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4 Ways to Work Together When We Can’t Be Together

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Mar 13 2020

It's not uncommon for IDEOers to make house calls. Friendly, in-person conversations are one of our most cherished tools—that kind of design research helps us learn what people collect and eat and carry in their backpacks. Social interactions fuel the insights we use to do our design work. What happens, then, when social interaction is not good for us?

Like most organizations, we’re reckoning with how COVID-19 will change how we do business. And as we do, we’re learning a lot from our community—our colleagues living and working under complex, difficult circumstances; our clients whose businesses depend on global transportation; and the people we design for and with on a daily basis.

"Constraints can breed a lot of innovation,” says Charles Hayes, a managing director of IDEO’s studios in Asia. “As designers, how do we design our way through this?"

Here are a few tips based on what we’re learning:

1. Create a virtual meeting survival kit

    How many tabs do you have open right now? We equate multiple screens with fractured attention. But just because a meeting is being conducted virtually doesn’t mean it can’t be designed for presence. An IDEO team recently had to find an alternative way to run a 20-person workshop for a foundation in Seattle. They asked themselves: How might we still approximate the level of engagement of an in-person meeting? Better still: how might we make sure this virtual workshop delivers on our client’s needs—focus, alignment, and a set of actionable next steps—while keeping things interesting?

    Before the meeting, the team mailed a virtual workshop survival kit, complete with “sleeping bags” for cell phones, mini-whiteboards for people to prototype ideas, and physical takeaways to help the presentation resonate off-screen.

    A virtual workshop survival kit helped ground a 20-person remote workshop.

    Over the course of the meeting, participants excitedly unwrapped items one by one. It was a way for the IDEO team to show up in the room when they couldn’t actually show up in the room.

    2. Design rituals around tools

      There are thousands of tools to facilitate remote collaboration—video conferencing! brainstorming tools! task-management software!—but perhaps more important than the specific tool are the processes teams put in place around them. After all, a tool is only as good as its ability to deliver on what the team needs.

      Take video conferencing, for example. A reliable video chat box can be a Swiss Army knife to combat the woes of remote collaboration. But spending an entire day jumping from one serious video chat to another is a recipe for bleary eyes. IDEO teams around the world have been running experiments in how video conferencing can be a tool to build culture and connectedness in addition to getting work done.

      For one, teams have been continuously changing their virtual video backgrounds—everything from a football game to a family vacation photo—to spark discussion and keep meetings fresh. Regular rituals like daily meditation or morning coffee chats have been ported over to video. And teams are using creative warmups—like a 10-second dance break or a quick show-and-tell of an artifact from the home office—to kick-off meetings.

      3. Empower local communities

      When travel is off the table, IDEOers have had to find alternative ways to learn from the communities for whom they’re designing. One approach that has become particularly relevant in the wake of COVID-19 is Equity Centered Community Design (ECCD). ECCD is a process of designing with—as opposed to designing for—a community.

      For example, IDEO recently worked on a project to design a new lifelong learning program for the city of South Bend, Indiana. Rather than rely on traveling to South Bend to conduct research, the IDEO team hired local “community connectors” and a researcher in South Bend to conduct interviews, share prototypes, and co-design with the IDEO team remotely. Now that many cities are sheltering in place, even local communities will have to work remotely. That makes it all the more important to enlist those with hyperlocal context and lines of sight, ensuring there is sensitivity and flexibility around immediate needs. By designing themselves out of the room, the IDEO team received a level of honest feedback they may not have been privy to if they’d been physically present. This method isn’t new, but as movement becomes constrained, it’s even more important to engage local networks to be the eyes and ears on the ground.

      4. When you can't do, learn

      How long have you been putting off learning that skill? Cleaning up that code base? Building that website? When one door closes, listen for the creak of another opening. Travel constraints can be an opportunity to take a deep breath, hunker down, and try something new. Across IDEO, designers have been using these extenuating circumstances as an opportunity to gather digitally and learn. “We have experimented with a number of things,” says Brian Chien, a director in our Shanghai studio. “Some worked well, and some definitely didn’t.”

      Whether it’s prototyping a remote brainstorm, trying out a new tool, or building something by hand, the disruption of your normal routine can be an opportunity to learn something. And if you already have the skills, teach! Designers in our Tokyo office are webcasting tutorials for young design students, sharing skills with those who aren’t able to attend an in-person workshop. What if, when it’s inadvisable to move from place to place, organizations took what they’re saving in travel expenses and invested it into L&D?

      At IDEO, we will always believe in the alchemy of creative minds bouncing off one another in a shared space. But COVID-19 has pushed us to get even more comfortable with digital. And while we know necessity is the mother of invention, we still have much to learn—especially from other companies who have been at the forefront of remote collaboration for years.

      Of this we’re certain, says Arlin Tao, a senior director in our Shanghai studio: virus aside, remote collaboration is the way of the future. “I think the only thing that most people agree on is when things go back to normal, it's not going to be the normal that we were used to before.”

      • Heather Emerson

        Managing Director, IDEO San Francisco
        Heather leads IDEO’s learning & education practice. She and her team partner with purpose-led organizations across public and private sectors to design innovative learning opportunities that lead to social mobility for individuals and communities.
      • Simone Stolzoff

        Senior Communication Designer, IDEO San Francisco
        Simone is a writer focused on the future of work and workforce development. Before IDEO, he was a journalist for The Atlantic, WIRED, and Quartz, covering the same topics.
      • Kateryna Romanova

        Senior Environments Designer, IDEO San Francisco
        Kateryna is an environments designer with a background in architecture and future urbanism. She likes working with future strategies and believes digital innovations should have a physical footprint.
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