually talk about their lives, hobbies, and previous jobs. These social interactions are something which we have missed the most from our remote-only work, and they are very difficult to replicate with virtual coffee meetings et al. One thing most of us found quite fun was when team members would present a non-work related topic that fascinates them and talk about it for about 30-60 minutes.

We were (and still are) amazed by the huge variety of topics that our company came up with, and by the fun and interesting follow-up discussions that we have had. These social talks were on topics such as forensics, online trading, living in South Africa, the Chinese language, financing one’s studies with online poker, Svalbard, 3D graphic design (with Blender), and homeschooling.

Final Words

While it is always imperative to invest into one’s teams from a social and knowledge perspective, the pandemic-enforced remote work showed us that it is even more important during these times to build, learn, and grow together. The social talks and events, which included a gaming evening and virtual escape room, were especially valuable in learning more about our colleagues and enabling us to feel a bit closer together at a time when we are spending most of the days at home.