The Post-Pandemic Work Experience

We've all heard stories about how people's work lives have changed during the pandemic, for better or worse. We worked with Modem to harness these lessons as we redesign the post-pandemic work experience.


How might we design the future office space for the post-pandemic world?

As we are left to grapple with the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives, many of us have taken the opportunity to question the status quos upheld before the pandemic began. We’ve learned that working from anywhere is both feasible and attractive for businesses and for employees alike, and that the demand for this model of work will remain long after the pandemic ends.

Modem, a forward-thinking office for design and innovation, reached out to us to understand how people feel about their work lives during the pandemic, and to develop ideas that will push a sense of stability and groundedness into the post-pandemic era of work.

We conducted user research to ground and inform our five proposed innovations to tackle a work-from-anywhere future, harnessing the flexibility of working remotely while addressing the pain points that come with the loss of an office space.

You can find an article about our work on the Modem website.

In this project, you will see…

  • How I approach designing a user research pipeline, and make necessary adaptations on the fly
  • How I condense insights into actionable design directions
  • How we rapidly ideate potential designs based off our insights
  • How we iterate our ideas to improve usability and functionality
  • A short prototype demonstration!

00 Project Goals

Our first order of business was to establish a well-defined direction that best fit our client’s goals, working as the north star throughout our design process.

The Modem team came to us with a primarily human, experiential conceptualization of the office, as opposed to an industrial and economic one. They talked at length about the rituals that made the office feel a little bit more like home to employees that were lost in the transition to remote work — think brown bag lunches, or water cooler conversations. In our conversations with them, we identified three pillars of design to focus on:

Resilient. Designs should be able to withstand unforeseen circumstances, and should not be fragile or particular about necessary events.

Sustainable. Designs should not be reliant on scarce resources, and should not negatively impact the outside world.

Humane. Designs should put people first and business second, creating a healthy and desirable work life.

01 Research 

Research Goals

Before we began our research, our team established the following directions and objectives for our research.

  • Human-centric. We wanted our research to primarily understand and empathize with experiences. We asked people what motivated them in the morning, or about their break rituals. Quantitative research played second fiddle to a more qualitative, observational approach.
  • On the horizon. Our insights should be forward-looking, but realistic. We sought to learn from the people who will be in the workforce 3-5 years from now, and to conceptualize the technology that might be available by then.

Secondary Research

One of my favorite ways to begin a client project is to identify relevant research topics to dive into. This allows teams of consultants to independently develop unique insights and perspectives on the problem, while firmly grounding the project in context.

  • A survey of existing workspaces. What makes offices work, and what problems they cause when they don’t.
  • Achieving a digital-physical balance. The systems and technologies companies use to navigate working both remotely and in-person.
  • The COVID Situation. A more sociological look into the impact of isolation and working from home.
  • Workspaces of the future. Imaginative conceptions of resilient, sustainable, and humane workspaces, and what we can learn from them.

In short, we found that an ideal workspace would incorporate the physical and experiential touchpoints of the traditional office into more accessible, flexible, and resilient design, such as through layout, decentralization, etc. 

Diary Study

Because of our project’s emphasis on rituals, I decided that a diary study was a particularly appropriate way to capture the fleeting human moments that really characterized what working from home was like. In designing our questions, we made sure to lean in to the strengths of the diary study method by focusing on participants’ present thoughts and feelings.

Our diary study was designed to take place over five days, and was to be distributed to compensated participants who worked from home. During the study, participants would answer questions throughout the day about the following topics:

  • Their immediate thoughts during different parts of the workday
  • Their self-assessment of mental and emotional state, including their motivation levels throughout the day
  • Their habits and rituals, including pre-work, post-work, and break routines
  • Their self-assessment of their home workspaces and their impact on their personal and professional lives.

After a few revisions, we distributed the study through different forums and social media channels. What our team did not anticipate, however, was the difficulty in sourcing diary study participants. We later found that on average, diary study participants were compensated far more than we offered due to the tedious nature of the research method, and so we were not able to source participants.

This forced us to rethink our use of the diary study. We took the opportunity to do the diary study ourselves, but since we were a very limited sample size of a similar demographic, we did not treat our results as fact. We took note of our feelings and experiences throughout the research period, then used these as a jumping off point for our other research methods, such as interviews.

