Digital remote working: bringing the theory to life

We’ve all had to adjust to new ways of working in the last few months.

While technology has helped us with that adjustment, working from home, or wherever you find yourself, isn’t just about technology. We took the opportunity to understand what that is and what implications it has for how we work in the future.  

In a first of a series of posts about our research into remote working, we talk to Jane Reid, Lead User Researcher, Sabrina Robinson, Wellbeing Lead, and Ruxi Stuart, Learning and Development Lead, about how the work evolved and progressed.  

How did this research start? 

Sabrina: I had a catch up after an Organisation, Development and People meeting with our director, Pam. She explained, as she mentioned in a recent Show and Tell, about how she'd had a call from Gavin, our chief executive, over the weekend. I must admit at that time, it was all quite vague, but she'd had this conversation, and was really excited about it and would like to get a project group together. It should be a small group that looked at a focused piece of work and we'd get more details shortly. That was it really, it grew organically from there. 

Jane: Gavin phoned Pam first. He was really keen we wouldn’t lose the good stuff from remote working during lockdown. I had a one-to-one chat with him to find out why it was so important to him. He was keen not to go back to the old ways of working. He was very clear that at the heart of this had to be the psychological and physical wellbeing of staff.

He wanted robust evidence to give his managers the right advice on what to do when making decisions about future ways of working. That’s why we took the combined approaches of academic research and user research. He had his own views on how it was working for him but wanted to be challenged too. He actually said, come back and challenge me!”. He didn’t want to return to old ways.   

Sabrina: A phrase I heard at the time and it’s the one we've stuck with was ‘digital remote working. Although the conversation right at the beginning was very clear that it wasn’t just a technology focus. It had wider implications. 

Jane: That’s right, yeah.

It wasn’t just about the technology it was about the people. After that Gavin wrote a paper, outlining critical factors that he felt the work should cover, setting out a scope for it. The core group was formed around that, people that could look at those particular key factors: technology, wellbeing, property and environment. A discovery is about discovering, so naturally we all went in with an open mind, looking beyond our existing practices and tech. 

How did you form the team? 

Ruxi: Pam identified the initial team members. So, she had the disciplines she wanted involved in the project and from that, identified the people. At no point did she say, “the team needs to remain as it is”. That’s why through the project team we found that it would be useful to involve people from Technology Services, User Research and Content Design.

So, we were given the minimum but we had the freedom to bring other people in. This grew organically.

With Technology Services for example, we didn’t identify from the beginning that there would be a role for them on the core team. But within a couple of weeks, we realised it made sense for them to be part of it rather than us being the messenger between them and the outputs. So we brought them in. That worked really well.

Jane: We did the same with the Research and Citizens Insight team. Initially, they weren’t part of the core group either, but they were a big part of what we knew already. So, we got them round the table, to get answers on the spot. Reusing existing research, where relevant, has real value, saves time and effort, and helps set direction.

How did you set your objectives? Did they form as you started to understand the subject matter? 

Sabrina: I think it took a little bit of time to get to that because we were trying to get more clarity around what the expectations were and how big it would be. Even in the last 3 or 4 weeks the scope of this and how far it can go has grown.

In those initial discussions it was, not unclear, but we were trying to find our way and get a feel for how it all slots together in the bigger picture. I think it was also fast-paced at the beginning, but over time things became a lot clearer. We understood what the expectations were and where we were going with it and therefore what the key tasks were. I think particularly having colleagues like Chanel involved, one of our service designers, really helped to shape that process. 

Jane: We were always centred on that common purpose about not going back to old ways, but it was one of those things about where to stop? We could have gone on and on conducting research. That’s one of the tricks isn’t it, knowing when to stop.

After a 4-week period, we played our emerging findings back to Gavin and Pam, and he was keen to hear more about productivity at an organisation level. He said the work was too important to stop, so, we got another 2 weeks. 

Ruxi: In the first meeting we had as the initial project team, we did the introductions and what we could bring to the project. I think that was really a useful starting point, identifying the different stream's owners. So, the ownership was very clear from the beginning.

Sabrina and I knew we would be the ones looking at the academic research. We were able to divide that up. I would look at organisational research and Sabrina would look at the wellbeing and health research.

We also agreed the rhythms of the project team, things like how often we should talk, for how long and what we'd cover. That was really useful because it gave us the parameters, so there wasn't any confusion, it was: “I need to deliver this”. 

Jane: We had a half-hour meeting every day. But yeah, we had to have a clear remit of what we had to do and the timescales. 

Sabrina and Ruxi, can you talk about your background? 

Sabrina: I had moved out of academia and into more practice-based work, so it was quite nice to get back to that. Particularly as everything had been so fast-paced during the lockdown response.

