A short post this week to talk about something that should be obvious from a big picture point of view, and is topical because I’ve experienced it myself recently.

If you are sick, don’t come into work.

If you have been sick, but think you’re better now, still don’t come into work.

The world will continue to turn without you for a little while, and even if it doesn’t, maybe its better to find that our now, rather than later.

Patient Zero

To be clear, I am definitely not a qualified epidemiologist, but for arguments sake lets assume it is impossible to spread disease if you are not near other people.

The engineer in me knows that there are edge cases that circumvent this “rule”, for example indirect infection vectors like contaminated food and other things, but the engineer in me should learn to be quiet.

If you’re trying to maintain velocity in a development team (or throughput, choose your poison), then the spread of sickness can be one of your worst enemies. If you’re lucky everyone gets sick at once, and its all over quickly, but if you’re not its drawn out over the course of a few weeks (or months!) and is hugely disruptive to getting anything done.

As a sick person, the best thing you can do for your team is not make them sick. Sure, if you completely extract yourself from the situation then whatever it is that you are working on will suffer. That’s a fair call.

But all the other things? They will keep trucking along.

Honestly, if the thing you were working on was important enough, someone else will do it anyway, especially if its blocking their work. This is the worst case scenario though (at least as far as work-in-progress is concerned), and all it really results in is some repetition of work already done.

I’d much rather pay that price than the cascading effect that repeated waves of sickness have on development.

Centre for Disease Control

If you’re in a position of leadership, you need to make sure that your messaging is clear, and your follow up behaviour is consistent. If you’re spouting the rhetoric of “if you’re sick, stay away” but you then get annoyed when a deadline is missed or work is not progressing, you’re doing it wrong.

You need to play the long game, and trust in the fact that even though something might suffer now, you’ll be better off in the long run in terms of predictability of delivery if everyone is playing by the same rules

Organizationally, the capability to reliably and effectively work remotely is also a huge boon in this situation and can help mitigate the effect of not being co-located during the period of sickness. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a significant amount of value in reinforcing that your people should take care of themselves first, before they think about work, but the ability to work remotely allows them to ease themselves back in, even if they are not feeling 100%, and still prevents further infection.

Other things that help are:

  • Small work items and low cycle time, which mostly limit the impact of a single person disappearing for a period of time
  • Consistent communication, such that everyone on the team is generally aware of everything else that is going on
  • Well rounded people who can do anything (even if they might be better at a small number of things), because you’re going to hurt if the only person who knows how to work on system X is quarantining themselves for a few weeks


In summary, if you feel sick, or if you think you might be sick at all, just stay the hell away.

When you feel better, work remotely until at least a few days have passed, just in case.

Of course, everything that I’ve written here assumes that your people use the system honestly and fairly, but really, if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t trust them in that way, then I don’t understand why they would be working with you in the first place.

To put it into context, think about how stupid the following sentence is:

“I don’t trust you to be honest that you’re sick, but I trust you to write this million dollar software critical to the existence of our business”.