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Fostering Positive Environments for Remote Work, Part 2

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
September 20, 2021

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I shared my own experiences with managing remote UX professionals and teams, covering the following approaches to fostering positive environments for remote work:

  • offering flexibility in camera readiness
  • creating safe spaces for employees to vent and connect
  • demonstrating trust

Now, in Part 2, I’ll share some additional approaches, as follows:

  • implementing the right tools and processes
  • prioritizing the digital space
  • modeling the work environment you want to create
  • providing mental and emotional support  
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Implementing the Right Tools and Processes

Tools and processes should serve human beings, not the other way around. Without the support of in-person interactions, issues with our dependency on tools and processes have become magnified. This greatly influences our ability to learn and adapt to new things. If team members are communicating their frustrations with any aspects of their job that relate to tools or processes, it’s important for their managers and leaders to listen closely and be prepared to act.

A process or tool that worked well before the COVID-19 pandemic or other changes in your business context might not work well now. For example, prior to the pandemic, my team used Sketch and InVision for designing and managing UX and UI design artifacts. These tools—and the processes and guidelines we’d implemented for using them—worked fine when most employees were collocated. However, once the pandemic blindsided us and everyone else, we quickly realized how dependent we were on codesign sessions, which we had usually conducted in person. The solution? We’ve begun to migrate our design libraries into Figma, which uniquely supports remote, synchronous codesign and collaboration. But it wasn’t easy to convince our software-procurement teams and leaders to support this overhaul of our toolset—especially since they hadn’t previously been familiar with Figma. If you face a similar situation or opportunity, I recommend your doing the following:

  • Demonstrate the savings. In our situation, moving from a solution that required using two tools to a solution that required just one tool resulted in significant savings for the company. When making our request to shift to Figma, we led with the potential savings first—a perspective that usually turns the heads of leaders.
  • Reveal the opportunity cost. In addition to communicating the monetary benefits, we also described the opportunity cost of not switching to Figma, which would result in new employees spending more time on learning multiple tools and processes. Not using a single tool would also result in stakeholders having to look in different places to review the latest UX and UI design artifacts, which would cause them collectively to waste an immeasurable amount of time. What else could people be doing with that valuable time?
  • Invoke employee satisfaction and retention. Employees, including UX and UI design professionals, want access to the best tools and processes for doing their job. Common sense tells us that companies would want to give their people the best tools. However, many companies are still contending with major UX maturity issues, which extends to those capabilities that either foster or inhibit UX maturity at an enterprise level. To provide further evidence of Figma’s impact on employee satisfaction, we conducted a survey with UX and UI design employees, focusing on the tools that support their ability to do their job. We then shared our survey results with leadership to get their buy-in on investing in new tools. Figma was respondents’ overwhelming favorite. We made it clear to leadership that not adopting a better tool or process after a majority of UX and UI design professionals had clearly indicated their desire to use it would negatively impact employee satisfaction.
  • Align to your company’s vision. Play the ace card that your company has already dealt you: aligning with the company’s vision. If you work for a large or even a mid-sized company, it’s likely that your senior leaders have communicated their strategic vision to all employees. For example, at Rockwell Automation, our vision is to enable the Connected Enterprise for our customers. This means converging manufacturing plant and enterprise networks to connect people, processes, and technologies. From a UX perspective, this entails breaking down silos between users by creating system-wide solutions that support different modes of work, but are complementary and function harmoniously. Figma’s collaborative capabilities enable various product teams across our global company to work within a single ecosystem, through which codesign and communication can take place in real time—which any engineer, product manager, architect, or stakeholder can use to contribute directly. By aligning the way we collaboratively design solutions across our company, we cultivate system-wide experiences across our portfolio of software products, fostering seamless connectivity for our customers—through the Connected Enterprise.

Prioritizing the Digital Space

Remote work has resulted in a level playing field for all employees—an unexpected benefit of our company’s stay-at-home order that my team members and I have observed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, most of our User Experience Design Team was collocated on one campus, with a small number of designers working from other locations. This resulted in numerous scenarios in which our few remote team members had limited opportunities to participate effectively in discussions, collaborative brainstorming sessions, and especially the serendipitous encounters that those of us who were collocated often enjoyed.

