By Pacifico Borza & Aiden Kenny
The entire business world has taken part in an enforced global beta test where knowledge workers switched to remote working overnight – many with little or no preparation. At the start of the first pandemic lockdown, we switched our whole studio to a completely remote working model overnight. Everyone adapted and, while we did not get everything right at the beginning, we learned quickly and course-corrected as we progressed. After 21 months of remote working, we at Frontend.com have now learned a lot about what is effective for both ourselves and our clients to deliver successful UX projects remotely. This applies both to how we work together as a team and how we facilitate all our clients, whether local or global.
How Frontend.com worked in pre-pandemic days
To set a baseline comparison it is worth thinking back to our previous working practices.
- On most days nearly everyone worked in our studio. Everyone did have the ability to work from home on any day that they needed. However, in practice, people choose working from home as a deliberate way to minimise distractions. Generally when they were working on a concentrated intensive task such as, say, completing a significant research report or writing a major strategy document.
- As most of our clients were based outside of Ireland, video calls were already a well-established part of our working routines. So we were somewhat ahead of the curve in that regard. We primarily used video calls for client-facing interactions rather than internal conversations. And the amount and frequency of such video calls was far less than today.
- Using Slack for internal communications was something that we had toyed with on a few occasions, but it had never gained any traction with our team. It seemed to be redundant given that we all worked in large shared spaces and could converse freely.
- Internal collaborative group activities, such as brainstorms and workshops, were an integral part of our design process, with a number of rooms in our studio dedicated to those kinds of team working.
- Travelling abroad to meet our clients face-to-face was commonplace for our more significant project meetings. Some staff could log forty-plus international flights over the course of a year. Most of those meetings required at least an overnight stay. This meant we were investing a lot of time and our clients were investing a lot of money into such meetings.
Some advantages of remote working
- We are now able to collaborate more closely with client teams on a day-to-day basis. We can conduct meetings more often and organise them more quickly. This is particularly effective with our international clients and geographically-distributed teams.
- Having everyone working remotely is more inclusive of traditionally remote workers. As all the relevant conversations now happen on the video call. Before, there would often be follow-up conversations between participants who were physically present in the same space, which could result in misalignment across the team.
- Shared documentation and real-time collaboration is becoming the norm. (We already used these kinds of tools in the before-time, but now everyone else does too.) This is increasing the speed of decision-making allowing us to reach appropriate solutions more quickly.
- Being able to capture feedback from workshops and meetings and review those via recordings (with consent) after the event, supports accuracy and mitigates against ‘false memory syndrome’.
- We can organise remote user research more easily and research panels can be distributed across locations. This reduces the cost of UX research and UX testing and provides greater flexibility. Clients can also view research sessions in real-time more easily.
- For knowledge workers such as User Experience experts, remote working means less distractions, or at least a far greater ability to tune them out. This can lead to longer spells of focussed concentration and higher productivity.
- Asynchronous internal communication tools such as Slack are a more efficient and less disruptive way of working together.
- Communications are now generally far more focused on the work-related task at hand. Which does bring gains in efficiency. However, this can be a double-edged sword as the reduction in social conversations (the much eulogised water-cooler chatter) can hinder team-bonding and lessen morale.
- We have seen increased productivity across our design team due to the near elimination of commuting time. This can also help us all to achieve a better work/life balance (once individuals manage their working time effectively). The important mindset is that you are working from home and not living at work.
Some disadvantages of remote working
- Remote collaboration is not as fluid as it is in real life. Nuances can be missed on video calls and groups can be more difficult to manage. Not to mention that sometimes the technology often does not work as effectively as it should, with weak connections and periodic high rates of online traffic.
- Face-to-face interactions can still sometimes be better for building relationships where body language and post-meeting interactions can strengthen bonds. This applies to both client relationships and to internal team-building (especially applicable with onboarding of new staff).
- Previously, it was common for people to form close friendships with their colleagues at work. This seems less likely to happen in a remote working context. To mitigate against this risk, companies will need to carve out dedicated time to allow opportunities for remote colleagues to interact socially.
- Where client requirements are in flux, shared documentation can devolve into alternating changes and counter-changes. Robust protocols for version control on shared documentation are essential. All changes need to be well-documented on both the agency side and the client side.
- When we were working in our studio, even when meetings were scheduled back-to-back they were often held in different locations. So any time spent getting from Room A to Room B allowed for both a subtle mental reset and reorientation towards the next meeting. It was also a chance to internalise the decisions and outputs of the preceding meeting. A downside to the flexibility of scheduling virtual meetings is that it is too easy to be scheduled into multiple meetings that fill your whole day completely with little or no time in between to consider what you are doing.
- Perhaps it’s a function of back-to-back virtual meetings, but some clients are operating in a fully verbal mode and are writing little if anything down anymore. Where clients would have provided detailed documents and emails before, some are now expecting us to capture everything they say in our minutes of virtual meetings.
- The flip side of the greater individual focus available with remote working can be a tendency for people to go it alone more and sometimes not get their colleagues involved as early as they should.
- It is arguable that remote work suits senior staff better in general, whereas junior staff may be losing out on valuable mentoring opportunities as well as the chance to internalise ambient studio culture.
- Where they are applicable, the physical contexts that may impact a user’s experience can be missed when user research is conducted remotely. For example what kind of space is available for a nurse to use a medical app? Do they have a desk, or are they standing in a hallway? In real-world research we can better observe what is going on around the subject.
- Where UX design projects involve some physical component, such as printed layouts or packaging for out-of-box experiences, then remote working adds a new layer of friction as physical mock-ups may have to be shipped from house to house. So decisions that could previously be arrived at quickly in a single group meeting on-site can end up taking days to achieve with samples moving from here to there and back again.
- When working from home, professional time can all too easily bleed into personal time (and vice-versa: the proverbial cat walking across your keyboard). You need to carefully manage this and all parties need to establish clearly defined boundaries.
While one could never describe the timing of any global pandemic as being lucky, the fact is that had Covid-19 arrived only a few years earlier it is probable that remote working on such a world-wide scale would not have been as workable. It was only countries’ investments in high-speed broadband and the availability of viable (well, viable enough) video calling and collaboration software which afforded so many people the opportunity to work from home over the long term.
The situation is still in flux and working practices are going to continue to evolve as everyone takes their first tentative steps towards a post-pandemic working model. While it is difficult to predict which changes will be retained over the long-term, we are confident that practices will not revert back to the way they were.