Remote Culture – the facts, and making it work

Telecommuting or remote work isn’t a new concept by any means. However, it is becoming more and more commonplace today, particularly in the technology sector. This is somewhat due to an increasing viability for businesses to adopt the practice but also because of a shifting culture in workplaces around their work values.

In 1990, alongside the internet’s introduction to the world (and when remote working began to emerge), the American Federal Government conducted a study on the value of remote working. It was referred to then as a flexible working arrangement made possible by telecommuting from a home location or from a satellite work centre. Conducted on 550 remote working employees, the study’s findings included:

  • Improved employee productivity
  • Reduced business costs
  • A higher employee quality of life

Many remote workers are still benefiting from these factors today. Flexible working arrangements have only become more widespread and are adopted more frequently by businesses (especially in the technology sector). This has been made easier by today’s supplementary tools such as cloud services, communication systems, and virtual/video meeting software. Remote working practices have never been more popular. 

Reportedly 57% of American IT companies have now adopted some form of remote working practices. So what are the reasons a business might shy away from offering their employees the option? There must be legitimate (or perceived) downsides to offering employees the choice of completing their duties outside of a fixed office location. After all, the employees want the option; a 2017 survey concluded that:

74% of employees said they would quit their [onsite] jobs to work for an organisation that would allow them to work remotely more often, even if their salary stayed the same.

And it seems employers are giving it to them. As of 2017, 40% more US employers are offering remote work to their employees than did in 2010. So it seems the concept is here to stay despite some media outlets crying it to be “another millennial fad!”, but like any change new ideas must be navigated carefully because none are without their pitfalls. We have seen not only the popularity of the concept rise but also the culture surrounding telecommuting evolve over recent years. 

What makes remote work valuable today?

To the employee

From a worker’s perspective the benefits of telecommuting are clear. Flexibility with location and timeframes means walking the dog instead of sitting in traffic, reaching appointment times easier, and working in comfy pyjamas in winter.

Aside from lifestyle benefits, supposedly working remotely can provide health benefits and it has been shown to boost morale and job satisfaction. The majority of people utilising flexible working arrangements also report higher levels of engagement and motivation.

Compared to Baby Boomers, millennials are twice as likely to feel more productive and better-equipped working at home than at the office.

To the employer

From a management point of view, telecommuting can offer business benefits too. A 2015 study found that 77% of remote working employees surveyed reported greater productivity, possibly due to the perception of needing to perform more or perhaps because they are simply more efficient workers outside of a traditional office space. 52% of those surveyed also revealed that they felt just as connected (if not more) to their colleagues when off site – powerful statistics when weighing up the pros and cons of telecommuting. 

Aside from seeing actual improvements in performance, an employer can hire from a larger pool of prospective employees when offering remote or location-flexible positions, as well as retaining those whose location needs change. Based in Christchurch, Media Suite has been contacted by a developer who wants to work for us based from Norway – no problem. 

Financially the concept holds up as well. Employers experience a lower overhead when part of their workforce works offsite – making savings on real estate, electricity, and equipment – some businesses are claiming savings of $10,000 per employee per year. It is not uncommon for a flexible contract to also come at some salary cost, saving an employer on wages. 

Wider implications

In addition to individual and organisational benefit, there’s a planetary impact we can feel good about reducing. Cutting down on commuting means less traffic emissions alone. Reported environmental savings in the US in 2017 thanks to the remote worker population include 7.8 billion vehicle miles not travelled, 3 million tonnes of greenhouse gases not emitted, and $980 million in oil savings. This is with just 2.9% of the American workforce working from home for at least half the week – and that percentage has been rising by the year.

Remote work is not just something of interest to the younger portions of a workforce, as some media expects us to believe. Graduated or Phased retirement is a practice directed at the older part of a workforce and outlines the concept of gradually reducing workload and responsibilities throughout a retirement period. Why abruptly lose a valuable employee as well as a wealth of domain (and workplace) knowledge when offering them part time work may be a better move for the business and the employee? Remote working can complement the concept nicely, allowing for more flexible part time work.

What makes it work?

In order for a company to effectively adopt telecommuting as an option for their workforce there are a number of factors they must consider; the holy trinity of remoting, if you will.

Culture Having a culture that fosters collaboration and communication lessens the feeling of isolation. Remote workers have been known to struggle with “being present” and so inclusion is important in things like office events and workplace chat.

Tools Aligning with Media Suite’s values, remote working only succeeds with frequent and open communication. This is made possible by the communication tools available today. A high level of trust is required in order for remote work to be a viable business choice when self reporting time worked.

