diesdas and the pandemic

A braindump from a strange week of social distancing and working from home.

Harry Keller
Mar 24, 2020 · 9 min read
Zooooooooooooom!

A little more than half a year ago we decided to become a more remote-friendly company. Little did we know how important that decision would become only a few months later: in early March we had to close our office due to the corona virus pandemic, practicing social distancing, all 24 employees working from home.

That’s a big change, but we had practiced remote work and home office for months, we had the tools in place and we knew that our work would continue. We didn’t panic, we didn’t have a lot of meetings discussing about what ifs—we simply grabbed our screens, set up our home offices and carried on.

It goes without saying that these first days in isolation were still a challenge — but it could’ve been a lot worse. Our confidence in our ability to function as an organisation gave us breathing room to also see some positive linings in this whole situation. Below you’ll find a few thoughts and observations.

As a studio we’re heavily dependent on client work, so even if we manage to chug along remotely, we need our clients to keep up their work as well. So far they all seem to be doing a great job. 👏 This might be because most of our clients also work on digital products and services with us — maybe the situation would be different if we had a lot industrial clients who can’t operate their factories right now. Fingers crossed that we can continue without major interruptions—so far all signed projects appear to be going forward! 🤞

(By the way, our friends over at ZEIT ONLINE wrote a similar blog post, complete with an empty office photo.)

That said, we are feeling the pandemic in our new-business pipeline, with one upcoming project being delayed and another one canceled. We’re not freaking out, but definitely getting a tiny bit worried.

Working together this week felt strangely intimate and personal: all the glimpses into people’s homes, kids running around, pets being present in video calls and everyone valuing social contact much more than before. I cherished every video call, we often took the time to properly check in and to ask others how they are holding up. Ironically being further apart brought the team closer together—not taking face time for granted.

To understand what everyone is going through, we established a new practice we call “checkout chats”. Every day at the end of the work day we huddle in a Zoom call and talk about the day— not focused on our tasks, but our feelings about the current situation. This is a voluntary event, but I was happy to see that 5–10 people showed up each day. This helped me and others to process what is currently going on, to exchange fears, hopes and news.

One of those evening chats

These are extraordinary times and the last week was definitely filled with anxiety — it took me a few days to find my rhythm and others voiced similar thoughts. I had to figure out when to start, when to have lunch, what to have for lunch, when to read the news, where in the apartment to work, if (and when) to go outside, how much to chat with colleagues … everyone needs to establish a new rule book for themselves these days and productivity will suffer. That’s to be expected, so let’s all try not to be too hard on ourselves.

One morning I figured lots of people must be at home lunching alone later that day, so I suggested to mingle for a remote lunch:

I had no idea what to expect and I gotta admit, I was rather nervous. To my delight five former colleagues/friends showed up and we had a nice catch-up over lunch. We should do this again soon. 🙌

Pretty much everyone in the team said the same thing after a few days: taking a walk is necessary for focus and clearing the mind. It’s tempting to hunker down inside, but going for a stroll (still keeping physical distance to other humans of course) helped most people to get through their day.

We’re mostly running on Notion for asynchronous work, Slack for semi-synchronous exchanges and Zoom for synchronous meetings, but there is a new kid on the block and that’s …

If you feel too disconnected from your coworkers, your office should try Tandem — it’s currently free and it has quickly become our virtual office. You can see everyone who’s online and it’s super frictionless to jump on a call, no meeting links or invitations involved. You can also see who else is having discussions, what app they are using and there are audio/video channels to hang out in, to indicate you’re up for a coffee chat. Give it a try, we like it a lot!

Edit: A few days later Tandem use has significantly declined, so apparently it wasn’t the silver bullet we hoped it would be. Still using it though, still evaluating.

For starters we’ve made most meetings Zoom calls now and it works okayish, but being on constant calls is very draining: through a grainy webcam it’s harder to read the “room” and gauge people’s reactions, it’s tough to know when to speak up and generally every call with more than three or four people is a bit of a mess. So the real challenge for the coming weeks will be to turn many of these calls into written, asynchronous documents. We’ll most likely be stuck at home for a while, so rather than waiting it out with our old habits, we should lean into this new situation and make the most of it. That will mean changing our processes and revamping how we spread information, how we discuss important matters and how we collaborate. Looking at you, Threads and Basecamp! #AsyncAllTheThings

Deserted office on a weekday, when I briefly went in to get some gear

It’s good to have a laugh once in a while, especially during these gloomy days and we had a lot of fun with Snap Camera. It allows you to use Snapchat lenses in any video call: You keep the app running in the background and it creates a virtual camera to select in Zoom (or any other videoconferencing tool). You can then activate lenses and have a good laugh together.

