Remote Working for designers in the time of COVID-19

We are Network of Creative Thinkers (NOCT), a design agency based in the hills. We started out as a Bombay-based agency about 4 years ago, but decided to move once we realised the power of remote working and how little face time we actually had with our clients. There were two sides to the coin of course — we made the conscious decision to move at the time, despite knowing fully well that we would be operating on a smaller scale than we could in Bombay. Today, however, we operate with a virtual workspace on Slack and a network spread out across the world. We also have a studio in the hills of Panchgani (Maharashtra) where anyone working with us is free to come and go. All of this was made possible due the power of remote working.

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At the NOCT Studio in Panchgani

Owing to our location, all of our work has been done remotely over the past 3 years of being in Panchgani, with minimum travel when face time was required. This manner of working in the time of COVID-19 and lockdowns is certainly not novel for us — the difference is that everyone is having to do it now, even if they are located in a big city. The world has already changed and no matter how this all ends, it can never really go back to being the same as before and we truly believe that ‘remote working’, ‘work from home’ or whatever else you may call it, is here to stay. For those who may find the concept too alien or cumbersome, we’ve put together what we’ve learnt through our experience, in the hope that it will help them to understand and effectively embrace the world of remote working.

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First off, does a lack of physical nearness change anything? The major effect that we feel due to a lack of physical nearness is a loss in the multi-dimensional communication we have in person. The micro-expressions, the subtle tonalities and gestures, and the body language which our brains would process while communicating in person, are no longer there; so we only have speech and the obvious tonality or expressions. This requires us to beef up the power of our speech a lot more in order to explain or discuss things, as it is easier for misunderstandings to happen remotely. This is why working with a teammate which may be a seamless experience in person may become strenuous and difficult while working remotely, because the effort you require to communicate is more but the means are lesser. Also, the lack of a physical workspace lessens the chances of bonding over a coffee or the physical aspects of a hug, handshake or a pat on the shoulder in person.

There is nothing that can fully replace the aspects of physical bonding in a workspace, but remote working can certainly allow for bonding over chats or audio and video calls, which once you are aware of, would not be difficult to refine and tune into. And once-in-a-while physical meetings are always a possibility and never a drag because they happen when required. On the other side of things, the lack of a physical workspace and the daily commute enables you to have more time for the physical bonding at home, which may not be so terrible after all!

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1. What’s Important?

You may ask what’s really important in the world of remote working? How have things changed since the last time you sat down to do the same thing in an office or studio environment? We’ve attempted to summarise this into three primary pieces of advice below.

Communicate, communicate and communicate some more.

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There is nothing more important than communication. The major difference in doing something you usually do in the office at home is that you need to build the habit of double checking and confirming things to ensure there is no gap in communication, as there are no chance opportunities to catch any lapses in it. In a physical workspace you may notice what someone is doing while passing by, or drop in to have a quick chat when you have a moment, or have an impromptu discussion over a meal or coffee. You have to adapt that for remote working, where you must schedule a video meeting, send a message or call people to create the same environment virtually and get into descriptive details in conversation. We would go so far as to say that one must actually over-communicate; this may be considered annoying in person, but remotely it’s necessary for effectiveness. Once you get into the groove of descriptive over-communication, the world of remote working opens up its doors to you, with the many possibilities you would not find in a physical workspace.

Don’t be an ostrich, just because people aren’t around you doesn’t mean you’re not at work!

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A tendency some new adopters of remote working have, is to unwittingly demonstrate a lack of responsibility. It’s a psychological reaction to visibly not seeing others working around you and actually seeing the work happen. You have to imagine that the others are also sitting at a desk at home working on what they’re meant to, because the physical workspace hangover makes you feel like you’re alone and the only one doing anything. The only way to combat this is for everyone to be available and open to chat throughout work hours in order to build a sense of trust over time. Knowing your colleagues or bosses are just a click away is important and makes it easy to rely on others and complete your own tasks responsibly. Learning how to track and schedule your and your team’s work virtually without having someone looking over your shoulder (or vice versa) is an essential skill to pick up.

“So much of remote working is about productivity and communication — you’d think it’d be easy to hide working remotely, but it isn’t.”
Kate Kendall, founder of CloudPeeps

Self-discipline to remain motivated

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A lack of motivation and focus commonly occurs in both physical and virtual work spaces. The difference is that there are other factors in a physical workspace that push you to get things done. The biggest of it being that you are in that space to begin with, along with many others working towards the common goal of the company. Applying this to remote working requires a strong sense of self-discipline because you need to be the factor that motivates and pushes you to finish things and work towards the common goal of the company. In a home space others around you may or may not be working, so there are higher chances of distraction and a loss in motivation as your mind may tend to wander. To combat a loss in motivation or distraction, speaking to a colleague can be invigorating as they can relate to your work and probably your predicament as well! A good practise would be to create a segregated workspace with all the necessities within arm’s reach; a sacred space to enable you to separate your work from your home environment.