The Right People Self motivating and managing when secluded is not everyone’s strong point and so telecommuting is inherently not for everyone. The ability to maintain the same discipline when remote as you would have in the office can be learned but must be strived for if not found naturally.

When can it fall down?

So why wouldn’t a tech company adopt the remote work mentality? Well, because it’s not that easy to adopt it effectively. It has to be done right. 

Without the above “holy trinity” in place, telecommuting employees can be more of a hindrance than an asset. The last 5 years has seen a number of tech companies in the United States revoke their remote working stance due to, amongst other things, loss of productivity.

It has also been reported that some employers take back their offer to work outside of their physical offices in a bid to compete with younger, smaller competitors. The mentality behind doing so is prompted by an attempt to foster innovation so as to stay relevant (since people can only innovate when they are physically together apparently). However it would seem true that for a company with a large number of employees (500+) managing a workforce that could be anywhere, likely with some kind of self-management expectations, would require more organisation without everyone in one place.

There are a number of reasons remote working is a great idea for some but, as with all things, it comes down to the individual. As Ersin outlines, it takes a high level of motivation to work from a remote location permanently.

“Do not disturb” mode for employees working at home is imperative! One of the biggest criticisms of remote work is the inability to stay focused in a relaxed environment such as a home location. It is up to the individual to know when they are “at work” or “at home”. Also making this point means I can link to a video from 2017 you may have forgotten that highlights the importance of setting boundaries when working at home:

My remoting experience

Having spent two weeks working remotely while injured, I have to say I was definitely grateful for the option not to take crutches to the office. Working from home had a positive effect on my productivity. I would have been uncomfortable working in a regular office chair, opting for a couch or sitting on my bed at home instead. Aside from having fractures in my ankle and being able to prop it up without being pitied or made fun of, the luxury of working in pyjamas was finally realised for me and now I understand what all the fuss is about. 

However two weeks was long enough for me to recognise the potential downsides that permanent remote working may present. I personally value the convenience but can sympathise with those who highlight the monotony and isolation of working from home full time. One of the talked about imperatives of working from home is the ability to separate a productive headspace from a relaxed one. I think the connectivity of today’s world means that people already traverse the landscape of unplugging their work brain at home and setting boundaries.

So there are arguments for and against remote working. Some view the isolation of sitting at home in a negative light, whereas others would be delighted by the prospect of not having to leave the house – it’s a matter of perspective. Can’t we all agree some days you’d prefer to just stay home? However, like all things, remote working culture has to be done right in order to provide value. For me, I like to have the option for when I need it. But for now I value the motivation and headspace associated with the Ferrymead office as well as love the company and energy of an office.

Designing for humans – a digital perspective

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague came to me and asked “So, what’s the difference between Service Design, Design Thinking and Human Centred Design (HCD)?

That’s a really good question. There are many interchangeable concepts and terms used across these three approaches. A quick online search will provide you with an abundance of definitions, each subtly different from one another and often blurring the lines between them.

I think this has a lot to do with they way these approaches have evolved over the past several decades as they have been applied to different industries.

They do, however, boil down to two core concepts:

  1. They are used to solve problems and gain efficiencies.
  2. They are human centric

At Media Suite, we very much have a focus on digital transformation – using clever technology to solve complex human problems. So my definition of these three approaches is framed by this perspective.

A brief timeline

It always helps to know a little history to gain the ‘big picture’ perspective and to understand how things evolve over time.

Let me bring you back to the post war boom of the 1950s. An American professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, John E. Arnold, envisioned a better way of solving engineering problems. Arnold shared the idea of a “creative engineer” combining the technical skills of engineering with a more comprehensive human-centered approach than traditional industrial design. In his 1959 book “Creative Engineering” he reframes the design process as problem solving, which requires creativity; tools for thinking differently.

This set the broad framework for what we now know as the process of Design Thinking. Between the 60s and 80s, we saw the first real instances of people designing intangible things like software and interactions. These tools for solving problems creatively started permeating computer science, and with it, the beginning of HCD – where the humans took centre stage.

American psychologist J.C. Licklidder was at the forefront of this movement, detailing his vision in his 1958 book The Dream Machine,

“The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”

 

Steve Jobs later evangelised this idea by putting the users of Apple products at the heart of their design process, making technology personal.

