Ben Holliday

New and changing patterns for digital working

“Digital working shouldn’t mean 8 hours of video calls a day …teams are massively overlooking instant (written) messaging, and the power of writing things down clearly, understanding tasks, responsibilities to get on with work independently.”

It’s an interesting insight into how people are feeling when an incidental tweet like this starts to go viral

My Twitter network is mostly a mixture of digital and design people, including many people that work in the public sector. For the last 6 weeks most of us have made the switch to remote working as the offices and buildings we work in have had to close because of Covid-19 and lockdown measures.

Remote working is a privilege for those of us that are able to do digital work. Some design and delivery people reading this will be key workers (I’m looking here to the brilliant local government and digital response teams and those working in health and care). But many essential and other key workers don’t have the same option of staying safe in temporary home offices. Instead, they find themselves more exposed, keeping essential front line services running and working directly to support and reach some of the most vulnerable people in society.

This is not normal but change is happening

When reflecting on how we’re all feeling about work there is only one place to start. This is not normal.

This is not just a switch to remote working, it’s a switch to remote working in a pandemic.

The changes to how we work are happening in the context of lockdown. We all find ourselves in different and challenging, anxiety inducing, situations. Whether that means you are self-isolating because there are symptoms in your household, or trying to make adjustments to sharing a space 24/7 with your family, children or maybe even housemates that you were just getting to know. Many of us with children, myself included, are trying to balance homeschooling with work commitments, or are simply trying to protect the mental health of our loved ones, attempting to maintain some sense of routine, emotional safety and routine for those around us. 

This is hard and we’re all doing our best.

I’ve already been remote working for most of the last 15 years. Most of my roles have involved travel and working with teams in offices for some of the week, and then at least 1 or 2 days a week working mostly from home. To be totally transparent, my experience of remote working for the last 6 weeks has been very different for all the reasons that I’ve just described.

But it’s important we don’t forget that changes to how we work, and changes that will shape how organisations work in the future are happening right now. What I want to think about is how we can help organisations to move from working remotely to digital working, and what this means.

New and changing patterns for digital working

We’ve now seen that organisations can move to remote working. Places like local authorities, government departments and charities.

What was seemingly impossible weeks ago has happened overnight with radical shifts in IT policy and software licensing to support remote offices. What I think we can be certain of is that nothing will be completely the same again.

We have created remote offices, but, for now at least, many ways of working remain the same. We have simply moved everything online. In many cases this has meant transferring an internal working culture of endless meetings and talking into an endless series of Zoom calls (or the video conference solution of your choice — Teams, Hangouts, Skype for Business et al).

People are feeling exhausted

This is partly about the context I just described, but people are also finding that constant video calls require more energy than face-to-face meetings. Along with the active listening required, contributing on these platforms can become more of a performance, and there’s definitely a change in the psychology of how it feels to ‘be in the room’ with other people while having to look back at your own face on screen all day.

I’m not going to focus on how to fix the immediate problems of how we are working remotely right now. There are plenty of ways that you can improve video calls and meeting structures, as well as making changes to how you structure your day. Instead, let’s focus on how organisations can move to new and changing patterns of digital working. Ultimately, this is about shaping how organisations work together using internet era technologies and mindsets. This is much more than just a question of new tools, it’s how we change the culture of how we work, how we prioritise work, and how we manage work and other people.

Even with individuals who are experienced in remote working, the question is how organisations can collectively start to move to new ways of digital working, including the challenge of resetting approaches to meetings

Emerging and related themes

From everything I’m observing in my work at the moment there are 3 emerging and related themes that I think are worth sharing and exploring. They have the potential to shape a more deliberate shift to digital working for organisations that have now established remote offices.

Changing how we communicate

How people communicate is one of the most important questions for organisations as we move to new and changing patterns for digital working.

It’s important we don’t forget the power of writing things down clearly. Some deep inefficiencies are being revealed in how we are working right now. Because video conferencing tools are easy to access it’s easy to default to using them. No one has a problem booking meeting rooms anymore so the potential to meet with people and talk all day is unlimited. But this leaves teams with no time to do work and to make progress towards shared goals.

Not everything needs to be discussed all the time. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of continually discussing the same things, without the right structures and focus to prioritise and make decisions. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from frustrated designers spending most of their days in video calls, then spending their lockdown evenings doing what they consider ‘work’ – designing, prototyping, building etc. Actual work, not just talking about the work.

Framing and shared understanding of work is important, but this doesn’t have to be a talking shop. Digital working should mean that this can happen through shared documents and written communication. Having to write things down also requires more thought. This way we can be clear when assigning tasks and responsibilities and then ensure people have the right tools and access to do and share their work.

Changing how we trust people to do work themselves

Better visibility of work should mean less visibility is needed of people ‘working’.

Building on the point around being clear about assigning work and responsibilities, for organisations to make progress they need people to read, synthesise, and work on things themselves. In a remote organisation this means that people need to be trusted to work in this way, especially without the type of visibility of them doing work that is tied to physical office spaces.

Managers, and team leaders are now finding that they need to find ways to manage teams and people that they can’t see all of the time. Video calls are an attractive option when you want to see your team to know that they’re working, even when this means you are sometimes stopping them from working.

New and changing patterns for digital working comes down to creating better visibility of workflow, prioritisation, and how people and teams are making progress around shared goals. My experience is that a clear backlog (something like Trello), can be used to monitor work, track comments and progress. Ultimately we need to be able to track progress against clear goals, but also trust people and give teams the autonomy they need to get work done.

Moving to increasingly asynchronous communication and away from bigger meetings is also important here, enabling people and teams to work on different priorities but with independencies, while ensuring processes and goals stay aligned.

Changing how we collaborate

I really liked Amy Hupe‘s description (shared in a tweet here) of what collaboration should mean:

“Collaboration isn’t about tackling everything together, it’s about finding appropriate points to join up. Sometimes collaboration is recognising the need to move independently and doing so with mutual agreement.”

Having spent years working to make user-centred design part of agile ways of working and rhythms aligned more to being in the room with people, this shift to remote working is now an opportunity to rethink how people can work together effectively as part of design and delivery processes.

New and changing patterns for digital working means that collaboration must move independently as well as in agreement with others, and with shared understanding. Building on the point about shared goals and alignment, this requires us all to contribute individually from wherever we’re working, but while still being deeply collaborative and aligned with our teams and organisations.

New and changing patterns, not a ‘new normal’

There is no ‘new normal’ here.

No one can predict exactly what will happen. If anything we will need more flexibility in the models of how we work. Adjustments are going to be necessary at different stages of lockdown and in the future with social distancing measures in the longer term. This means being able to switch work and service delivery from being more remote to less remote, and vice versa as things change. This is about flexibility and finding a balance between different ways of working. It feels much less about moving in a linear way from old ways of working to new ways of working.

New and changing patterns for digital working have the potential to reshape our public institutions and to create more flexibility for everyone. There’s an opportunity to look more at the patterns of how we work and how we can support organisations to change. Helping staff to become more adaptable in how they work.

Finally, if you’re going to make changes to how your organisation is working now, start slowly. At the moment video calls might be the only social interaction some people in your team have each day. Our first priority must be to each other.

What is starting to emerge in your organisation, and how do we build on the themes I’ve started to explore here? Let me know what you think.

This post has been shaped by the replies and discussion in this Twitter thread. Thanks to everyone that contributed – I’ve linked back to some of the tweets directly where possible.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.