However, now that we’ve all experienced what it’s like to work remotely, those few team members who had previously been limited by working remotely have experienced greater job satisfaction and more opportunities to contribute. Capturing what has worked well during the pandemic is one of the most important things we must do as we move forward into a future in which employees cautiously return to their physical workplaces—whenever that occurs. Otherwise, we risk reverting to our old bad habits.

In his article, “5 Principles for Making Hybrid Collaboration Work,” author Jim Kalbach states, “If it isn’t digital, then it didn’t happen.” Kalbach’s assertion is correct: the digital space now has equal priority with the physical. This trend will continue as more remote workers join our teams and more companies move to more hybrid-friendly modes of work. How could you better support the digital space to make remote and hybrid collaboration more effective going forward?

  • pairing remote attendees with other remote attendees—When you’re conducting workshops with a hybrid group of remote and collocated attendees and planning to do breakout sessions, consider pairing remote attendees in particular breakout sessions, putting them on an equal footing with others. The greatest number of issues arise when a few remote attendees must try to collaborate with many physically present attendees, making equal participation nearly impossible.
  • prioritizing good audio technology—I’ve lost count of how many meetings or workshops I’ve attended for which the quality of the audio technology was insufficient for remote participates to understand what was happening—much less for them to be able to contribute effectively. Often, a meeting organizer or presenter uses a personal computer to present materials to a large group. Consequently, the audio from that computer’s internal microphone is all that a remote attendee can hear. The same issue occurs when a collocated group uses a single speaker phone. Under normal circumstances, this is not conducive to hearing everyone in a large group that has gathered in an expansive conference room. It certainly doesn’t work in spaces in which people must sit at least six feet apart. Investing in group expansion microphones—or pucks, as some people call them—is well worth the cost, as are other Bluetooth® wireless technologies that enable a group to extend the quality of the presenter’s microphone and speaker to the larger team for richer, more inclusive collaboration. It is important that companies invest in these audio technologies now, preventing any such inefficiencies from marring future hybrid collaboration sessions, which would frustrate and alienate remote workers—who are becoming increasingly critical to the success of their company.
  • encouraging virtual sidebar discussions—If you’re leading a meeting with a mixture of collocated and remote attendees, encourage remote participants to ask questions and hold sidebar conversations using the meeting’s chat user interface—whether you’re conducting a meeting using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx, or some other collaboration tool. Letting remote teammates quickly type and share their thoughts as others are talking is an easy way to help mitigate their missing opportunities to politely interject a thought or ask a clarifying question. When meeting in person, attendees can more readily sense the beats in a conversation because there are more cues to see, hear, and even sense. This helps them understand when it would be most appropriate to speak up. Remote attendees lack many of these cues, so it’s important to manufacture opportunities for them to contribute when you’re leading a discussion. Occasionally pause and ask whether there are any questions. Notice whether any conversations are happening in the chat or any remote attendees want to speak or ask questions. If there are questions, prioritize answering them—perhaps even more than you would if they came from someone who’s physically in the room.

Modeling the Work Environment You Want to Create

As a manager or a leader, to foster a healthy work environment—whether remote, in person, or a hybrid of the two—model the actions and behaviors you want to encourage in others. Don’t just tell your employees that you care about their well-being and intend to pay attention to their personal life and needs. Show them through your own behaviors. Exerting positive peer pressure through our actions speaks louder than words. Even if you do want to return to a physical workplace—or eventually to return—ensure that you’d do so for reasons that make sense for you, as an employee, and communicate that to your team members. If everyone understands that your desire to return to the workplace was a personal decision—not one that you expect of them—your team members would experience less anxiety and pressure to make a decision that wouldn’t be in their own best interests.

Individual contributors have the power to influence others, too. If your company’s leadership communicates their desire for employees to return to company-owned office spaces, even if just part time, you must communicate your concerns to your manager or Human Resources if you feel that a return to a shared workspace would not currently be in your best interests. Do not suffer silently and go along to get along. We’re now living in an unprecedented time. None of us has a crystal ball that can help us divine the future. Imperfect human beings run companies. These leaders are subject to the same uncertainties resulting from the ebbs and flows of a global pandemic as their employees—uncertainties that could continue to churn out variants of a deadly virus. People must speak up about their own needs, not buckle to pressures to return to the office. Chances are that other people share their concerns and would support them by voicing those concerns.