“Service Design” was first coined back in 1982 by G. Lynn Shostack (a senior vice president in charge of the Private Clients Group at Bankers Trust Company) in a book she co-authored “Emerging Perspectives on Services Marketing”. She was the first to describe a technique known as the “service blueprint”; an applied process chart which shows the service delivery process from the customer’s perspective.

Fast forward to the early 2000s. The beginning of Media Suite, the advent of web 2.0, social media, and the explosion of technology-based products and services all vying for our attention. It was no longer good enough to simply produce software or websites that only did what was required. To be competitive, efficient and successful, we needed to create great experiences for the user.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know how crucial a good understanding of your users is. Even if you haven’t been calling it Design Thinking, you’ve probably already been using the process of discovery, ideation, prototyping, testing and seeing the benefits.

Design Thinking is simply defined as a process used to solve complex problems in a creative way. It can be seen as both an ideology and a process, and it’s primary purpose is to provide great outcomes and experiences for the user. However, unlike HCD where the user is always at the centre of attention, Design Thinking can also be used to solve problems that don’t relate to users at all.

The contemporary view of Design Thinking takes the form of 6 distinct phases.

Author/Copyright holder: Nielsen Norman Group
  1. Empathise – conduct research to develop an understanding of your users
  2. Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights
  3. Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions
  4. Prototype – Build real, tactile representations for a range of your ideas
  5. Test – Return to your users for feedback
  6. Implement – Put the vision into effect

Like the diagram suggests, this process is an iterative one allowing for constant revisions and improvements. When solving user-centric problems, the empathy phase is critical. For any solution to be truly successful, we need to put ourselves in the user’s position and understand their perspective. If the tasks they are performing are situationally specific, perform some ethnographic research. Be a fly on the wall to absorb not just the task they are performing, but the environmental factors that are affecting the way they are feeling, thinking and acting.

Author/Copyright holder: The Interaction Design Foundation

Scenarios are an excellent way linking personas (validated representations of specific groups of users) with the tasks they need to perform. It takes into consideration all the contextual information around the task they are performing to create a rich picture in your mind.

This picture is what allows you to define their needs and their problems in a way that can be easily tested and validated later, allowing you to iterate on your solutions, improving them, and improving the experience of the user.

Putting these scenarios together into a user journey map provides the big picture of a user’s interaction with your product or service.

Author/Copyright holder: UX Mastery

But what about all the unseen parts of a service that users don’t see or interact with? They also contribute to the experience of a user. This is where Service Design comes in.

Service Design is all about taking a new or existing service like booking flights online, visiting a doctor, or taking out a bank loan, and making it better meet the users or customers needs for that service. It looks at every facet of the service e.g. communication, people, activities, infrastructure, architecture, physical components etc, and investigates how to improve the quality of that service and the interaction with its customers or users.

The benefits don’t just stop with improving the user’s experience. This holistic view of a service allows businesses and organisations to improve the efficiency of their services as well.

Author/Copyright holder: Brandon Schauer.

The “service blueprint”, which G. Lynn Shostack, described back in 1982 has since become one of the most widely used tools within Service Design. Its purpose is to create a visual representation of all the processes within a company, and map the interactions between them. These processes can be broken down into:

Inputs (raw materials) → Process (transformation) → Outputs (finished goods)

According to authors Marc Stickdorn and Jakob Schneider of the best seller “This is Service Design Thinking”, Service Design can be broken down into five basic underlying principles.

  1. User-centred, through understanding the user by doing qualitative research
  2. Co-creative, by involving all relevant stakeholders in the design process
  3. Sequencing, by partitioning a complex service into separate processes
  4. Evidencing, by visualising service experiences and making them tangible
  5. Holistic, by considering touchpoints in a network of interactions and users

The terminologies within Service Design are subtly different. Users are often referred to as “actors”, and their interaction with the service, “touchpoints”.

Nicola Morelli back in 2006 proposed that the Service Design methodology follow three main directions:

  1. Identification of the actors involved in the definition of the service by means of appropriate analytical tools
  2. Definition of possible service scenarios, verifying use cases, and sequences of actions and actors’ roles in order to define the requirements for the service and its logical and organizational structure
  3. Representation of the service by means of techniques that illustrate all the components of the service, including physical elements, interactions, logical links and temporal sequences

This approach fits in harmony with the process of Design Thinking and the focus on the user with HCD.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen how these three approaches have become increasingly critical to the digital transformation of both the public and private sectors. Applying them to some of our country’s most complex problems within environmental management, road infrastructure and quality assurance has allowed us to see and understand the big picture and craft creative solutions that benefit both business and user.

And how exciting it is to be part of that.