Pair working: why it should be used more across digital projects

Post-it note on window

By Fiona Roberto and Alyson Fielding

Pair working is common in certain disciplines, such as development and increasingly in content teams, but it’s not as common in other areas of digital work.

For the last 18 months we’ve been pair working in a project delivery and engagement role at the Government Digital Service.

Working as a pair helped us to deliver what we needed to, and we’d like to share our experiences of this and what we’ve learned.

How it works

Pair working is delivered by one unit of 2 people. We pick up tasks from the pool of work needed to be done, rather than working separately on our own areas of responsibility. The unit has the responsibility of delivering the project.

We have specialisms and areas of interest that mean we sometimes choose the tasks that suit our experience, but this is by no means always the case.

The benefits of pair working for digital projects

It’s a good way of managing risk. Having two people think through a problem and talk through outcomes makes for a better approach and decision. It means we’re responsive, and minimises procrastination.

We learn rapidly what’s working and what isn’t working so well. We’re always monitoring and reflecting upon our work. We make small iterations and changes to improve the work constantly.

We’re always learning from each other: new ideas, skills, approaches. Pair working also means there are more chances for serendipitous meetings and discussions that can help move blocks in projects. It creates a larger network of people.

Elements of successful pair working

Talking: we talk a lot. Constantly. It’s helpful to have an on-going dialogue, face to face or otherwise.

Trust: it’s important to trust the other person, and know that they always have your back.

Honesty: pair working needs to create and maintain a safe space for you each to voice your opinions honestly and quickly. Neither person should take offence when critiquing each other’s work. You’re both working together to deliver the best that you can.

Ownership: the successes and failures belong to the unit, not to one person. Pair working is about getting the things done in the right way, and completing the tasks that are needed. Grab and let go of roles without worrying about it. And also make sure you recognise each other’s strengths and give positive feedback.

Leadership: sometimes one of you will take the lead, sometimes the other will do so. It’s important to always listen, understand the other person’s patterns, and recognise non-verbal cues in meetings. It’s not possible to plan for every scenario. Working in an agile, flexible way helps.

Relationship: humour is an important part of pair working. Find the small things every day that make you both laugh.

Learning: be open to learning new stuff all the time from each other. Constantly review your work, and change approaches when you need to.

Defining: pair working is not a usual way of working in a lot of areas. It’s important to explain your working pattern to people you work with, but it’s more important to show that it works.

Practical tools we use for pair working

  • Trello: to see who’s currently working on what, what’s coming up and any blocks

  • Post-it notes: useful for planning and visualising

  • Slack: our treasure trove of ideas, articles, things we’ve found to read

  • Google docs: for collaborative working (including writing this post), co-writing, sharing notes, planning and documenting information

  • Google Hangouts: real-time information sharing, checking in

  • Shared calendar: for planning and scheduling work

5 tips for pair working on digital projects

  1. Be open to learning new things from each other.
  2. The unit owns the successes and failures, not individuals.
  3. Lose the ego: create a safe space where you can be honest and constantly critique your work.
  4. Make it a non-hierarchical team. Roles, if needed for a task, should be fluid.
  5. Pair working is fun. Embrace that.

Get in touch with Fiona Roberto and Alyson Fielding if you’d like to know more about pair working for digital projects, or would like us to speak about pair working at your event.

%d bloggers like this: