What if we rotate pairs every day?

Unveiling the benefits of frequent pair rotation through an experiment

Benefits of pair programming are widely accepted but advice around pair rotation remains controversial. When and how frequently should teammates rotate pairs? And… What if we rotate pairs every day? We worked with three teams through an exercise of daily pair rotation. We developed a lightweight methodology to help teams reflect on the benefits and challenges of pairing and how to solve them. Initial fears were overcome and teams discovered the benefits of frequently rotating pairs. We learned that pair swapping frequently greatly enhances the benefits of pairing. Here we share the methodology we developed, our observations, and some common fears and insight shared by the participating team members.

06 March 2024

Photo of Gabriel Robaina

Gabriel Robaina is a Senior Consultant at Thoughtworks in Brazil, where he serves as a Tech Lead and Developer. Currently pursuing a master's degree in applied computing with a focus on serverless technologies, he is passionate about pairing techniques and distributed systems. Gabriel values strong development practices and creativity as key to provide clients with innovative and efficient solutions.

Photo of Kieran Murphy
Kieran Murphy

Kieran Murphy is a Principal Consultant at Thoughtworks, based in Chicago. Kieran is a longtime XP practitioner, software developer, Tech Lead, and coach. Kieran is passionate about helping folks find joy in outstanding software delivery.

The majority of developers work solo. Tasks are commonly assigned to single individuals in a practice that is called “solo coding”. Developers that practice solo coding are often isolated in silos that prevent knowledge sharing across the team. These silos also make it difficult for team members to bond and create personal relationships, especially in a remote working environment. Onboarding of new team members is complicated and the establishment of quality gates like code reviews result in a bottleneck for delivery efficiency. In addition, binding the work to individual team members also creates a risk for whenever this person leaves the team (eg. vacations or sick leave). Finally, individuals eventually become owners of regions of the system and the person to go to for feature-specific knowledge.

Pair programming is a viable alternative to solo coding. On Pair Programming explores its benefits and challenges. When developing in pairs, people can work closely together with the goal to constantly share knowledge and information. This leads to better refinement of stories because everyone will have the necessary context to contribute. Also, there is no need for specific code review processes since all code is being reviewed ​​on the fly. Pairing creates more opportunities for people to know each other and develop personal bonds thus increasing team’s cohesion. Pairing processes should be accompanied by a periodic pair rotation ceremony so that pair switching can happen. This enables people to experience working with everyone in the team. After this ceremony developers should share the current tasks’ context and progress with the new pair so that the delivery flow can continue.

The frequency of pair rotations can vary between teams. Even though frequent pair rotations are preferred in order to maximize the benefits of pairing, some teams have reported that rotating pairs frequently creates friction. There is a perception that rotating pairs every day, or every other day, is more costly and more difficult than rotating once a week. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also teams which rotate pairs once a month. This means an individual would take at least 5 months to pair with other 5 people in the team at least once, assuming no repeated pairs during this period. Another routine is when pairs rotate only when they finish a task, which makes the frequency indeterminate. It is also not practical to rotate pairs on task completion since it is unlikely that other pairs finish at the same time.

We started noticing that teams with infrequent pair rotations tend to present similar symptoms seen in teams that do solo coding. Long-lived pairs start to become “partners in crime”. Context sharing gets harder the longer it takes for pair switching to happen: Developers need to share all the context from the previous month with a new pair in the context of monthly rotations. We had evidence that our pair switching practice wasn't yielding the desired outcomes, so we decided to run an experiment with the goal to improve team performance through pairing best practices.

Our Experiment

We decided to challenge teams that practiced infrequent pair rotations to radically increase this frequency as part of an experiment. What if for two weeks we rotated pairs every day? What were the difficulties found during this time, and what can we do to address them? Did we reap the benefits of pairing during this time? Going forward, does the team want to keep rotating pairs every day or go back to the previous frequency?

We developed an exercise designed to help a team explore frequent pair rotation and make critical analysis of its impact. The exercise begins with a one hour, facilitated whiteboarding session, during which the team members write up and discuss their thoughts on the following three questions:

  • Why is pairing valuable?
  • What makes pairing difficult?
  • What makes pairing easy?

