Early on in the pandemic lockdown there was a general business panic on how we’re going to move workers remote, especially the tech infrastructure-heavy tasks of call centers and IT hosting. When it turned out to be doable, there was a sigh of relief, and business opportunity to cut costs with travel and office space maintenance. No need to stock the coffee machines or reboot the router on the 5th floor!

Early media reports were how productive everyone was going to be, and employees will want to work remotely forever! No more offices. Though prior research on remote work productivity was available, and several examples of fully remote businesses existed (though some may not be the best poster children). Didn’t we just go through the stop work-from-home debate?

As time went on, pandemic fatigue and work-from-home fatigue set in. Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, suggested the counter opinion. Maybe the productivity boost was due to everyone working 14 hour days, reacting to the latest ding on email or chat since the office was right there in the kitchen. Maybe there is no productivity boost–work is getting done, code is written, deliverables are delivered; but ultimately there will be rework because something got missed between the silos.

Another problem with the remote work future is that it isn’t equally distributed. Obviously it is for knowledge workers, not the grocery workers or delivery drivers. Some is due to the lockdown — closing schools and daycares makes parents less productive, and extends their day as they fit in work around nap and sleep times. Social isolation takes a toll on singles, though in some cases married couples have a hard time as well. Residential internet reliability affects team members differently. I don’t think I have been in one Zoom meeting (and I am typically in them 3-5 hours a day) where there was no dropout or freeze on someone’s end. How many hours of lost productivity will be attributed to “Hey you’re on Mute…”

Now I’m seeing nuanced articles and studies about remote work. Never underestimate our ability to return to status quo, though we already knew the workplace had to change. Open office workplaces are just evil; companies being cheap but promoting them as collaborative. Pre-lockdown the most frequent request to work from home was “so I can focus” (next being waiting for a package…). The 9-5, 40-hour workweek is also ripe for change (having worked 4-day weeks at USAA decades ago I know this).

Getting to the point — remote design work is problematic. Creative types need real-time collaboration and shared workspaces (like our Q2 studio) to post artifacts and comment on other’s work. Being able to share insights beyond your team as you see someone in the hallway and strike up random conversations goes missing as we have to schedule time on Zoom, and typically have no idea what is going on in the other silos around the organization.

Remote tools work to some degree, but still stifle open collaboration. ‘Side conversations’ are impossible in Zoom, unless you force them (breakout room). We use Abstract to do asynchronous design critique on each other’s design, Miro or LucidChart to collaborate with shared whiteboard, and Teams chat to get answers or consensus quickly.

Future of Remote Design as I see it will involve targeted in-person collaboration sessions (one day a week at minimum, but could be weeks as we are in discovery for new concepts–like ‘offsites’ in the past) and at-home ‘heads down’ delivery work free from meetings or distractions. Either way more communication, documentation, and sharing.

Future of Remote Design Work

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