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7 min read

Working remotely at Paper

We’ve been very lucky at Paper to be able to continue working remotely throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. We decided to start working from home a week or so before the lockdown was announced, and during this time we’ve finished 3 projects and recently won a bid to start on another large project. For this article, I wanted to share some of the things we’ve been doing to remain productive and sane over the past few months.

Cuppa calls

The first thing we did was set up a ‘cuppa call’ link via Google hangouts. Initially we had someone on the link permanently so that we could join at any time of the day for a chat. This has now evolved into coffee breaks twice a day for 15 minutes - one at 10am just before our standup and one at 2:30pm. These video chats are optional and anyone outside of Paper is welcome to join. It’s a nice way to make sure you can see some friendly faces during your day and chat about whatever you like. We’ve also done some mini Show and Tells during these calls - Rachael showed us some of her awesome crochet projects, Jon and Cam showed us some drawing classes and marble runs they made with their kids, Faye showed us her dying plants, Mark showed us his chickens and Urska showed us her fabulous new shoes.

Collage of some of Paper’s mini Show and Tells

Image 1: Betty (Mark’s chicken); Rachael’s crochet menagerie; Jon’s kids showing off their drawings; Urska’s fab new shoes)

Slack

We were already using Slack day to day, but this tool has become a life line whilst working remotely. We have several channels for work related content; one for each project we’re working on, some to share interesting links, books and events, and we recently added a new channel about what we’re working on at home and how we’re feeling each day. We also have channels dedicated to non-work stuff and general chit chat for when we need a break. Along with video calls, Slack has been a good way for us to keep in contact with each other, feel less isolated and keep checking in. We’re encouraged to look after each other and get in touch whenever we need it. No-one’s ever too busy to talk.

Adjusted hours

At Paper we’ve always had a flexible working approach as each person likes to work differently; some like to start early and finish early, whilst others prefer a later start and finish. Even so, it became clear during the pandemic that we couldn’t work the same way we had before. Productivity would be lower as people adjusted to working from home, mental health would be affected, and people with children would need to juggle work and teaching. This has meant that how we define ‘flexible’ is now more than just start and finish times, it’s about allowing people to balance their work and home life however they need. For example, some people work in the mornings and take the afternoon off to look after kids, and others take a few hours in the middle of the day to do food shops or childcare etc. Our work always gets done, but we don’t put as much pressure on ourselves to be super productive or regimented as it’s more important that we look after ourselves during this time.

Leeds project

A few of us at Paper were working on a project in Leeds when everything kicked off. With a lockdown looming, we re-prioritised our remaining tasks to make sure we finished all our user research so that we’d be ready in case we needed to work from home. It was a challenge to figure out how we would unpack our findings, collaborate and facilitate whilst working remotely. We found the following tools were really helpful:

  • Google hangouts - we used this for our daily standups, discussions and coffee breaks. It also worked particularly well to have a permanent link open when we were working on tasks. Sometimes we’d all jump on the link to discuss the task at hand and collaborate. Other times we might be working on different tasks, but we’d be muted on the link - it was like having your team in the room with you and all you had to do was un-mute to ask a question or chat. The team also felt more focused and engaged when they were doing tasks with someone else.
  • Google slides - we used these to do our Show and Tells and we also found a great way of using them to do remote retrospectives with the team.
  • Trello - we used this as a classic kanban board to keep track of our daily tasks.
  • Miro - a virtual whiteboard where we could all see our work and collaborate in real time. A lot of the team were new to this tool and had to learn as we went, but everyone adapted really well and we found it useful for unpacking the research and preparing our handover documents. We ran some great team workshops on how to use Miro, and we adapted our own ways of using Miro remotely to do affinity mapping, user stories, personas, user journeys and service maps.

Claim additional payments for teaching

Several of the Paper team members were working on the DfE’s Claim project when the government lockdown was introduced; it was difficult timing for them as they were in the final phases of a year-long project and in the process of onboarding new civil servants to take over managing the service. Thankfully they had been co-located across Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield throughout the project, so it wasn’t too problematic for them to adapt their ways of working to being entirely remote. However it did make timing handovers quite challenging, as many members of the team had to take on childcare and teaching duties throughout the day.

As with the Leeds Council team, they relied heavily on tools such as Miro and Trello to keep them connected and able to work collaboratively. One of their main challenges was adapting playbacks, retros, planning sessions and discussions for a team of 24 people, which made entirely remote meetings quite difficult to set up. To mitigate this, they tried pairing up on tasks and having smaller catch-up calls so that they weren’t having too many mass team calls.

Workshops

After the main Claim project had finished, some of the team started planning several training and coaching workshops for the team of civil servants that are now managing the live service. They’ve covered topics such as task mapping and prioritisation techniques, understanding and building empathy with users, and how to establish team autonomy and accountability; each of which have been collaboratively designed and conducted entirely remotely. It’s been an incredible challenge to overcome technical issues, ensure accessibility and inclusivity and build relationships remotely - especially since some of the team have never met in the flesh! The team has been making good use of Miro, and it’s been really interesting to see how they’ve adapted the workshop exercises and facilitation to work from home.

It’s been such a fascinating and challenging chunk of work, and the team working on these will write a full article about their learnings.

Game nights & Birthday bonanzas

A great highlight has been when the wonderful Faye arranged a couple of fun game nights for us. One time we played some Paper-themed drawing games whilst enjoying some ‘quarantinis’ together on video chat. She also organised a virtual birthday party for me where we used Miro to play various games tailored to me and my interests (i.e. lots of bee themed stuff) such as Beth bingo, Beth-art-ny, Spelling Bee and pin the stinger on the bee - it was a good laugh! These game nights are definitely a fun and creative way to get together virtually, and it made for an enjoyable lockdown birthday.

If you’re looking for a fun lockdown activity, check out Cam’s homemade marble run that he made with his kids!