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The Virtual Designer

Over the past two decades I have worked in a variety of staffing configurations, covering the full gamut of full-time employee in a 5,000 employee company, to working as a solitary remote freelancer. In all of these roles there has been a level of personal interaction required - either as a face-to-face coworker in a cubicle environment - or as a virtual worker with video or voice conferencing on a regular basis. I wanted to describe my own experiences of how I see the future shifting to more virtual working conditions, and what will enable this virtual model to become a success.

Firstly, I wanted to state that working in an office has its benefits. The regular face-to-face contact with fellow employees goes a long way to form and then cement relationships, and helps fill in all the so-called ‘blanks’ that are not possible to obtain when working 100% remote. Many personal communication queues can only be obtained when working live in person. This is because human communication involves multiple senses such as body language, controlling the conversation with body or hand signals, facial expression nuances, voice tone, and personal “appeal”. This is why the best salesmen in the world will always fly long distances and engage with their clients face-to-face whenever budgets allow. Being in person allows the full personality to be expressed, and allows participants to be able to better read situations.

While at EA Sports I worked in a ‘pod’ environment, where I was surrounded by cubicles of those working on common tasks. This helped our small teams to hold discussions while we worked, all within earshot of each other. We were able to work very long hours while holding team cohesion intact, and resolving many daily concerns on-the-fly in person, sharing the same computer screen and pointing out issues to each other in cubicles. Likewise the office is also critical for team-related tasks such as brainstorming new concepts or ideas in a closed conference room with a whiteboard, discussing challenges and obstacles over lunch, working in Agile workflows with daily iteration and feedback on rapid boards, and resolving conflict with all parties present.

But there are also many downsides to onsite office working that I feel overwhelm the benefits when it comes to weekly work output. The modern work office has not adapted to the changing nature of how we now work in the digital economy, and recent experiments in office layout have failed, such as the open plan office fostered by silicon valley tech companies. These new office spaces are noisier, visually cluttered, and are often not configured for changing team task layouts. At the end of the day, the office becomes a distraction when it comes down to actually getting tasks done, when a person has to focus on individual output (notice how many open office plan employees have to wear headphones). But there are elements of the in-person office experience that we need to maintain.

Secondly, I wanted to highlight the benefits of working remotely. Obviously the elimination of the daily commute immediately adds about 1-2 hours to the workday (sometimes up to 4 hours in larger metropolitan areas). There are certain days I have worked remote on big crunch projects where I have literally rolled out of bed early, worked 10 hours, and then ended my day with a shower and family time in the evening. These highly productive 10-hour days would not be possible to maintain with the daily prep required with the commuting lifestyle.

Working from home allows family-centered employees to partition their workday into modules that better fit their individual family dynamics. The daily schedule of dropping off and picking up kids from school, preparing meals and taking care of family commitments in a dynamic way helps employees save time and money, and better enables the family unit to flex with the strains of work-life balance. Families might be able to own just one car instead of two, avoid paying babysitters, or reduce the amount they spend on work lunches and work clothing.

New virtual collaboration tools like Slack and video conferencing are helping remote teams go a long way to bridging the communication gap, filling in many of the incremental communication feeds that we normally rely on in person. But great as these tools are, they will never be a substitute for certain human interactions that rely on all the 6 senses.

This is because the downsides of working from home are centered around project and team communication difficulties. The face-to-face dynamic I described that occurs in the daily office environment is impossible to duplicate with virtual tools and technology. Anyone who has tried to maintain a long-distance romantic relationship with video chat knows this challenge. Love, understanding, empathy and compassion are difficult (if not impossible) to convey digitally, and require in-person interaction. I once worked for a 100% virtual company, and I found that after 6 months my lack of personal contact with other employees was causing a variety of communication and collaboration issues because I just wasn’t feeling this human connection; my fellow employees felt distant from me and my personal concerns, to the point where I could not continue to build proper relationships of trust.

There are many other aspects of working remotely versus in-office that I do not have time to describe here, but fall into similar buckets of pros and cons. And some jobs that require more specialized equipment or security might never be outsourced entirely. At the end of the day it is my opinion that we must blend the two approaches, finding the right balance for employee and company.

Here are my suggestions based on my own experiences over two decades of working both onsite and remotely:

  • Bonding moments such as adding new people to teams, project initiations, connecting with new clients, conducting personal performance reviews and resolving conflicts should be done in person wherever possible. In these situations it is worth a few thousand dollars to fly or drive into a central office to participate with the full team in person. Because of this, I would counsel against 100% virtual company operation.
  • Companies should invest time and money into finding the best virtual tools to support their workflows. Next-generation collaboration tools are critical to enabling remote teams to work on shared assets together. File-sharing and document-sharing technologies have made great strides in recent years, and are permitting remote employees to often work on the same document simultaneously - and these tools will surely improve. As the nature of remote working advances, these tools will need to become more sophisticated and easier to use, and oftentimes companies will need to devise their own solutions that incorporate best practices for their own work style, becoming ever more real-time.
  • By virtue of the new remote economy, email will begin to make way for instant messaging formats, and static documents will become dynamic. We will need to train ourselves to new forms of communication where the entire organization can better predict those touch-points for communication, allowing remote employees to slice up their remote workday into predictable modules that can jive with the company’s own daily schedule.
  • Some companies might be better off with a hybrid model, where employees work from home several days a week, and in office the rest of the week. This allows for the best of both worlds.
  • As the global economy becomes more are part of all of our workdays, we will need to structure different time zones into the corporate equation, with certain core hours designated for remote interaction with different time zones. This will enable the remote workforce to extend across continents, and add value where it never existed before, bringing global employees together at various times during a given workday.
  • With the move to virtual working, employees and their companies will need to carve out focused time and money for in-person interaction. The money we save from office cubes and building facilities should be re-invested into collaboration software, video conferencing rooms, travel dollars, special meet-ups and conferences, and socializing events.

This article was posted to the Toptal Freelance UI Designers Group, a great community of like-minded contract workers and remote professionals.