The New Normal
Working from home has become the norm, but we have all heard that there are challenges associated with this shift. With the majority of our work taking place at the computer, making the change was quick, but the transition was far from easy.
Looking back at our Transition
We will look back at how this transition has gone and discuss our experience so far. Maybe it can help others circumnavigate these same challenges, maybe it will help others take the plunge, and it has definitely helped us by encouraging self-reflection. Warning: this is a long read! (I suggest skimming through and spending more time reading about the issues that interest you)
These challenges are specific to our team (8 people), type of work (design, prototype, engineer, test), and circumstance (young, growing team). Looking back most of them would be exacerbated by a larger team (and minimized by a smaller team). For reference sake, we were only able to achieve semi-remote status at 0-2 people in the office at once.
Our Biggest Challenges
Let’s dive into 2 of the biggest challenges we’ve faced – the ones that changed everything.
1. Social Interaction/social communication at work
Social interactions are undoubtedly the most obvious difference – these interactions pertain to work related and non-work related matters. The main form of communication, in essence, has changed.
Bouncing ideas off another colleague is something that used to happen seamlessly. A 2-5 minute interaction that wasn’t planned but allowed a continuous workflow used to happen every day, multiple times a day. (I know what you’re thinking, small random conversations sound like the opposite of seamless workflow – not in product development – when you are continuously facing new challenges and new solutions, that’s the norm).
Now, a simple question needs to be planned – either a planned meeting, or for the next meeting, or at the daily standup. It needs to be recorded and often breaks the workflow of what you are doing. Often it is asked via email or slack, which leads to further distraction on these platforms. Meetings balloon into multiple topics (“because I have you here”) requiring further “management”.
- Current solution: Do what seems necessary for the discussion. If it’s urgent, call. If it’s a longer discussion, schedule a meeting. If it’s a side thought, send a slack message. Sometimes the team ends up on a work call where everyone is working away and only speaks up if something comes up.
Small talk with team members was a byproduct of working in the same space. Connecting with people – their lives, their hardships, their wins – was a natural occurrence. Now, there is no common space for these interactions. Connecting over a medium like slack more screen time, which does not feel like a break. Breaks are taken in the solitude of home and the team is more disconnected than ever.
- Current solution: We have loosened our rules for meetings, spending some time at the beginning of each catching up. We have added a weekly meeting dedicated to catching up and hanging out. Our weekly “debrief and bevies” session is a great way to wind down at the end of a long week. Even still, it’s hard to idly chat when you know the whole team is paying attention to you. A slack watercooler channel also sits in the background but hasn’t been the most effective.
As a new product development team, many of our challenges are novel and regularly have brainstorming sessions (internally called ideation sessions) to discuss and come up with potential solutions. We would regularly convene in the board room or the engineering work cell in front of the whiteboard to describe, discuss, and ideate.
- Current solution: Rely on a series of technologies to help us replace this gathering. We convene in front of our computers – we screen share, point to things, and attempt to draw with a computer mouse. The free flow of ideas and discussions are limited by the quality of our internet connections and the quality of the audio/video coming through. Team members that can draw use a drawing tablet, everyone else defers to words and googling pictures. Software platforms like InVision and Mural could make these sessions powerful, but need to be tested before implementing into the workflow.
Replacing the infrastructure of the office at home is another pressing challenge.
Sending a computer desktop home is great and all, but does the team have a place at home to turn into an office? Everyone makes due, but this is something easily controlled at the office and something an employer has no control over at all at home.
- Currently: People’s work spaces are now subject to the issues of their home. Maybe your office is undergoing renos (At the office, everyone must endure it together, bringing them closer as a team.) Now, each member is in a completely different environment dealing with issues like noise, children, comfort, space, etc. In addition, going partially remote means either having 2 desktop computers or moving to laptops – more $$ either way.
Prototyping space and hardware is something we have not been able to circumnavigate. With prototyping, there comes a certain amount of equipment and space requirements. Taking communal tools and equipment home means limiting access to everyone else.
- Currently: The hardware is something thing we have left at the office. When needed, members will go in and use it. Thus, the office has become akin to a communal space/workshop.
Software infrastructure – today, there’s a software for most things. However, many times you struggle to find exactly what you need. As already mentioned in communication – Ideation sessions were always held around a whiteboard, allowing people to visually express ideas. Although it is easy enough to find a shared visual tool, it turns out it is harder to draw with a computer mouse than it is to draw on a whiteboard.
- There is always a finding, choosing, testing, learning and adoption curve for the team. With everything happening online these days, there’s also a fatigue/burnout factor that must be considered.
Less In-Your-Face but still Prevalent
3. Separating work from home
With all the lockdowns/restrictions taking place, our team members are spending more time at home. In many cases, our team members are working in the same space that they spend their free time – this is bad. Work has taken a place inside their homes, and although this is not urgent (like having your internet cut out on you) it is important. This difficulty in separating work from home means the stressors of work are now the stressors of home – which can lead to lower workplace satisfaction, and lower performance.
- Currently: What wan an employer really do? We can’t exactly ask our team members to dedicate a full room to become an office, but we can make their workspace a bit nicer. Having a small budget to spruce up their home workspace can go a long way.
4. Split as we were getting into performing
As a young and growing team, it was hard going remote. We are still learning about each other as people and as work colleagues – it is doubly important to stay connected during these stages. This may be overlooked as a small difference but has exacerbated most of the issues we felt in this transition.
5: Going Remote but not during Covid-19
Team building activities are a bit of a sidenote as they are being avoided due to COVID-19 restrictions; however, if a team was going remote in a different circumstance, team building activities would very much help. One of the hardest challenges to address are the small talk between members that builds trust, community, and culture.
Going remote would not be nearly as difficult if people could meet up on a regular basis to connect as a team. We felt this most prominently with onboarding new members during the team integration period. In addition, with the Holiday season coming up, and the stricter restrictions in place, we foresee challenges in keeping overall morale high.
Some thoughts looking back
A nimble and proactive team made this transition a lot easier than it could have been. Our team is small and already had a lot of good practices in place like daily standup meetings, which now double as a contact point for the team (although now we sit rather than stand). The team saw issues, brought them up, and addressed them proactively. This took a major role in our weekly Ventrify Innovation Academy, which is our weekly continuous learning initiative. We were able to address or at least stay aware of these issues as a team.
Everything (for the most part) is still possible, it just sits behind your computer and a new software. Existing issues like meeting fatigue are exacerbated by small tech issues like internet lag. This means software UI and UX are more important now than ever.
Do we plan on going back to the office once restrictions lift (once COVID-19 is dealt with)?
For now, yes. Communication and infrastructure are the main reasons. Although we will most likely have the option of working from home. If some of these big issues are resolved in the near future maybe this will change, but for now, remote work still brings more challenges than it’s worth.
About the Author
Ventrify is a product design and manufacturing firm that helps entrepreneurs bring product ideas from concept to market. We take in fledgling ideas and bring them through our iterative design process to create products our clients can be proud of. Then, we work with manufacturing facilities worldwide to bring our clients the highest quality products at competitive prices.