These questions are presented in order. The team has three minutes to post answers for each question on the board and seven minutes to discuss what they have shared.

Figure 2: Mural board displaying team's feedback during the pair rotation experiment

For the following days of the exercise the team continues working on their backlog while rotating pairs every day. For any task in progress one member of the pair stays with the task as “anchor” while the other rotates onto another task. “Anchors” of a task rotate every other day, ensuring that no team member will work on a single task for more than two days consecutively.

The team meets every morning for 30 minutes on a whiteboard session with the following three questions:

  • What makes pairing difficult?
  • What makes pairing easy?
  • What practices should we try today, to make our pairing easier and more effective?

These questions are presented in order, each with three minutes to post ideas on the board and five minutes to discuss. When this is finished, the team identifies anchors for each task in progress and facilitates the assignment of new pairs.

We facilitated this daily retrospective using the same board every day, with a unique color of sticky for each day. This allowed the team members to see the points raised in each area on each day, resulting in a visualization of the team’s learning and critical thinking throughout the week.

On the last day of the exercise we facilitated the final whiteboard session, and then asked the team to decide on a pair rotation frequency to continue. We then encouraged the team to continue to revisit their pair rotation frequency in future team retrospectives.

Results of our Experiment

During 2022 - 2023 we engaged three separate teams to try this experiment for one week each. Each of these teams were fully distributed, working together online but never in person. Two of these teams were collocated between the US and Brazil.

Each team raised similar concerns at the start of the experiment. In the first section below we share some of those concerns and describe how the teams’ position evolved over the course of the experiment. The second section presents some feedback that displays the realized benefits of pairing and frequent pair rotations.

All teams that participated in our experiment used systems like Jira or Trello to document and track work items, and all used the term “card” to describe a record in that system. The following feedback and results use the word "card" in this sense.

What makes pairing hard and how the perceptions changed

“Lack of empathy, alignment and communication makes pairing difficult”

Frequent pair rotation can be a powerful tool in building stronger team dynamics. Initially, a lack of empathy and alignment can make pairing challenging, especially when team members are unfamiliar with each other's working patterns, pace, and areas of expertise. However, by switching pairs frequently, team members have the opportunity to get to know one another better, and quickly. This familiarity makes it easier to empathize and align with each other, ultimately fostering stronger bonds within the team. Moreover, the practice of frequent pair rotation encourages a culture of feedback. We suggested that team members intentionally share feedback during short sessions at the end of their pairing sessions, contributing to continuous improvement and better collaboration.

“There are a lot of interruptions to pairing time”

Teams reported challenges in pairing due to frequent interruptions caused by a lack of long periods of uninterrupted working time. To address this issue, the teams established core working hours in the afternoon during which interruptions are minimized. As a result, meetings got shifted to the morning or the end of the day. Additionally, pairs within the team utilized the Pomodoro Technique or other explicit timeboxing methodology to maximize their efficiency and productivity during their limited working time.

“Switching pairs everyday makes us slower”

There is a notion that increasing the frequency of rotations results in a decline in delivery performance, as perceived by the product team. They tend to believe that more rotation leads to reduced efficiency and slower output.

There also exists a developer perception that frequent rotations introduce additional overhead, consequently slowing down the team. This is attributed to the need to consistently share the evolving context of ongoing work, which is perceived as a time-consuming process.

However, proponents of more frequent rotations argue that sharing context becomes more efficient as the frequency increases. This is attributed to the fact that there is typically less contextual information to communicate if pair switching is done frequently. Moreover, the efficiency of sharing context is further enhanced when every team member possesses a more comprehensive understanding of ongoing tasks. In addition, frequent pair switches creates an opportunity for team members to establish processes to facilitate context sharing.

The practice of frequent rotation becomes more manageable and streamlined over time. As the team becomes accustomed to this approach, the initial challenges associated with frequent rotation diminish, making the process progressively easier and more effective.

The experienced benefits of frequent pair rotation

“Context sharing is easy and quick when you do it more often”

One concern that we heard from all three teams was that swapping pair members on work in progress would lead to a problem of sharing context with the new pair member. In fact, for each team this seemed to be the strongest motivation for long-lived pairs.

