A companion piece to on meeting up.
Everything changed in early 2020. All our office locations shut down with immediate effect, for “up to 12 weeks”.
We never went back.
Our office in Elephant and Castle was shuttered permanently and we’ve been remote ever since.
The org has a new office in Canary Wharf, but so far it doesn’t seem to have regained the atmosphere of the old. It’s rare for our team to be in at the same time, and desk booking arrangements mean we’ve no longer got a space to call our own. When I do go into the office, what I often experience is a very quiet sparsely populated environment. People there (including me) are often… on calls.
I’ve been mulling over how things have changed, and what it’s like to be a remote worker.
What’s been lost?
I miss the little rituals and structure of going to the office:
- the bike ride to work
- the crappy showers
- the morning hellos
- the coffee from the shipping container outside UAL
- the post-it based standups
- the ease of “can I borrow you for a minute just to look at this?”
- the bike ride home from work
The presence of work on walls in our team area was easy to underestimate at the time in terms of how well it could communicate.
Being able to go through things that were already to hand with visitors, stakeholders, team members, or interested passers-by was often far simpler than setting up specific presentations and demos.
I feel a sense of loss in no longer having a shared physical space. But I think that sense of loss is inextricably linked to the fact I’ve been entirely in these sorts of environments for decades — from college into work, right up until the pandemic. I absolutely don’t believe the work a team does must be done in person in a shared space, it’s more I’m feeling the effect of the abrupt and fundamental change.
There are those of us lucky enough to have the space to create something of this environment at home. But there’s a difference between lone spaces and shared ones — as a kid I built hides for myself and bases with friends.
A couple of years of observing and conducting research in Teams is not fun for anyone. We lost a lot of the sharp insights into design and interaction that come from close observation in person, whether that’s a lab or popping up unannounced.
The times we’ve managed to do in-person research in the recent past have been a painful reminder of the sheer loss of fidelity of doing this sort of thing only remotely. I am personally really glad that doing in-person UR is starting to make a comeback.
What’s been gained?
From post-its and print outs on walls to Mural and Jira. The things that were very informal have perhaps become much more formal (and maybe more “industry standard” I guess).
I’ve got mixed feelings about the sheer volume of output, and the hoarding instinct that goes with it. The signal is there, but there’s often a lot of noise to go with it.
Conversely I’ve run afoul of not documenting well enough in the past (forgetting decisions or specific iterations etc), and it’s not doing me any harm to write stuff up a bit more and a bit better.
Sharing and collaboration
A “wall of work” in an office space is not very portable. It requires people to come to you.
Tools like Mural and Miro have really come into their own in creating an alternative. I’m not sure these tools are better as they come with their own intrinsic problems of access.
However it’s true to say sharing often and widely with in a distributed manner has become a habit surprisingly quickly. Remote crit sessions or broadcasting a request for feedback very widely — often using a limited window of time rather than organising a big… meeting.
Definitely gained some meetings. Meetings all the time. Working out whether to blur your background or not. Camera on, camera off? Being stuck on mute. Meetings in Teams, meetings in Zoom, meetings in Meet, it goes on.
A lot of the group interaction that seemingly came for free with office space now needs to be quite deliberately arranged. Juggling calendars is definitely one of the most annoying things I do now.
As we’ve always been split over sites, we were kind of “remote first” already. It’s probably fair to say the differences in the way we work as a team are haven’t changed as much as the way we communicate outside the team in the wider org.
What’s been hardest for me is also the area of most possibility. As a largely remote worker, there are opportunities to assess how your work life and personal life intersect — or don’t.
There’s a danger that the two become inextricably blurred to the point when downtime becomes impossible, and having done some work directly related to the pandemic I don’t think I (or many others in the team) really want that to be the norm.
There’s also a truism I subscribe to that ideas don’t always come when you’re plugging away at the computer. It can be those downtime moments when inspiration finally strikes: when I’m walking the dog; when I used to ride to work; or waking up in the middle of the bloody night. If you’re not able to separate yourself in the same way, are you blocking these moments?
So while it’s entirely possible to sleep in, get up at the last second and do the whole day in my pyjamas, I’ve tried to build new rituals:
- walk the dog before work
- a nice shower
- Slack and Teams morning hellos
- make a swish coffee at home
- standups on Teams
- pinging people and chatting a lot on Slack
- trying hard to have a lunch break
- doing something to try to close the day off
In conclusion, being largely remote has, ever so slowly, knocked me for six. I think I can admit that it’s not possible to rewire yourself overnight.
It’s taking years to get used to what a day is like, and it could be a few more. It’s not the new ways of working that cause the pain. What hurts is simply missing people.
So in that vein stay tuned for a companion piece about… meeting up.