What SofaConf 2020 taught me about remote working

Zone’s senior UI designer Chloe Eaton embraces the positives of collaborating on design sprints from home…

@zldrawings produced these awesome sketch notes on the fly for #SofaConf

I dialled in to SofaConf in the hope of picking up a few nifty tips on content design and strategy, and to hear what industry leaders had to say about design best practice. The virtual conference delivered on both fronts, but as the week-long event progressed, I found myself more and more intrigued by what Ross Chapman from Etch had to say about remote design sprints.

What is a design sprint? Generally speaking, they involve teams getting together in the same place to tackle a complex business problem over the course of five days. Design sprints are broken down into five stages (illustrated below) and help teams pool ideas and move faster, leading to innovative breakthroughs that might otherwise take months.

The length of a design sprint can vary, but there are five phases: 1) map 2) sketch 3) decide and storyboard 4) prototype 5) test and learn.

Now, imagine the complexities of trying to do all of this AND produce a viable prototype with a bunch of people who aren’t in the same physical location. Thankfully, we’re already pretty good at collaborating remotely at Zone, which meant the shift to home working wasn’t as much of a shock to the system as it could have been, but it has still taken some getting used to. And while some designers may bemoan the lack of face-to-face interaction to get their creative juices flowing, I actually feel like there are plenty of positives to embrace. Here are four of them.

1. It’s different — accept it!

There’s no two ways about it: working from home is very different to working in the office. We just have to accept it and, as Ross said: “We must rewire our thinking,” and adjust our ways of working. Running anything remotely helps us to remove any (bad) hierarchy structure and power imbalances that may be present in your team when you work face to face in the same room.

You may think working in an open-plan office is the best environment to nurture really collaborative design, but that isn’t always the case. Just because you’re there together doesn’t mean you automatically work well together.

Working remotely forces us (in a good way) to be as collaborative as we can, and as designers we need this behaviour — it helps us work more effectively and more efficiently. Ross pointed out that as product designers, “we have to change our behaviours to capitalise on digital”. It’s easy to get stuck in the paper-and-pen ages and it’s easy to be precious about the particular ways that we like to work, but this is the perfect time to try something new. Experiment. Move forward. Accept it.

2. Documentation made easy

Well, maybe not easy, but being remote means you need to document everything you do. For example, you need to have a prototype so everyone is on the same page about how the product works, you need to have a video link set up for the meeting so that everyone is able to join, you need to have a Miro board (or other) set up for everyone to contribute to. These aren’t just nice-to-haves any more — they are vital to the performance of your team as well as the wider business. Documenting as you go is a great habit to get into and ensures you don’t miss anything. It also means that you don’t have to write anything up after the workshop. Winning.

3. Keep life separate from work
Just because you are working in your living space doesn’t mean you have to be working all the time. These days ‘work’ is not where you go, it is what you do. There is no ‘getting stuck in the office working late’ which is a positive thing, but on the flip side, not commuting anywhere means we’re less active and don’t have that 30 or 40 minutes to ourselves each day. Something that really stood out for me was when Ross said “Work around your life — don’t fit your life around work.” Make working remotely work for you. Throw the rigid 9–5 routine out of the window and take back a bit of control over your life. As long as you’re doing your hours and participating with the team when you need to, you can afford to be a bit more chilled out about things.

4. Speed up work being done
If you have a computer and access to the internet you can remotely collaborate. This means that when you’re starting new projects and working with clients you don’t have to plan meetings at head office, or postpone meetings when Dave’s train has been cancelled, or when there’s snow… you get the gist! Remote is the new face to face; we just have to embrace that and rewire our thinking. Ditching the commute, cutting down time spent travelling to and from client locations and having the freedom to dial into meetings from pretty much anywhere gives us a wealth of extra time that we can use productively. In fact, I’ve found that working remotely has actually meant that we get more time together as a team and more time with the client, which will ultimately lead to us doing better work.

And so to quote Ross one last time, we need to “live our best lives, yet also do the best work of our lives”. By nailing working from home and getting the work-life balance right, you can ensure that you have the time, resources and energy to always work together as a team. This in turn enables you to build awesome products, leads to better functioning teams and helps make the wider organisation be more successful.

We write about customer experience, employee experience, design, content & technology to share our knowledge with the wider community.