Ruxi and I spoke about how easy it is to forget how much time it takes to read through multiple papers and decipher information and put it together in a succinct way. But it was nice to revisit those skills. It was a nice challenge even though they were old skills.  

Ruxi: My background is in organisational psychology. I’m a business psychologist, looking at anything that affects people in the workplace. That could include organisational culture, organisational development, learning and development. Anything that has an impact on the performance of individuals and the performance of organisations.

This was something I was really interested in because it was quite similar to a role I had previously when I was an Insight Psychologist. I would gather a lot of research and insight and would present back to clients. I looked at performance management for example, and they would need a really thorough review of the evidence before we helped them to develop their approach.

So, this was right up my street and I really loved it.  But, as Sabrina said, I forgot just how long it takes to read one article that might end up not being relevant. You might just end up discarding it, even though you spent two hours reading it!

Sabrina: So, I should have explained, I’m a health psychologist. I am quite new coming into Essex County Council and I remember Ruxi and I met early on and we talked about our interests. I remember us having this discussion around, 'these are the things we can do'.

It was nice to have a project to put that into practice and it not just being theoretical.  Making sure, not just for us but across the board, that people get to bring in different skills. They’ve got this knowledge and experience that they might not be using in their current roles but have managed to use in this project. 

How did you bring the academic research and lived experiences (user research) together? 

Sabrina: The team meetings were really useful. Each meeting we’d update on what we’d done, 'here’s something particularly interesting I found'. I think (Microsoft) Teams was really useful because you could upload things in a live way, so if we had articles we could upload them.

We might have had different ways of recording information but it was useful, for example, to look at what Ruxi was doing and say, 'you’ve looked at those articles' or 'perhaps we’ve overlapped here'. Having that ‘live’ way of working was really helpful to put everything together. I hope we were able to share that with Jane in an appropriate way. Because of the pace, we couldn’t explain things as much as we’d like to. The Teams chat was rife with lots of information.

Ruxi: It was on fire!

Jane: The focal point was the Miro board. We used that as our physical wall space.

As Ruxi and Sabrina were doing their literature review, we were doing user research, Richard Coward, our performance consultant, was analysing Teams data. One of our business designers, Ryan, was reviewing what services might be suitable for remote working.

Chanel set up the Miro board, and that’s where all the thinking of how we got to the end result was captured. So, we met round that board individually and as a team.  Chanel would have Sabrina and Ruxi round the board to ‘unpack’ what they were thinking. The user researchers were doing the same. Then we had a couple of joint sessions with a few people to look at it to ask, 'what’s this telling us?'.  

I remember us coming back to Ruxi and Sabrina because we’d seen something about organisational productivity. That was coming through as an area of interest. Gavin had asked about it. Ruxi and Sabrina were seeing things and it had been captured on the board.  

The other thing it enabled us to see was the fact that managers could be blockers to making remote working successful. So, we were able to probe more into that with our own people through user research. 

How were you able to apply the theory to people in real life?

Ruxi: I think it’s very interesting with academic research, you can take it to an extreme so that you focus so much on it that you forget to contextualise it in the space of your own organisation. It can become really big and not really relevant to the conditions you have in your organisation. Sabrina and I were really mindful not to overwhelm the project with too much theory and not enough tangible things to take away from it.  

Sometimes there’d be loads of things coming out of this research and other times it could be literally a snippet of information, like 'remote working is best when it’s by choice and not every day'. That was literally one sentence in one paper but it defined our overall insight. 

I think we were quite pragmatic. What really helped was bringing it back to the group and Chanel and the user researchers creating personas. So, saying, 'this is what you’re reading in your research, is that right? Is it what it would look like for an Essex County Council employee?'. That brought it to life and made it relevant.

It took it away from, 'this is what the evidence says' to, 'this is how our colleagues might be feeling', so this is what we need to test. So to me, when Chanel made those personas it was really critical. I think it’s one element that most of us would lose when we try and bring an evidence-based approach, focusing so much on the external evidence and actually that's the thing that brings it together. 

How did the diary studies work?

Jane: We wanted the lived experience of staff and knew they had the added pressures of lockdown, I asked my user research team to do diary studies.

This was to get into the hearts, homes and minds of the staff because that was what it was about. It brought all the research to life. As well as the literature reviews and personas, here we were hearing from our staff and how they were feeling at that moment.

So, the literature review helped shape the diary studies. It started to show the key areas that would make remote working successful and we used that to design some of the questions we asked and tasks we set people. All that richness from the diary studies fed back into the personas to validate them.

Along with other data it took our assumptions and validated them. So: here’s what your employees look like, this is how they’re feeling and this is what is needed for the future. All of the evidence fed into the personas and that’s what we can take forward at a practical level and help build empathy in doing so. It helps keep the findings alive knowing that that there’s a human behind every decision. 