In each team’s board we found that this concern would be raised in the first couple of days. Team members would suggest common ways to make context sharing easier, and by the end of the experiment it was no longer a concern. A practice that emerged in each team was to have pairs end their day by adding a note to the card itself, briefly capturing the work and decisions completed that day. They might also add or remove items from a to-do list also maintained in the card. These simple practices helped the card itself to carry the context of the work in progress, rather than having that context reside with specific team members.

We found that each team discovered new practices related to the cards. In our daily discussions the team members would ask for more context to be held in the card, smaller cards, and ongoing comments in the cards.

“Information is flowing through the team”

This is one of the more exciting and insightful comments we heard. Teams discovered that, in practice, it did not take very long for an anchor to share context with a new pair at the start of a coding session. There was not a lot of new context to share. Also, teams found it was easier to understand any card after working on many other cards of the team’s backlog. Frequent pair rotations accelerate this experience gain as team members are able to work on a wider variety of tasks every week.

“Knowledge silos are impossible to maintain”

Each team included members of different experience levels and areas of expertise. The teams initially thought of this diversity as a challenge for frequent pair rotations. Prior to the experiment, each team was organizing pairs and the cards assigned to pairs with consideration of who is a junior or senior team member, who is a front-end, back-end or devops specialist, who has prior experience working in a particular area of the codebase, and so on. Maintaining this complex matrix made it difficult to switch pairs frequently, and reinforced knowledge silos in the team.

It was impossible to maintain these rules with the daily pair rotations of the experiment. With pairs rotating every day, team members were forced to work in unfamiliar areas of the codebase. In addition, there was far less risk for any team member working in an unfamiliar area since that member would only stay on a card for a day or two before passing it to someone else.

Our teams found that frequent pair rotations leveled the experience impact people have on cards. Longer-term team members could remove blockers from newer members and share knowledge that help accelerate their growth and learning curve of the codebase and development tools.

A few months after the experiment, one team gave us some interesting feedback: They found that when a problem came up in production, they didn't need to depend on just one person to look into and fix it. The team could assign anyone to troubleshoot the issue. In addition, another feedback mentioned an incoming pair rotation brought new context that changed implementation direction and helped resolve a problem in the early stages of the feature’s development, thus saving the team lots of time and rework. These highlight the benefits of having knowledge spread among the team.

“The work is moving among the team members”

Team members found that everyone developed context related to all the cards in progress, even before working on each card. This increased the effectiveness of the daily standup sessions: Team members would share insights, identify risks in advance and help each other in removing blockers. This is only possible when all developers have enough context and ownership of all cards in play. No single individual owns any piece of work, and everyone in the team is responsible for the progress of the tasks as a whole.


Even though the experiment involved daily pair rotations, the three participating teams did not opt for continuing at this frequency in the end. One team settled on 3 day rotations while the other two teams settled on 2 day rotations. We noticed that frequent rotations revealed bottlenecks and friction points in the development process of the teams. Opting for rotating every 3 days instead of everyday relates to working around these blockers.

It is common that on any day the team members have only a few hours, often fragmented throughout the day, to pair. Team members felt that they needed more than one day to achieve a meaningful pairing experience. In turn, this can also indicate high fragmentation of development time throughout the days. This was one of the reasons teams opted for less frequency than practiced in the experiment.

Many of the perceived challenges during the experiment are not absolutes, but rather decrease when addressed head-on (and conversely increase if avoided). The experiment provided a daily opportunity for participants to reflect on pairing challenges and discuss alternatives to solve them as a team. The time and effort employed in the experiment ceremonies had a high return of investment.

In general, running the experiment dramatically improved the frequency of pair rotations in these teams. One of the teams moved from rotating once a month to rotating every 3 days. This frequency increase was a result of the teams acknowledging the benefits of short-lived pairs such as better knowledge sharing and team building. During the experiments, team members also reported participating in the experiment made them learn more about pairing best practices. In addition, running pairing retrospectives and feedback exchange sessions promoted the feedback culture in the teams.

Significant Revisions

06 March 2024: Published on mfcom

22 September 2023: Published on Linkedin