While many of us thought the shift to remote work back in March would be a temporary one, it’s becoming clear we won’t be heading back to our offices anytime soon. As more companies across the globe announce they’re in this for the long-haul and begin to offer permanent work from home options, it might be time to put some serious thought into our new routines and find ways to polish off our remote work practices. Makeshift desks, less than ideal tech set-ups, and temporary routines have worked just fine so far, but as we move further into our next normal, we think it’s time for an upgrade.
At AnswerLab, over 70% of our team was working remotely prior to the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, so our organizational culture was already built for a remote team. We had tools, processes, and systems in place to ensure high-quality collaborative work regardless of location. But, even we had to take a step back and re-evaluate some of our work from home processes as things began to change this spring.
We thought it was time to weigh in with some tips and tricks from our UX research team, who are conducting user research sessions from home offices every week. Some AnswerLabbers have shared that it even took them a few months before they felt they had their remote set-ups dialed in just how they like them. We hope their tips for creating your own workspace, communicating with colleagues, and leading sessions help you polish your routine and find a rhythm that works for the long-term.
Creating a productive workspace:
By now we’ve all heard the basics of creating a productive work from home set-up: establish a regular routine, create a separate workspace, make your desk comfortable and inviting, etc. Our team has developed a number of other things you can do to take it to the next level.
“Pack" your lunch.
Even if you’re not commuting into an office, packing your lunch can be a useful exercise. One of our team members “packs her lunch” every day by planning and preparing food ahead of time to make sure she’s eating regular meals and staying healthy. If you have trouble keeping your lunch on a regular schedule and find yourself unintentionally snacking throughout the day, this might be a good one to try out.
Set reminders for hydration and movement.
It’s easy to get into the rhythm of working and forget to refill your water or stretch your legs, especially when there isn’t the hustle and bustle of the office to remind you to get up and move around. Set reminders on your phone to stand up, refill your water bottle, or take a walk around the block to make sure you’re breaking up the screen time. Even if it’s only a couple minutes, you’ll feel more refreshed when you sit back down at your desk.
Identify the time of day when you are most productive and do your ‘heavy lifting’ then.
Try paying attention to the types of work you’re doing the most. Then, structure your days so you’re attempting your most strategic, focused work in your most productive time. For some, that’s first thing in the morning, and for others, it’s late afternoon. Try to book meetings back-to-back to save larger sections of your day for focused work if task switching is harder for you. It all depends on your idea of productivity.
Embrace the little luxuries of working from home.
Work on the patio, eat lunch outside or with your family, or move to a different part of the house at different times of day. Some AnswerLabbers reward themselves with snacks or treats you can’t get at the office like a spoonful of ice cream from the freezer or a ball of frozen cookie dough you can throw in the oven for an instant treat.
Communicate with your housemates to reduce avoidable stress.
Make signs for your desk or office door that help alert roommates or family members of your schedule, whether you’re on a meeting, having deep focused time, or available if they need you. These could be physical signs or sticky notes or even an object that gets placed on or off the desk based on your availability.
Try sharing your meeting schedule with your family or roommates at the beginning of the day so they’re aware of when you shouldn’t be bothered. If you have multiple people working from home, planning ahead can help you take turns taking care of doorbell rings, any childcare needs, etc. in an organized fashion.
Communicating with your coworkers:
Working remotely requires clear and intentional communication with your colleagues. Without a shared space for quick back and forths at each other’s desks, you’ll need a new way of communicating that’s efficient and effective. Here are some tips we’ve found useful:
Develop some best practices for your team on communication methods.
Having a company-wide understanding of when to use different communication methods (chat, email, call, or video call) is critical to getting remote work right. Making sure everyone is on the same page will ease remote pain points and build trust across your team. Develop video call etiquette for more effective and streamlined meetings. At AnswerLab, we always have our cameras on to help create more personal connections during meetings and generally mute our microphones unless we’re talking to prevent any unwanted and distracting background noise.
Make sure important information is accessible to your whole team.
