Exploring Remote Teamwork

Over the past decade, as more digital tools have become available for remote collaboration, and more organisations have embraced flexible working, teamworkers have gradually grown accustomed to working together across locations. Especially in large organisations it is nowadays very common that teammates are not based in the same office, and even when they are, they might often not be in the same place at the same time. Team ‘meetings’ and ongoing alignment on tasks at hand have become a mix of emails, chat, video conferencing, and co-managing online files. 

This long term development has recently been spurred on further by the COVID19 pandemic, which forced many professionals around the globe to work from home, while keeping their projects and teamwork going as much as possible. This event triggered many organisations who may have been behind the curve to speed up and dive into the use of online and remote tools for teamwork. Due to the pioneering work by frontrunners such as Google, Dropbox, Slack, Microsoft, and Zoom this quick transition could be facilitated reasonably well, while improvements are also being made continuously. STBY is happy to play a role in that ongoing process.

Supporting team productivity and alignment

For four years STBY has been working as a trusted partner with Google, focusing on a series of collaborative projects that explore the use of digital tools for remote teamwork with the aim to identify opportunities to better support ongoing team productivity, communication, and alignment. Together with researchers, designers, and product managers from various internal teams at Google, we embarked on a range of explorations to better understand different aspects of remote teamwork, and how these could be better supported by digital products and tools related to business accounts such as G Suite and other online services (Meet/Hangout, Chat, G Docs, G Sheets, G Slides, Tasks, Calendar, Gmail, Jamboard).

To give an indication of the wide scope of our explorations: We explored how upcoming technologies in the workspace support, shape and at times frustrate remote teamwork; We investigated how shared task management between teammates can be improved with better digital tools; We investigated how remote scheduling, preparing and running of online meetings happens and could be improved; And we helped to benchmark G Suite products in comparison to other digital tools for remote teamwork. In these studies, we observed a lot of interesting behavioural patterns across the scope of these projects, and together with researchers in Google, to build studies that not only look at one product but the whole of G Suite as a family. One observation that appeared in all these studies is that communications and alignment for both productive and social interactions between team members are highly blended and happens across all tools and platforms. Indicating that these tools should be smoothly integrated. We are proud that over the years so many improvements have been made.

Scenario-based user journeys to capture interactions 

To guide the research projects in this extensive body of work, we developed a method of using scenario-based user journeys to capture how users interact with multiple products, and especially how they jump between different products – within one product family or not. These scenario-based user journeys allowed a fresh perspective to look beyond just a task-based journey, which is often used for studying a single product, and thus find some form of patterns in the in-between space – where it’s bigger than a single task but smaller than a project. 

For many of our research participants, their work lives have increasingly moved to virtual spaces. And that’s not just one space, but often a few spaces, thereby constructing a mini-ecosystem with different sets of tools for different sets of collaborators. A typical example could be a team worker who uses email with certain colleagues, and Slack, Whatsapp, or Google Chat with others, then getting tagged in online editing tools, and still keeping track of their other tasks somewhere else. On top of that many people also copy some of their tasks to a shared calendar for others to see.

When we start our conversations with a participant (or a group of them), we first introduce roughly what types of scenarios we would like to explore. For example, we would ask to hear about meetings that were really complicated and involved a lot of people working remotely to prepare and to attend. We encourage participants to take us through as many examples as possible, but with sufficient attention to detail. During the in-depth interview, we then take time to go review every digital tool used within a single journey and also pay attention to side-line circumstances that may have influenced the journey. Having this two-step process gives us the space to fine-tune the level of detail and focus we would like to establish on the user journeys, and also to make sure that we have a good range of variety and complexity within the overall collection of journey accounts.

Insights to inform and inspire multiple teams 

The stories we collect through this method provide a rich and vivid sketch of how many teamworkers are jumping between multiple tools and platforms to collaborate, track progress, produce and deliver, and also to maintain social engagements with their remote colleagues. The insights generated from these studies help to identify opportunities to improve and better align digital tools in support of remote teamwork. The insights gathered not only serve one particular product team, they often have a larger impact that inspires designers, researchers, and engineers from different product teams to come together to solve a joint problem.

Our collaboration with Google provides an opportunity to explore how a focus on more integrated product families influences the way products are designed and developed and how multiple product teams can be involved in developing new solutions. This is an interesting opportunity for Design Research to help stimulate conversations, not only within one product team but also between teams. In addition to regular new projects within this extensive body of work, we also jointly make sure to put together the knowledge learned from previous studies into aggregated journeys and to use these to generate even more interests for cross-product-team collaboration.

Design Research helps stimulating conversations, not only within a product team but also between teams