2. What to watch out for

You may have been wondering whether other people feel the same as you do and relate to some of the issues you face while remote working. Here are some common issues we’ve noticed or faced in the past.

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Written vs Spoken Word

The issue with written communication is the uncertainness of verbal tonality which allows misinterpretation in the mind of the reader (as they tend to fill in the gap by imagining the tone to go with the text). Sometimes what they imagine may not be the vibe you meant to give out, creating misunderstandings or passive aggressiveness. We have noticed a tendency in people to shy away from video calls, but for an open conversation or discussion we would recommend relying on video calls (or audio if there is really no option) rather than emails or text messages. The flip side of written communication is that it lends itself to garnering a response rather than a reaction. The option to edit or control your tone when you read back what you wrote before sending it, prevents difficult situations that could arise due to an impulsive verbal reaction.
Spoken or Video Communication by itself on the other hand, can be tedious and hard to follow when it comes to sharing more detailed information or a bird’s eye view. It tends to overwhelm people, who may find it hard to keep up with the finer details while grasping the bigger picture. So anything that involves handing over detailed information, structured planning or assigning tasks is better communicated in written text (ideally along with a call to discuss the same) as it allows the receiver to absorb the overall plan more easily and provides a frame of reference for tracking tasks. There are also several collaboration tools that can be used to make this a seamless virtual experience, some of which we have mentioned ahead.

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Loneliness

It is most common for people unused to remote working to feel a sense of alienation or loneliness as they find it hard to feel like they’re part of a team without being in a common work environment. The separation however, is only physical, so the best way to tackle this is to participate in design critiques, feedback sessions and just simple catchups with your own team as well as cross project teams to feel a sense of belonging. This also enables a sharing of ideas and creates a positive buzz of energy within the virtual workspace. Being alone is different from being lonely, and once you recognise its benefits you begin to cherish and make use of it. Solitude allows you to focus on yourself, to work on yourself by building good habits (both work and personal) and allows room for personal growth and developing hobbies. It is the ideal learning ground for working professionals to develop a new skill which they would not be able to do in a regular office environment.

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Social Media

This is a rabbit hole you don’t want to enter! Social Media notifications which you may tend to ignore in an office environment are now free for your perusal while working remotely. This is one dodgy loop as it results in a chain of observing other people’s lives and actions rather than your own. Sometimes you may find inspiration, and a lot of times it may make you feel things are lacking in your own life. It has been said over and over again, but we’ll say it again, do not succumb to this as it only distracts you from your own goals which are different from that seemingly fabulous person or studio you may be stalking. Who knows, perhaps at that very moment they are looking at someone else’s posts, fretting over what they’re doing with their own lives! Social Media is no measure of your worth in terms of work or personal life so we’d recommend you resist the urge the next time you hear that notification and avoid the temptation of browsing while working remotely.

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Home Chores

Being in your home environment also means you’re surrounded by all the tasks you normally need to do at home, the things you’ve been procrastinating and would not normally notice while working out of an office. These can prove to be major distractions and act as hurdles in balancing your work with other home tasks — something we hear many people complaining about during the current lockdown! The best way to deal with this is to separate your work space as much as possible and ensure your work flow is maintained during work hours to allow yourself to fall into a comfortable rhythm. Your schedule should remain planned as it would otherwise on a regular day at the office, so avoid jumping between work and home tasks. If you feel there is something you urgently need to do, schedule it into your day when you would normally take a breather from work.

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The day never ends

Working from home means that you never get to end the day by ‘going home’. Many people find this frazzling, as their physical surroundings no longer change from work to home, depriving them of that satisfying feeling of relaxation at the end of a long day at the office. There is no better way to combat this, than to stick to your work schedule strictly. That seemingly little task is tempting to complete, but you need to make sure it doesn’t feed into your time for rest! Allow your brain to switch off and take the time it needs to rejuvenate and disconnect from your work at the appointed end-of-the-day; trust us, you will complete the task better if it’s tackled with a fresh mind in the morning.

3. The tools you can use

How do you go about managing your work life online and translate the effectiveness of the physical to virtual? Below is a list of tools that we use for common design activities at our studio.

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User Research

We do qualitative research by conducting interviews remotely over Zoom , BlueJeans or Google Meet calls. It is easy to record expressions and audio clearly using the inbuilt recording features in any of these conferencing applications. Also, don’t forget to take permission from the interviewee before recording a video call! The BlueJeans smart meetings highlights feature is especially useful to capture and log specific moments of the interview and you can quickly refer back to them at a later stage. For quantitative research we design forms and surveys using Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.

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Creating meeting highlights with notes in BlueJeans Smart Meetings

Competitive Studies

We typically use a Google Slides deck where multiple designers take on a competitive product and can quickly build out a thorough deck collaboratively with all competitive insights. The speed at which the slide deck grows with several people working on it remotely at the same time is quite marvelous.

