Designing Inclusive Interactions with Remote Workers

Credit: Vanessa Miemis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
I work with a bunch of tech-savvy nerds who can work from anywhere. And yet we suck at working remotely.

Actually, we suck at working with people who are working remotely.

When people go off-site, our team immediately stops communicating with them. Off-site workers either fall out of mind or assumptions are made about reaching out to them: "I don't want to bother them" or "someone else can help me" or "it can wait until they get back".

It's a cultural deficiency in our organization: When we refer to people working off-site, we act as if off-site workers are in fact on holiday and not working.

First of all, words are important. The words we use to describe remote workers and the work they are doing is just as important as the effort we make to include them in the daily grind.

Secondly, we need to design inclusive interactions with remote workers that level the playing field so that on-site and off-site workers can contribute equally throughout the day.

I have a junior analyst working on contract who — thanks to some bureaucratic hangups — can't work on-site yet. Her work has a huge impact: she is my right hand for user research and design on our project. (She's fantastic :)

She comes in for team meetings and working sessions, but spends the rest of her time working at home. And for a time, she was feeling incredibly cut off and isolated. When she was offsite, no effort was made to include her in the ongoing discussions taking place in the office throughout the day, many of which were impacting our work.

We hadn't designed any off-site/on-site interactions that mimicked the flow and pace of communications taking place among those of us working in the office. We needed to design opportunities for informal, spontaneous, and randomly interactions throughout the day. But we were limited by our tech infrastructure and open office concept, which don't permit us to set up an open video channel and keep it going all day long.

So, I started a private Slack channel where she and I chat all day long. I check in first thing in the morning and the rest of the day our discussion is largely a stream of consciousness to keep each other up to date on our work, as if we were sitting next to each other. It's full of "OMG, check out this article!" and "What if we used this and then did that?" and "I think we need to X next. Here's a screen shot of where I'm at. Can we jump on the phone and figure this out?" And we WebEx whenever we get the chance. We don't use video thanks to latency on our corporate network, so we focus on screen-sharing to demo work to one another and walk through questions and issues, as if we were sitting together.

Being deliberate about working together and maintaining constant contact throughout the day has made a huge difference. We keep each other up to date as if we were working side by side, we send each other random throughts and I can keep her up to date on what's happening with the team. It's not seamless, but it has been effective in keeping her involved with the rest of the team: if she's top of mind for me, then I can make sure she doesn't miss out.

[Aside: In case you're wondering why the Slack is private and just between the two of us, Slack isn't sanctioned for our workplace. In fact, we keep our Slack conversations focused on the process of work, and use email and WebEx to talk about specific details related to our clients. It can be cumbersome, but it's working so far.]

Other inclusive methods we use:
  • No meetings: every session is a working session or workshop with a clear goal and agendas have to be provided;
  • No one attends in person: if one person is off-site, get everyone to dial into a call to ensure everyone has the same level of tech challenges (this one doesn't happen often, but it can be really powerful and effective);
  • Design for inclusion: if we can't all attend remotely, then we design sessions to provide equal participation from remote workers;
  • Stop when the work is done: during a working session, if we get to our goal early, we end the session rather than waste everyone's time with filler;
  • Share everything: everyone's working docs are in our doc sharing system and photos/session notes are emailed to participants at the close of a session;
  • Focus on results/ No permission required: we only seek approval when we actually need approval (usually, when money is involved) - this one opens team members and especially remote workers to get things done, rather than wait for permission and approval for how they work.
None of this is ground-breaking, but we're making a point of designing team interactions deliberately. While my junior analyst will eventually be working on-site, we know that as our project team expands, we won't all be co-located. We have a long way to go to make our organization equally inclusive to remote workers, but our team is committed to designing inclusive work methods that equally include our off-site and on-site workers.

Because designing how we work is as important to our project's success as designing the product itself.