Sabrina: I was going to say about keeping the findings alive. Every day I was talking to staff generally about wellbeing, getting feedback, and I would have a lot of conversations with Chanel to relay that feedback. It was really nice to include that live ongoing information in developing those personas. 

How did personas feed into this work?

Jane: I think it’s worth saying that personas tend to get a bad name but that’s usually due to them being totally made up and not used properly, or never used at all. So, when we spoke about it as a team I thought, 'I’ll go with it', because I’m a bit of a sceptic based on previous experience.

I observed how they were being done. This is the first time in my whole career as a user researcher, I’ve actually seen personas created properly with robust evidence sitting underneath and you can see they’ll get used at a practical level. As a team we’re going to help the organisation do that. I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time! So I’m quite proud of everybody that was involved in the team and learned a thing or two along the way. 

Is there anything that you learned working together like this? 

Jane: It was a bit of a game-changer for user research. It was the first time my team got to work together on something, and lead from the front. The value of taking that multidisciplinary approach and what can be achieved in a short timescale has been proven once again.

It’s also let people see a combination of user research with academic research - the insight already held and business design - the power in that is quite phenomenal.  More of this please - I loved it! I love to collaborate with people to help solve common problems. I was buzzing during the whole thing 

What have you learned about each other's roles?

Jane: It gives you appreciation of other people’s craft. Bear in mind I was only in the door just a week when I got given this - I don’t know how that came about! But it helped me get to know the team and get to know the council.

It was difficult at times. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know personalities. So, it was good to get to know my colleagues and the council. What really came through was the talent here. The work demonstrated the talent in the council, and I think that’s borne out by the feedback. 

Ruxi: I think that’s a good point. Thinking of my previous roles where I would have gone in an organisation to do exactly this piece of work and then I’d pass it onto the client. It just made me appreciate that we have all that knowledge internally. We don’t need to rely on external consultants. We just need to create the time and conditions for that multidisciplinary collaboration to really take place so that the end product is really thought through. Give our people the space to show their talents and to do something that they enjoy doing.

I think all of us enjoyed it. We didn’t see it as a chore. Once Sabrina and I stopped the academic research, I remember saying to Jane, “but I still want to be involved. Please don’t leave me out!". 

Actually, a lot of the time the work that I did, was outside of my working time because I really wanted to be part of it, and I didn’t want to disappoint the team. It wasn’t a surprise, it was just a really strong indication of the talent we’ve got. We shouldn't always go out to other companies and think they know more than us. 

Sabrina: It’s about how we promote that talent. There were areas and individuals I worked with during this who I wouldn't know had I not worked on this. That for me, is a shame because we do have so much talent. How do you make that known so that you’re not getting to the end of a project and people are saying, 'so why didn’t you involve these people'? How do we bolster that across all teams? 

Did you reach out beyond the council?

Jane: As far as I’m aware, we’re the only local authority and only government department UK-wide and internationally that has conducted this research like this, looking into the future of remote working following lockdown.

I called out to other international governments for help to learn from their experiences. We spoke to the US Federal Government and across the government community. Everybody is waiting for us to tell them what we found so they don’t have to do it. We’ve got a responsibility now to decide what to do with our knowledge. What we want to do is share it and help people use it in a way that’s valuable to them.  

I think it’s put Essex County Council on the map actually, which is good for everybody. 

Is there anything you would have done differently? 

Jane: I think it would have been good to have a delivery manager. There were a lot of admin type tasks, arranging meetings, things like that. Although we did self-organise and we met the deadlines, don’t get me wrong.  

Ruxi: I think you’re right. You mentioned you’d been here a week but if you had to do this now I’m not sure you’d have the same capacity, so you’d need that help. 

Jane: You’re right. I think it removed me slightly from the research part of it. Yeah, it was a big group. Lots of reporting back, chasing people for updates. So, some support would have been good to do that type of stuff. And I wasn’t familiar with the internal workings of Essex, so I had to ask poor Ryan for a lot of help. I felt a bit of a burden at times. I do have to admit I quietly lost the plot once around version control in Teams.

Sabrina: I think the technology side of things was a learning curve. A lot of us hadn’t used Teams going into this situation and knowing how best to share documents, how to keep people updated. Even down to the tiniest thing of tagging people as ‘General’ in a message so that everyone sees it. They’re all things you learn along the way but they’re things that had we known them things would have been a little easier.  

So, you could say it was digital remote working in action?

Jane: Yes! It was the first time as a user researcher that I could see myself in the data. Spending too much time on screen, not having the right equipment at home, and not building in enough separation between my work and home life.   

What's next?

In our next post we'll talk through our findings. 

Share this page

Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person