Recap information in group chat channels, save notes to shared folders, and develop clear messages to share documents and resources. For example, you might consider writing a detailed recap of the day’s sessions or a recruitment update in a dedicated Slack channel with stakeholders and any other relevant colleagues, linking any relevant documents or resources in the message. Not only do these help with research debriefs at the end of session days, but if you “pin them” on Slack, they’re easy to find in the future when you need to look back on your research. Make sure everyone knows where to find key information and document items carefully so nothing gets lost or overlooked. This saves everyone’s precious time.
Consider using status messages to communicate.
If you’re in back-to-back meetings or running sessions for the day, set a status on your chat tool so others know why you might be slow to respond. At AnswerLab, many of our researchers use the Slack status “📲In Sessions” on research days so others know they may not get to new messages until after research sessions wrap up. Another great example of this is sharing your planned work hours for the day and your time zone in Slack (e.g., “8am-4pm ET”) so everyone knows when they might expect an answer from you vs. when you’ve logged off for the day.
Consider time zones.
Speaking of time zones, if colleagues are working in different geographic locations with different day-to-day schedules, plan ahead so decisions that require input from multiple people are not being made at the last minute. There are a number of apps and websites you can use to make your team’s time zones easy to visualize.
Context is key.
You never know what your colleagues are in the middle of or what their workload looks like, especially if you can’t physically see them across the office. When you’re communicating over chat or email, you won’t be able to read body language and verbal cues, so try to set clear expectations for communication. Sharing “Feel free to get back to me by Tuesday” or “No need to respond until tomorrow!” gives them cues about your message’s urgency and allows them the space to put your message aside for a bit. And remember, always assume your colleagues have the best intentions as tone can often get lost in remote communication.
Save time for socializing.
Without the impromptu conversations over lunch or by the coffee maker, connecting with colleagues can be difficult. Make sure to save time for video chats, company social events, and coffee breaks with colleagues to keep those connections alive. At AnswerLab, we’ve been using “Donut” for years, a program where AnswerLabbers can opt-in to get matched with a new person every month to chat and connect with each other. When we all began working from home in March, we added a new iteration of that program called Work From Home Buddies, where a work from home newbie would get matched with someone experienced with working remotely each week to share struggles, tips, and experiences.
Conducting research sessions from home:
Our team of researchers is conducting research sessions from their home offices every week, and we’ve learned a lot about what makes a successful and productive remote research session. Our team relies on these tenets to ensure research runs as smoothly as possible and we deliver impactful insights efficiently and on time:
Build in extra time.
When organizing your session schedule, leave 15 minutes or longer between sessions and save adequate time for a meal midday. With participants joining remotely, you may run into more technical difficulties logging in and out of different video calls, loading prototypes and assets on the screen, and getting participants successfully up and running. If timing permits, consider conducting fewer sessions per day over a longer period of time. And always have floaters ready and waiting on immediate standby for the whole session time. Your main participant may experience tech issues well into the session and you want to be ready with a quick back-up.
Have back-ups of everything.
You never know if your internet connection or headset is going to fail. Have back-ups like an ethernet cable, WiFi hotspot, or an extra set of headphones available just in case you need it. The same rule goes for prototypes and research assets. If you’re sharing an interactive prototype but run into a technical issue, you can always revert to a video walk through or static image back-up to keep the session running.
Have a clean screen.
Make sure you have a clean computer screen, and we don’t mean fingerprints and dust! Close your email and chat applications, get rid of any unnecessary programs or files you have open, and turn off notifications and reminders. The last thing you want is a participant seeing a Slack message come through in the top corner of your screen. Communicate with stakeholders through a secondary device like a smartphone or note-taking computer so there’s no risk of participants seeing your messages. If a participant is sharing their screen with you, make sure they also have a clean screen! Anything private should be out of view so they’re not distracted and you’re keeping sensitive information out of session recordings.
Be aware of your environment.
Consider what’s behind you and what will show up on camera. Will it be distracting for your participant? Many of our researchers prefer to have nondescript backgrounds to appear neutral and professional, but that’s all based on personal preference. Close your windows and use a good headset to limit any distracting background noises. And, make sure to arrange your camera so you are looking at the participant and can show open and interested facial expressions. Creating connection over video is much more difficult than in-person, so limiting any distractions and focusing on the participant can prevent them feeling distant.
How has working remotely been going for you and your team? If you're looking for more resources on remote work, download our Guide to Remote Research for best practices on remote research and advice on creating a virtual best place to work.