Thrive in your virtual workplace

I’ve always been a big advocate and early adopter of online collaborative tools such as google docs, Figma, and Mural. Yet, I have often found that co-workers are less excited about them. I wondered if perhaps it was hard for them to learn a new app or adapt to a new way of working.

After all these months of COVID lockdown, in which these tools are now mandatory, I have realized that the reluctance to use a new tool was not caused by the effort of learning something new, but was actually caused by the structural issue of not understanding the rules of a new system.

Perhaps I can use school as a metaphor to explain this problem. A school has a building and rooms within that building. But, it also has other, less visible, systems that make that structure work for educating kids. A school has teachers to guide learning. It has a curriculum to plan out learning for all kids. It has a gym for kids to exercise. It has a playground for kids to play in and it has a canteen for kids to eat. It also has a set of rules which both adults and children understand and therefore (ideally) makes the school a place for learning.

I realized that online collaborative tools like Figma, Slack and google docs are like a school building with only the barest suggestion of rooms, and a complete lack of the other elements that structure and connect people to an institution.

Before COVID people were reluctant to embrace new online collaborative tools because they did not know how the system worked because many parts of it were missing. Now that there is no choice, everyone needs to create those missing parts for themselves.

While there are many tools to provide the basics for online work, the true ecosystem of work is often invisible — we only notice it when it is taken away. While virtual work seems like something close to work, something is missing. That missing something, that vital ecosystem, is made of two parts: structure and connection.

Online collaborative services are often blank canvases by design. People will use them in so many ways that it is left to the end-user to organize their new virtual space. Think about the first time you used google drive or dropbox or any note-taking application; they were empty or had not-quite-right templates. The problem is that there are no rules for how to structure new virtual spaces for your needs, unlike real-world spaces which come with the desks, rooms, doors, corridors, and elevators in which work is done and conversations are had.

At a high level it is important to structure virtual spaces in three ways:
1. Sandbox: This is a space where people can experience and try out new ideas, e.g. a slack channel just for talking about new ideas, or a google doc to try out a new piece of writing a safe space. In the real world, these are often the water-cooler spaces where people can talk informally.

2. Workspaces: These are spaces where people do more formal work and put ideas that are more fully formed. In the virtual world, this may mean a google slide deck or a figma design file that is the core working document for your project. In the real world, the equivalent is your desk at work, where you have all the information at your fingertips and where you can gather and develop work and make progress.

3. Sharing: The final space is the presentation space, the place to put updated or final work files. This makes it clear where the latest official place is to get a project update or make a presentation. The real-world equivalent is a conference room or shared workspace where presentations are made and critiqued.

It’s important to have all three of these spaces to allow collaboration to happen in a virtual space. Most often overlooked are the sandbox spaces, because in the real world people do not think of these as official spaces. Yet these are the spaces that serve as the vital glue to connect informal ideas and information.

While we now have multiple synchronous and asynchronous ways to communicate with people, much of human interaction and communication is nonverbal and based on contextual cues. Hence, video calls and text-based messages fall short when it comes to conveying the range of genuine human interactions. Three ideas to improve this situation are:

1. Virtual coffee breaks Schedule times in the day with an open zoom room where people can pop in and see who’s around and talk about work or not. Just knowing that there is an informal place to meet online at a set time and place can help reduce the feeling of loneliness that can ensue from hours in front of a screen.

2. One-on-one: These kinds of conversations are more important than ever, and need to be scheduled, rather than relying on the serendipity that might happen when people are in an office together. Both managers and employees need to come to those conversations with an agenda in mind and to allow time to work on issues or skills.

3. Group space: Offsites in the real world were often used to help teams get away from every day and talk about work from a different perspective of a new space or location. The virtual world also offers such possibilities but they require more planning coordination. The Democratic National Convention’s roll-call this year was a great example of how a group space can show the diversity and space that people inhabit (link). Far from being sterile, it allowed people to show their personality and unique abilities and while that required more planning (or more technical coordination) than a group conversation, it showed a way of making the virtual more human for groups of people.

Working remotely through a global pandemic could never be easy, and people have shown amazing flexibility and resilience in adapting to this new virtual-only world. Yet there is a difference between surviving the situation and thriving in a situation. Structuring virtual spaces from the void and building in habits and routines of connection can make these spaces feel real and authentic.


The Design + Culture series appraises and imagines the way we shape our world. It’s a guide for anyone who wants to build tools and frameworks to help sustain their creativity and change our culture.

Design + Culture Sign up



The Design + Culture series appraises and imagines the way we shape our world. It’s a guide for anyone who wants to build tools and frameworks to help sustain their creativity and change our culture.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kaushik Panchal

Strategy & Design | Focus on understanding the problem; the answers will present themselves.| @buscada @thoughtspot | Prev @Apple @yahoo |