Providing Mental and Emotional Support

When astronauts train for a mission to space, they must undergo rigorous sets of tests and examinations to demonstrate their physical, mental, and emotional fitness for handling such a mission. After all, they’re going to be thrust into zero gravity and live in tight quarters with other human beings for long periods of time.

Consider what the pandemic has done to human beings on Earth. While we weren’t all blasted into space, we were literally hurled into the unknown. Many of us were crammed into tight quarters with other human beings who were also battling their own feelings of frustration and anxiety. There were no tests or training exercises to prepare us for this journey into the unknown and the difficult living conditions that resulted—much less any evaluations of our abilities to handle such difficulties for indefinite periods of time.

If you’re a manager or leader, consider the emotional, mental, and physical tolls that have been visited upon your team members during this unprecedented, challenging time. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the daily buzz of our work activities and forget to check in on team members’ emotional well-being. However, a significant aspect of people management involves providing mental and emotional support. This has been especially important during the pandemic, with most people working remotely. Leaders and managers can lend their support by doing the following:

  • making space to check in
  • providing access to Employee Resource Groups and other resources

Making Space to Check In

As I described in Part 1 of this series, one-on-ones are important meetings between managers and their direct reports, and they should not be one-sided check ins. It’s essential that leaders and managers check in on team members’ well-being, first and foremost, before encouraging them to share information relating to their day-to-day work.

If you’re a manager or leader, make a habit of asking how your team members are doing, including what is happening outside their work, in their personal lives. While employees might not always want to share, if they do, make the space to really listen. In their Harvard Business Review article, “8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health,” authors Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol state, “What’s most important is to make space to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be compassionate.” People carry their emotional, mental, and physical burdens with them into their workplace—regardless of whether that workplace is physical or virtual. Not giving them ample space for discussing these burdens demonstrates a lack of empathy. Employees experience better job satisfaction and perform better when they feel that their voice is heard and their well-being is important to their company.

Providing Access to Employee Resource Groups and Other Resources

Often, a company’s best resources for aiding employees during difficult times are its own employees. Many large companies have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that give employees opportunities to connect with other employees who have similar backgrounds, circumstances, or needs. It’s not sufficient for a company’s leadership to merely help bring these groups into existence; they must also actively encourage employees to engage with them. Being part of a community can do wonders for employees’ morale and well-being. I can personally attest to this: I am a member of a group at Rockwell Automation for people who have family members with special needs. As a father of an autistic child, having access to a group of people in a similar situation has improved my morale and made me feel more supported by my company. This support, in turn, has improved my job satisfaction and performance.

If your company isn’t making ERGs available to its employees, ask to create one that would be meaningful to you. Now, more than ever, it’s important for companies to recognize that words aren’t enough. They must put the right infrastructure into place to support their employees’ well-being. As I described in Part 1, employees need safe places to vent and connect. ERGs are another conduit for facilitating these vital interactions.

Conclusion

Fostering a positive environment for remote work requires efforts on multiple fronts, including prioritizing tools and resources that are conducive to remote and hybrid modes of collaborative work. Plus, it involves demonstrating empathy and a commitment to making remote employees feel connected and valued, just as if they were physically collocated with their peers.

No tools, resources, or processes for fostering a positive remote-work environment really matter unless employees feel that the organization supports their well-being. Leaders and managers must provide this support to their employees. The need to prioritize the fostering of positive remote-work environments extends far beyond any particular event that might have precipitated the need for prioritization—such as a global pandemic. In the past, many companies have failed to give the facilitation of remote work the attention it deserves. But, in today’s world, it’s incumbent on the leaders of companies to create the positive future of remote work. They must avoid falling back into the mindset of business as usual once the pandemic finally relaxes its stubborn grip—even though that might not be for a while. 

User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. In 2020, Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell, where he balances design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals.  Read More

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