Ideation & Brainstorming

We use Miro (previously known as Realtime Boards) to create virtual mindmaps and do group ideation sessions remotely in a common visual space. The beauty of Miro is that you can actively see the cursors of your teammates moving around, adding post-its or sketching and doodling. It’s quite amazing how much it feels like they are actually right there — messy and also super fun! Miro is also a great tool to create user journey maps and do card sorting exercises remotely.

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Remote Team Brainstorming via Miro

Wireframing

We find Figma to be the fastest and only full stack design software that has true remote realtime collaboration features. Just like Miro, one can see the cursors of teammates move around the screen and build designs collaboratively in real time. It’s a great tool for wireframing, and can be used for interface design as well, but we still stick to Sketch for designing User Interfaces.

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Collaborative design on Figma

User Interface Design

Sketch, being the industry standard here is a software that all our designers are comfortable with and we personally prefer for banging out that pixel perfect UI design. By itself, it may not seem so collaborative, but when used in conjunction with Invision or Zeplin and Dropbox, it ends up being quite a remote friendly workflow as well.

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Publishing to InVision from Sketch using craft sync

User testing & feedback

We use UsabilityHub to get quick feedback via user testing. They offer four unique ways of testing to find all the answers you may need from your target audience — First click tests, Design surveys, Preference tests and Five second tests. You may use the software to test on your own set of users just by sharing a link or even ask them to recruit users with specific demographics at an additional cost!

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Click Test results on Usability Hub

Developer Handover

This is an underrated task but extremely important. Though most people would already be familiar with these tools, for those who have experienced issues before, Invision and Zeplin have made this super smooth. Whether working remotely or even in person, using these tools definitely eases the friction and pain points of converting design to code. We swing between both of these depending on the dev teams we work with.

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Specs and components on Zeplin

Graphic Design

Needless to say, Adobe Illustrator (Vector Artwork/Individual Layout), Adobe Photoshop (Raster Artwork) and Adobe InDesign (Layout/Editorial) have been the industry standard for eons, but they’re not really remote friendly. There are some collaborative options like Adobe CC Libraries to share libraries and updates on assets across a team but we find it is not good or convenient enough compared to other collaborative tools. We personally work with independent designers by creating shared folders on Google Drive and Backup & Sync for multiple individuals to collaborate on the same files and assets. Communicate with your collaborators before making changes however, and be careful not to lose any data by overwriting someone else’s files.

Collaboration & Communication

Our virtual workspace is on Slack and we swear by it! Everything about it is amazing, right from the simple UX to their wide range of integrations. We typically create a private channel for each project that we are working on and invite all individuals from our network involved in that project to join the same. For team meetings and the daily standup, we use Google Meet or Zoom, and sync it with our Google Calendar. For project management, we use Trello, Notion, Basecamp or Jira, depending on the preference of our clients.

See you soon, perhaps remotely!

We hope to have somewhat eased your journey into the world of remote collaboration and look forward to seeing a smoother transition for people in the current scenario world-over. If you’d like to work with us please email us on (neha@noct.in) and to see what we’re up to or drop us a quick message, check us out on Instagram or Facebook and hit ‘follow’ to stay in touch :)

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Tool Summary:
Communication | Slack / Teams
Design sharing & Developer handover | Invision / Zeplin
Ideation | Miro / Mural
Project Managment | Trello/ Notion/ Basecamp / Jira / Asana / Monday.com
Meetings | Google Meet/ Zoom/ BlueJeans / GotoMeeting
Research and Testing | UsabilityHub / UserTesting
File Sharing & Storage | Dropbox / Google Drive Backup & Sync / Box
Collaborative presentations & documents | Google G-suite / Office online

Image/Quote Attribution:
1. What’s important?
Illustrations created by NOCT with Himanshi Parmar
Quotation by Kim Kendall via Forming Circles Global

2. What to watch out for
NicePNG + Video Call by priyanka from the Noun Project
Users by Gregor Cresnar from the Noun Project
Social Media by monkik from the Noun Project
Mop by VINZENCE STUDIO from the Noun Project
Infinite Time by
Michal Kuk, CZ

3. Tools you can use
BlueJeans smart meetings highlights from bluejeans.com
Craft Sync from support.invision.com
Miro collaboration GIF from Miro.com
Figma multiplayer design GIF from the Figma blog
Components from Zeplin Gazette
Test results from Usabilityhub.com

NOCT Talk

Stories from the Network of Creative Thinkers

Network of Creative Thinkers

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NOCT Talk

NOCT Talk

We believe design thinking is the basis of creation irrespective of the medium, whether it be a brand, a product, an app or a film. A designer’s greatest tool is their mind and asking the right questions is the key to defining the solution.

NOCT Talk

NOCT Talk

We believe design thinking is the basis of creation irrespective of the medium, whether it be a brand, a product, an app or a film. A designer’s greatest tool is their mind and asking the right questions is the key to defining the solution.

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