In this way, though we were not able to get the proper diary study off the ground, our team still made good use of the method to bolster our research findings. I would love to conduct a more comprehensive diary study in a future project as I believe the method can lead to really unique observations.

Screener + Interview

We then developed a short survey, designed to be answered quickly and distributed widely, to understand a few targeted key issues in depth, and to identify interested candidates for an interview to obtain deeper, more nuanced insights. 

Our screener consisted of demographic questions, short logistical questions about their work setup, and quick opinion questions, such as rating different aspects of working from home and from the office on a 5-point likert scale. At the end of the screener, we asked respondents to leave their email addresses if they were interested in participating in an interview for compensation.

Our interviews covered the following topics:

  • Work experiences, both in-person and online
  • Perceived differences / advantages between working at home and in the office
  • Preferences and description of an ideal work setup

Some of these are big topics, so we used a few tricks to make these questions feel more tangible. We asked participants to describe a typical day at work, both at home and in the office. We asked them if they had a favorite object on their desk, and if they wished they could bring something home from their office. We asked them to tell us about some of their office must-haves, and what they wanted to do when the pandemic ended.

We were able to interview users from a variety of age groups, occupations, and parts of the world, which we processed through the following synthesis methods.

Affinity Mapping

Our team parsed through our survey responses and interview transcripts, then wrote down short, concrete insights on sticky notes using the Miro app. We then grouped these insights to find four salient themes:

  • Communication. Online communication often feels choppy and unnatural, and cannot properly accommodate differences in time zone and locality.
  • Social interactions. Points of human connection in the workspace have been eroded, deteriorating morale and motivation.
  • Work-life separation. The blurring of the boundary between work and life has impacted people’s mental health and productivity, both on and off work.
  • Rituals. Rituals build stability and foster community in the workplace, whether that be the office or the home.

These themes were at the center of our ideation process, directly shaping the interventions we ended up with.

02 Ideation 

After long sessions of brainstorming, invigorating conversations with our clients, and a continuous sequence of iterations, our team ended up with the following five interventions, rooted in the key insights mentioned above:

  • Spatial Video-Conferencing Software. Inviting users to recapture the serendipity of office interactions at home by reintroducing spatial dynamics to online communication through movement in a virtual office environment.
  • Asynchronous Audio Meetings. Bringing together the natural flow of a conversation with the flexibility of asynchronous communication, using natural language processing for an intuitive yet robust experience.
  • Decentralized workspaces. Making dedicated work environments healthier and more accessible by repurposing underused space for local, forward-thinking workspace outposts.
  • Routine-building app. Restoring the groundedness and wellness brought by rituals with an app that generates daily schedule suggestions based on users’ preferences and commitments.
  • Variable Lighting. Improving mood, motivation, and productivity at home with a responsive lighting system that promotes healthy daily routines and circadian rhythms.

My focus for this project was to sketch out directions for an asynchronous audio meeting platform. I would love for you to have a look at my teammates’ work on the other concepts; they’ve done such a wonderful job and have come up with really strong, robust solutions. 

Diving deep into issues of communication, I found that arduous video calls, email threads,  and live documents brought a sense of detachment and choppiness to communication methods prevalent in a remote work setting. The points of friction introduced by distance made our respondents yearn for in-person meetings, where conversation flowed freely and the presence of their colleagues was felt. But even our most Zoom-averse appreciated many of the benefits of virtual meetings. People could take meetings from the comfort and safety of their homes, which was particularly crucial when respondents needed to attend to personal responsibilities at home, or when unforeseen circumstances such as sickness struck.

The question: how do you make an asynchronous, virtual communication platform feel as natural as a call?

03 Iteration

The idea is to build a seamless, fluid meeting with your colleagues — who may be talking to you from the past, present, or future. Users can pitch into conversations that have happened in the past, or ask questions to participants joining in the future. Natural language processing and speech recognition software seamlessly integrates your utterances into a conversation that’s already happened, and let it play out as if you were there the whole time. 

This not only gives users operating in different time zones and schedules the flexibility of asynchronicity; NLP features can be used to make the experience even more convenient than a call. Transcript generation makes it a breeze to review meetings, and outline generation makes for a more organized navigation experience. The platform can even be set up to detect your name in your colleague’s speech and notify you when you’ve been referred to.

04 Prototype

Here is a short demonstration of how the app might work! There currently seems to be a zoom level bug with Figma's iframes, so click on the fullscreen button on the top right of the frame to check it out.