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Designing a Workplace for Humans: Spontaneous Interactions and Remote Work

Eli Phillips

Our research initiative with UC Irvine aims to imagine and prototype new ways of interacting with each other in the virtual workplace.

As companies consider how to navigate the next phase of the pandemic, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. Whether adopting a remote-first model or experimenting with a hybrid workplace, the social experience of remote work will require unique attention from leadership.

Casual, unplanned interactions in the workplace create an optimal environment for exchanging knowledge, building trust, and developing shared context and social support between employees. And research has shown that informal communication boosts employees’ commitment to their organizations when working remotely.

However, the decentralized and task-oriented nature of remote work makes it more difficult for people to engage in these spontaneous “watercooler” connections.

To address this limitation, TEECOM has partnered with University of California, Irvine to conduct in-depth research on technology and human behavior in the virtual workplace. This March through September, TEECOM’s User Experience (UX) team will collaborate with a team of Master’s students in the Master of Human-Computer Interaction & Design (MHCID) program at UCI.

Our research initiative focuses on using technology to boost spontaneous and informal interactions in the remote workplace. Informed by this research, the students will design solutions to identified problems, and create functional prototypes to explore the viability of these solutions. Conducting formalized research in this gap in the remote-work space will allow us to gain a rich, nuanced understanding of the remote-work landscape to inform our Digital Workplace Strategies (DWS).

Information in the Workplace Flows Through People

“Relationships between people are the smooth conduit that allows information to flow.”

Ultimately, the way data flows through an organization is through interactions between people. Whether that exchange is live (face-to-face conversations, phone calls, or chats), asynchronous (email, Slack messages, or comments in collaboration tools), or via an even slower form of communication like documentation, essentially all the information that flows through a workplace does so from person to person.

To facilitate this data exchange, people in a workplace need to build relationships: relationships between people are the smooth conduit that allows information to flow.

To Build Relationships, Increase Spontaneous Interactions

A critical element in building relationships at work is repeated, unplanned interactions.

Consider how in a physical office, we move around the space while performing our normal duties. We get coffee, go to lunch, make copies, etc. During the course of these everyday activities, we are likely to bump into other people on similar errands, or to pass by someone we’ve forgotten we need to speak with. These interactions enable us to learn how each other’s work is going, anticipate strengths and shortcomings, monitor company progress, coordinate actions across teams, do favors for one another, and come to each other’s rescue at the last minute when things go wrong.

In a remote workplace, however, where most interactions are heavily task-oriented, it’s much harder for people to engage in informal interactions and develop casual relationships between colleagues. It’s even harder to do so with the people outside of our immediate teams, who we might not work with regularly, or with people in other time zones.

While many people have planned virtual hangouts, scheduled phone calls, and attended online events, the structured nature of these interactions leaves us with something to be desired. Since spontaneous interactions are typically a side effect of interacting with our environment, planned events don’t achieve the same results.

To that end, the research TEECOM and UCI is conducting looks at creative ways to use technology to create the conditions for more informal and spontaneous conversations online – effectively creating more available touchpoints and channels for information to flow. Possible approaches might look like digital tools to approximate context and availability of conversation recipients, thoughtfully designed online spaces to enable shared context between employees, or informal opportunities to share knowledge and experiences that aren’t “one more Zoom call” after a long day.

Physical workplaces are designed to facilitate connections and interactions. How can we re-imagine common spaces online to do the same?

Enter: UX Research & Design

To address these challenges, TEECOM and UCI are employing proven User Experience (UX) strategies to generate innovative, human-centric solutions. UX is a process for understanding and enhancing the human experience when designing systems. That process involves:

  • Researching human behaviors, goals, motivations, and needs
  • Designing products and services to meet those needs
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of those solutions
Phases of the UX process.

As part of the research phase, TEECOM and the UCI team have conducted:

  • A thorough qualitative analysis of TEECOM’s usage of technology tools for informal connection
  • A comprehensive competitive analysis to examine the strengths & weaknesses of existing players and solutions in the space
  • An in-depth literature review of over 30 peer-reviewed academic research papers
  • Over 30 one-on-one interviews with remote employees from a variety of backgrounds, races, genders, abilities, living situations, etc.

As the team analyzes the data, the results will lead into the next phase of the program, which will ultimately inform the design and development of a functional prototype. Upon conclusion of our program with UCI, project findings and results will be shared in a follow-up blog post.

UX activities completed in the Research Phase.

The Future of Work is Human-Centered

No matter the workplace model you choose, equitable workplace experiences need to include a robust remote component. Spontaneous interactions are a critical element of a human-centered remote culture and must be nurtured.

Our research strategy aims to enable remote employees to participate more fully in the workplace community – and using UX processes to imagine and design the workplace of the future will let companies foster experiences that deeply consider the unique human needs of their employees.

How TEECOM Can Help

TEECOM’s partnership with UCI, as well as our continued investment in UX, demonstrates our commitment to creating intuitive, thoughtful, and holistic technology solutions informed by real people and real problems.

Could your company benefit from having expert technology consultants work with you on your digital workplace strategy? Our DWS experts will be with you every step of the way, delivering the customized solutions you need. To learn more, contact us using the form at the bottom of the page!

Eli Phillips
Eli Phillips, Director of UX

Eli is fascinated by the intersection of people and technology. He brings this curiosity to his role as the Director of User Experience, where he conducts research to understand how people interact with software and systems. Together with users, business leaders, and software developers, Eli works to design holistic systems that consider and balance the unique needs of multiple groups of people. Through his work, Eli strives to bring more inclusive and human-centered practices to the forefront of the AEC industry.