Finding Balance and Community in our New Remote Age
Design Leadership needs empathy and understanding more than ever right now
By Halle Kho, Executive Design Director, NY
I can only speak for New York.
In retrospect, we knew it was coming. But it still felt like everything changed overnight. All of a sudden our city, our rhythms, our habits and our daily experiences had to change. And we changed. We sheltered. We left. We stopped.
Farther apart but closer together
Immediately after the lockdown, I felt it was important to maintain the feeling of “bumping into people” to make sure that everyone was okay. I reached out randomly to people, projecting confidence and positivity about social distancing and sheltering in place. After the first week of lockdown, I decided to share a more public post on our studio Slack channel. I felt desperate to connect with my fellow frogs. I missed seeing them, listening to their intelligent debates, solving problems with them and feeling the bustle of our studio. I felt overwhelmed, and I imagined I wasn’t alone.
The response was beyond heartening, and it made me realize more than ever that even though we’re isolated and separate, we’re all in it together. One little message opened up a whole thread of conversations, not just about surviving in lockdown, but about how we were all really coping. It was nice to hear from members of our studio that I would normally only wave to, and I began to have deeper conversations with colleagues than we’d previously had the opportunity for. I decided I would post more frequently on Slack in an attempt to continue forming closer ties to this group of exceptional people who I’m lucky to call my colleagues.
The second week, however, felt a little bleaker. The team was struggling with a client project. It was both a difficult assignment, and a new type of work for the designers. Add to that the logistical challenges of working from home and the psychological strains of existing in a pandemic-stricken metropolis— it was safe to say everyone was generally distracted and unsettled. But the project lead continued to encourage the team, pushing them to dig deeper into unexplored areas and ideas. That Friday I reviewed their work. They had done it. In a moment of incredible and unusual stress, their final design was inspiring, innovative and edgy. I’m not one to cry at work, but at that moment we all got teary-eyed together.
Those first weeks of lockdown taught me an important, albeit counterintuitive lesson: remote interactions can help us build closer relationships with each other, which can in turn bring deeper levels of commitment and understanding to our work. We’re not just changing the ways we work, but the ways we bond with each other. Working remotely means being in each other’s homes all day, stepping into each other’s lives.
Finding ourselves, alone together
A new way of working means more than new tools. It means new ways of being together. It means finding ways to be more articulate, more flexible and to manage time more effectively. It means being clearer about our availability and our needs. In this lockdown our schedules don’t belong to us anymore. We are navigating extremes in all of our relationships, forced to manage both distance and proximity, isolation and inescapability.
As a parent, I am learning to become a homeschool teacher, even while I work all day. It’s an impossible task, but it’s given me time with my family that I wouldn’t normally have had. Time to understand my children better, time to learn how to survive this together. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always know how to balance the daily needs of my job and the hourly needs of my family. But my co-workers have been incredibly accommodating and understanding, especially when my children pop into team meetings, or when they are happily screaming in the background.
As frogs, we are learning how to do our jobs remotely. There is so much opportunity for professional growth, for global connections, for sharing resources across studios and for learning new tools and truths. For example, I’ve learned that some of my colleagues communicate much differently in writing than they do in person. We’ve learned that Miro workshops are just as fun as in-person workshops, and that we are able to make more sustainable design decisions by working remotely–there’s no printing, transporting, tape, food and packaging waste. We are all learning that we can do our jobs and live our lives with less environmental impact. Globally, frog pulled together to quickly create assets for Business Development, align on perspectives and share our stories. We didn’t miss a beat, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.
As New Yorkers, we are learning how our city looks as a ghost town. But in this transformation, we have been given the opportunity to evaluate how we spend our days and set our priorities. For those of us fortunate enough to have homes we can shelter in, this is a time for intense reflection and meditation. But many of our fellow New Yorkers aren’t so lucky. The frontline workers who trek to hospitals and grocery stores and delivery routes every day are fighting for us all, and it is our responsibility to do everything we can to keep them healthy and employed. As New Yorkers, this is a time when we must pull together, help our neighbors, support one another. It’s a lot, but it’s the journey we’re on.
Regardless of how we feel about that journey, it’s already taught us a tremendous amount. This new era feels interminable, and it’s difficult not to wax philosophical about what it means for the future. But here’s something I’m sure about in the present: Those of us privileged enough to continue working have quickly adapted our Work Experience to this new normal. We are taking care of our clients and projects, inventing new ways to solve problems, exploring software, exploring new relationships and learning about boundaries.
Some of us struggled at the beginning, but we’re learning fast—typical for frogs. We’re open to experimentation, open to supporting each other in new and different ways. I only hope that once the lockdown is over we can find ways to maintain the closeness that we’ve developed remotely, and ways to create the more holistic professional experiences that I believe lead to better work and happier work environments.
As Creative Lead of frog’s New York studio, Halle leads a team of talented interaction and visual designers to deliver on a complete user experience across projects. Halle is responsible for growing and maintaining the culture of design in the studio and ensuring quality and inspiration on projects. Prior to frog, Halle was Senior Creative Director for Barnes & Noble, where she was responsible for the rebrand of BN.com. She started her career in agencies, where she led client teams for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Grey Goose Johnson & Johnson and Armani. Her award-winning work has been shown at the Cooper Hewitt and MoMA.