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Supporting the wellbeing of a remote digital team

Vicky Peel, June 7, 2021

March 2020 feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it! If we had known then that we would still be remote a year later, we might have been more proactive in thinking about how to work best; take the opportunity to think differently. Like everyone else though, we had to respond quickly to a new and very uncertain situation. We’ve worked really hard to keep delivering successfully and tried hard to keep ourselves sane too - just about!

Who knows what the rest of the year is going to look like, but if we’ve learnt one thing, it’s that we can’t make too many plans! With a potential return to some kind of normality on the horizon, we are reflecting on the specific challenges our digital teams have experienced. In previous blog posts we have shared the experience of remote working and what we have done to support our wellbeing. But, if some level of remote working is here to stay, then what have we learned about the experience for our user researchers and designers, our developers and delivery managers, and our clients, in their day-to-day roles?

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Company day at Unboxed 2019.

Design and user research in the online space

“It's definitely very challenging to build rapport with participants….during a workshop it’s harder to ensure that everyone is OK, you can’t just check in with one person like you can in real life, without disrupting the session.” — Ali, User Researcher/Designer

Communication and the ability to build good rapport has been one of the biggest challenges for our designers and researchers in workshop and user research sessions. Workshops or planning sessions, normally done over a morning or afternoon in the office, would mean meeting rooms abuzz with activity, conversations and energy. Shared use of tools, food and drink provide the opportunity to get to know people and their experiences.

Software like Miro has brilliantly replaced the walls and post-it notes, offering infinite space to collaborate; it means there is improved accessibility for more user groups, and more people in the “room” in comparison to limited real life meeting rooms. There is no time lost to travel and more interviews can be achieved in less time.

“Creating journey maps can be done easily and collaboratively with online tools and user testing is more efficient. You are able to ask people for their time, without it massively disrupting their day and yours.” — Dawn, User Researcher/Designer

But the remote relationship brings its challenges. So much intangible work and communication is done when we are physically together; when we can read body language, facial expressions and cues. Via a screen - we all have to work harder to fill in the gaps. Noticing if someone is finding it difficult to participate in the session takes concentration and it’s more disruptive to check in on them. Decisions around cameras on or off can feel awkward. Multiple conversations are just not possible in the same way which can put more pressure on the person speaking. And the facilitator often feels like they are performing into the void, particularly if there is a large group on the call. And performing is exhausting!

Ali working with Martyn, May 2021.

“The number of people on the call can be a challenge, both spectating and taking part. Too many spectators can feel like an arena, like you are on show, which can make both the interviewer and interviewee feel nervous.” — Dawn, User Researcher/Designer

Pre-pandemic, spending time face-to-face with users, seeing how they do their jobs, use their tools and systems, provides rich and valuable insights at the start of a project. Remotely, this is not the same experience when you can’t see the surroundings and the environment. It can put a stress on the team if they feel they haven’t been able to generate the level of insight or get rich enough data. So our researchers have found the need to playback is greater, to ensure the process or subject has been thoroughly understood.

Ice breaker activities at the beginning of sessions have helped to warm groups up and even simply acknowledging that we are all in this strange situation can go a long way to make people feel comfortable.

Developer in the online space

“I think that writing code can swing from highly collaborative to highly individual, and working remotely encourages the extremes of this.” — Celia, Developer

Our approach is to work in a highly collaborative manner within our team, and with our clients. Our developers are involved in a project from the very beginning, and therefore experience a lot of what our user researchers and designers experience. But coding can be a solitary, ‘flow’ experience at different stages of a project, and the less distracted and focussed time has suited remote working. Some devs have found that the things they expected to find difficult remotely, such as pairing, can in fact work better. Tools like Tuple have made it work well. Having less office distraction and worrying about talking loudly around other colleagues has meant more productive focus.

“I’ve always liked the idea of flexible working and can definitely see the benefits to working remotely from a personal perspective, especially if I have a big chunk of coding to do.” — Ben, Developer

The challenges for some devs have been around isolation and the blurring of boundaries between work and non-work. Without the usual markers to the day such as leaving the office, developers can find themselves working into the night without the triggers to stop. And others have found the experience quite lonely. “You can’t corner another developer in the kitchen over making a cuppa to talk over a problem” which has sometimes left people feeling less connected to the team. Isolation is not an experience unique to the devs for sure, but the nature of what they do can be a solitary experience. We already have a successful weekly design club so setting up a weekly dev club has been one of the outcomes to keep the developers connected and sharing ideas.

Anastasia, one of our devs, has found that being remote has encouraged her to think about how she communicates with others. “You can’t just wander over to someone’s desk for help with a problem, and you don’t want to keep pinging others with messages'' or it can feel like Slackmaggedon! Being more thoughtful about when and how you communicate with your team or client has been a positive learning experience.