While we’re at it, can we talk about webcams for a second? Why is every camera in a smartphone rivaling DSLR quality, but webcams seem to be stuck in the 90s? Some of our people have tried to buy better cameras for their home-office setups, but none of them were great. Colors washed out, slow auto-focus, poor low-light performance … even expensive ones like the Logitech StreamCam are disappointing. I’ll stick with my Macbook’s internal one for now. 😕

Literally bringing Sev to tears. 😂

We run a community + event series about artificial intelligence and instead of canceling the upcoming meetup on the 25th, we’ve decided to turn it into a Zoom webinar instead. This even comes with a few benefits, such as supporting more attendees and allowing everyone to join regardless of their physical location. Sign up here and stop by!

We’re doing the same for our next book club meeting on the 24th, when we discuss “Educated” by Tara Westover. Usually the book club happens on our office couches, but this time we’ll try a conference call. Admittedly I find this change rather exciting and I’m very curious if we can make it work (and if we get zoombombed).

While most of us open their laptop at home and get to work, about a third of us face an even bigger challenge: schools/kitas are closed and children are at home. Parents had to devise all kinds of intricate schedules to take care of their children AND to get some work done. Needless to say we don’t expect the usual 38h per week from them and we also don’t mind to see some toddlers in a Zoom call. Quite the opposite actually! 👶

A lot of universities, conferences, clubs or generally social events are moving online and while that often means a Zoom call, others are trying to recreate physical spaces virtually. 3D social networks like AltspaceVR, Rec Room, Rumii or Bigscreen are surging in popularity (or at the very least people are curious) and it all feels like Second Life is suddenly back from the dead. Unfortunately most of these apps really only work in virtual reality and don’t have a macOS client, so we couldn’t test them with many people—but there is one which works in the browser and that’s Mozilla Hubs! It was a predictably strange experience and we only lasted for about 10mins. Back to Zoom for now.

The auto-generated name for our little island was “Humble Rich Land” 🤔
“Let’s take a selfie!”

At the start of the week we weren’t sure how to handle Corona news in our Slack. This pandemic is unfolding incredibly quickly and affects us all differently: Some people feel the need to have a live ticker open at all times, others decide to block it all out in order to focus on their work. At the end of the week we decided that we don’t want to spread rumors in our Slack and to gather all corona updates in a dedicated channel, so that they’re easy to mute/ignore for those who choose to do so, while leaving others with the option to discuss.

An artifact from our internal discussions about this.

It’s devastating to read the news these days, to see the economic and social impact of the crisis, to learn about the overwhelmed healthcare systems, rounds of lay-offs, rising anxiety and depression, and of course, above all, countless deaths. It’s gonna get worse before it gets better. As a company and as individuals we are incredibly fortunate to be able to continue with our work remotely — many others simply don’t have that option. Therefore the least we can do is to #StayTheFuckHome, in order to contain the spread and to support the heros and heroines working in hospitals right now.

There would be hundreds of more tidbits and thoughts to share, but for now I’ll wrap it up here. If your company or organisation is currently in a situation of disarray, try to make the best of it! Times of radical change and uncertainty are also an opportunity to rethink conventions and mindsets. What’s happening around us right now is unprecedented, unfolding at breakneck speed and nobody has a playbook for it. Therefore the current situation also presents an opportunity for people to grow into new roles, learn new tools, conduct experiments and reshape their processes in their daily work and lives. Please reach out via mail or twitter if you feel we could be of help with our skills in branding, design, digital product development or business strategy. Let us know, we’re here and all ears! 👂

In any case: Stay safe, take care and talk soon!

diesdas.digital is a studio for strategy, design and code in Berlin, featuring a multidisciplinary team of designers, developers and strategists. We create tailor-made digital solutions with an agile mindset and a smile on our faces. Let’s work together!

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