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.
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.
Before we began our research, our team established the following directions and objectives for our 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
These themes were at the center of our ideation process, directly shaping the interventions we ended up with.
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:
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?
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.
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.