Online meeting fatigue is as much an issue for devs as it is the rest of the team. “I’ve tried to be a bit more selective when deciding whether I will add any value to a meeting before attending.” — Ben, Developer

Being mindful of booking unnecessary meetings, or making them shorter to leave space for breaks is something we have all been having to work on. Meetings are a double edged sword; they mean that importantly teams and clients can get “together” but they can be a disruption to concentration or feeling like you’re getting through the ticket. I’m not sure that we’ve found any particularly good solutions to meeting fatigue and context switching yet!

Delivery Managers bringing it all together

“Face-to-face feels much more productive, communication online has its challenges.” — Tom, Delivery Manager

For our delivery managers, relationship building and good communication is essential and safe to say, communication has been one of the biggest challenges of remote working for everyone. Brilliantly, video calls have made communication with everyone possible, enabling whole teams to join the call. But the amount of time spent on the screen has been immense. Group dynamics are very different and much like the user researchers have found, it’s easy for nuance to get lost and misunderstandings to occur. Constructively challenging someone or an assumption is harder, it can be taken the wrong way as subtlety is lost.

“I always have one-to-one meetings with people on projects and having to do that online is harder. The time has to be booked and it's another call. In the office I would often go for lunch or coffee and it would be a good opportunity to catch up.” — Tom, Delivery Manager

Working in the open and with transparency is a value held at the heart of Unboxed.

“When we are in a room together, it is much easier for information to be shared, you might overhear colleagues talking about a project and be able to jump in with some information.” — Martyn, Head of Product

Catch ups over making coffee are invaluable for sharing thoughts and updates. In isolation it’s not possible to overhear things! Conversations in public channels have always been a way of working and we have been doubling down on our efforts to keep as much visibility for the team and the client as possible. Remotely, multiple or shared conversations are extremely difficult to have which means that more one-to-ones are necessary, and there is potential for group communication to sometimes slip through the cracks.

Relationship building with clients, existing and new, is a much richer experience face-to-face. So much of how we build healthy personal and working relationships with people is dependent on our physical interactions with each other, back and forth conversation, body language, engagement and socialising. Online, these relationships have to be built by booking in another call with all the restrictions we have talked about. Martyn, our Head of Product, has found sharing the daily exercise of a dog walk with a client on a couple of occasions when the rules have allowed, really beneficial and refreshing! There’s no doubt then that much of the team is looking forward to some sort of return to face-to-face working.

Adapting to the future, and a more holistic approach

We don’t know what the future is going to look like yet and it will take some time for us to reflect on what has happened over the last year, to process events and our experiences. Many people will have had the opportunity to reassess their ways of working, found that the extra hours in the day have benefited their lives and perhaps look to share the work time more flexibly between home and office. Others will be keen to get back amongst things and relish working with people again.

“We don’t know what normal feels like any more, or what the pattern is going forward. We all need a bit of time to process what’s happened.” — Cate McLaurin, Head of Delivery at London Borough of Hackney

I caught up with Cate McLaurin, about her experience of working remotely over the last year and a half, the challenges they have faced and thoughts for moving forward. Much of our experiences resonated; our clients have experienced very similar challenges with communication and relationship building. At Hackney “Our delivery managers have had to work twice as hard to build relationships” while working remotely.

We’ve had a window into people’s home worlds which has at once been delightful, to see our colleagues' children, plants and pets. But it has also sometimes felt like an invasion of people’s privacy. Back in May 2020 I talked about remote fatigue and self complexity theory which looks at the importance of different aspects of ourselves and lives; our work self, our home self, our social self etc. That variety of context is good for our wellbeing and during lockdown and remote working those multiple selves have collapsed into one. It’s important for us to have separation and privacy. Cate’s observation that, “we have all been levelled by being a box on a screen” really resonated, and it has also highlighted thoughts about our own privileges or lack of them. When we physically go to work in the office we leave our other visible lives behind, presenting a version of ourselves to the workplace. I hope that the experience of having insight to all the things people deal with in their whole lives, will bring more empathy and consideration for our wellbeing into the workplace.

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Vicky, Graeme and Celia, May 2021.

Whatever work looks like in the future, we will be giving it some serious thought as to how best to make it work inclusively for our teams and our clients. Companies like Drop Box have created a great toolkit for remote asynchronous working. When our delivery manager Tom and I reflected on the remote experience we realised that we have been quite good at replicating the office day, at home. Looking at asynchronous ways of working might be something to consider into the future. There’s lots to think about, from the tech we might need, what meeting etiquette should look like, to how we communicate and document in order to best support our digital teams and clients to deliver great work and thrive at the same time.

But first, a compassionate pause for breath, and importantly an acknowledgement of what we have all been through!