What we learnt about running a design studio during a pandemic

Image courtesy of Martin Sanchez at Unsplash

No one was expecting what hit us in the Spring of 2020. As we started to emerge from Winter, it quickly became obvious that an outbreak of coronavirus would have an impact across the globe. Very quickly a quarantine ensued, first in Wuhan, then in other cities in mainland China. Travel began to stop, the movement of people whether on planes or trains began to slow. Wind the clock forward a matter of weeks and huge swathes of Asia, the Middle East and Europe went into lockdown. The rest of the world quickly followed, flipping everything we know completely upside down.

I remember the week well, we were in the second week of a three-week design sprint with a client in London, working out of their office. At the time we did not expect that this would be the last time we would work together in the same physical space for months. At the time I said to my business partner “give it three weeks and things will be better”, little did I know! This pandemic soon got a name, COVID-19 will forever be etched in our memories, as indeed will 2020. Suddenly we had to adapt to what is now known as “the new normal”, businesses went into survival mode, parents had to balance work with homeschooling, the office quickly seemed like a distant memory. The pandemic has had a huge impact on many lives. Much has been said about how the pandemic will change how we live and work. In this post, we hope to be able to tell you about what we have learnt, how it has impacted our business and how it will shape us moving forward.

Image courtesy of Georgie Cobbs at Unsplash

Thankfully, we were already well versed in remote working. For many years we have worked with clients and teams across the globe, asynchronous working and the tools that enable it were already part of our armoury. That being said, we have always really valued face to face time, with each other and our clients, so having an office that also had a meeting room was always important to us. Typically we spend between two to three days a week in the office. The way we structure our design sprints means we normally work with the client on Monday and Tuesday, rounding off the week on Friday with the client in the office again. In between this, we work from home, something we found enabled us to be much more productive when it came to actually “getting work done”.

As mentioned earlier, the shift to working 100% remote was not as hard as it could have been, whilst it was something we only did for part of the week, we already had the systems and processes in place to make it a smooth transition.

We quickly started to lean further on our usual digital tools, Slack, Mural, Hangouts, all the usual suspects. We were amazed at how quickly companies like Google and Mural sought to help people stay connected, offering longer free trials, increasing the number of users allowed on video calls etc. Small things, but ones that helped the broader business community, particularly smaller start-ups, keep their team up and running.

With these tools and some tweaks on how we usually approach sprints, we have now successfully run countless design sprints, multiple user interviews, brainstorming sessions and even user testing, all 100% remote. Have there been any compromises on the quality of our output or the broader customer experience? We don’t believe so, if anything, not having to commute has meant we start the working day feeling refreshed and full of energy, approach each project with the same enthusiasm as we would in a physical workshop.

A fello workshop in full flow.

Of course, losing the commute brings other benefits, more time with the family, less time travelling, a by-product of which has been a huge reduction in our number one business expense — travel! We now have more time to focus on our health, evening walks and cycles on empty streets is now something many more people are enjoying.

We have always put a lot on emphasis on building strong relationships with our clients and partners, time spent face to face is very important for us. Obviously the current climate has limited the opportunity for this, we have never met some of our new clients in the real world, strange times! Interestingly, the relationships are as solid as if we had been working face to face, no doubt helped by the fact it is so easy to jump on a video call.

Whilst we sometimes miss the energy of the city, what we have learnt about remote work is that it simply works, certainly for us. Whilst this may not be the case for all businesses, many will now continue to follow the “work from home” approach, certainly until it is safe for their employees to return to the office. We suspect, now many have been forced to make the shift to remote work, we will see it become more commonplace, employees splitting their working time between home and office, which in turn takes some pressure off desk space, allowing more effective social distancing for those in the physical office environment.

What comes next?

For businesses of all sizes, digital tools and services are becoming part of their core business toolset. Stripe, Shopify, Zoom, Deliveroo have all enabled businesses to stay connected and continue to operate. Our belief is more entrepreneurs will continue to enter the tech space. Looking at growth areas in the tech sector specifically, The World Economic Forum highlights the top ten digital trends as:

  • Online shopping.
  • Digital and contactless payments.
  • Remote working.
  • Distance learning.
  • Digital healthcare.
  • Online entertainment.
  • Supply chain 4.0.
  • 3D printing.
  • Robots and drones.
  • 5G & Communication.

As the WEF report highlights: COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of digital readiness, which allows business and life to continue as usual — as much as possible — during pandemics. Building the necessary infrastructure to support a digitised world and stay current in the latest technology will be essential for any business or country to remain competitive in a post-COVID-19 world, as well as take a human-centred and inclusive approach to technology governance.

Conclusion

Running your own business is a steep learning curve, a pandemic was certainly not something that was ever on our radar as business owners. How best to mitigate the impact long term will not be without its challenges, but our hope is to continue to grow, working on products that have a real-world impact, building long-term relationships with people as we navigate the winding road ahead together.

As always we would love to hear your thoughts, do let us know in the comments below if you have any questions or want to know more!

Would you like to work with us? We are a friendly bunch, come and say hello to fello 👋

Much ❤️ 🧡 💛 💚


What we learnt about running a design studio during a pandemic was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.