Working Smart while we’re Apart

In today’s blog we explore the realities of remote team working as people move to working from home. 

Across the world, people are being advised to self-isolate and implement social distancing meaning that working from home is becoming the new normal. For the majority, media and technology will play an increasingly vital role over the following weeks and months. The advice by the Government to stay at home has resulted in an explosion in the demand for online shopping and delivery services.  People are turning to social networking platforms in order to stay connected and are returning in droves to traditional and non-linear media platforms to provide entertainment. Meanwhile companies are being asked to mobilise their workforce and allow staff, when possible, to work from home. While the demand on digital media services continues to grow, the impact on the creative sector in Wales will vary greatly due to the diverse nature of the industry. As one of the fastest growing sectors in the Welsh economy, Wales has become a creative hub for production, gaming, the arts, design and digital innovation. In these testing times, how can a small nation like Wales ensure that the industry cogs keep turning, and do we have the digital infrastructure to cope?

Smart working

Smart working is now reality for some of us in the Centre working with Fictioneers, a Bristol based consortium of companies from Wales and the West of England who have partnered with USW on the UKRI funded Audience of the Future challenge to create a new augmented, transmedia experience featuring Wallace and Gromit. Made up of digital production development specialists Potato (Bristol), creative innovation and intelligent tech specialists Sugar Creative (Cardiff), and games developers Tiny Rebel Games (Newport) they already use extensive collaborative software tools to enable them to work remotely, as well as face to face. These support tools include conferencing software like google hangouts (audio-video conferencing and screen-sharing), slack (team chat and online networking), and work-place document sharing services like Jira (networked workplace task scheduling) and Confluence (networked document sharing), supplemented by a range of additional software to enable screen mock-ups and visual assets sharing. 

For the many Tech and digital companies that already have flexible working arrangements, the move towards remote work has been relatively seamless. With these networking processes already in place, Fictioneers were able to swiftly shift gears as the crisis worsened and move to a remote work pattern well ahead of many other companies. 

That said, remote working is different from face to face work.  It requires additional structures to help support a sense of interpersonal communication and (particularly in times like these) team morale which is so important for successful work-place cultures. 

Fictioneers employ agile working methods which feature a commitment to quick, flexible research and development cycles, supported by open communication structures across the entire workplace. Normally this requires a lot of face to face meeting time.  Previously this meant fortnightly gatherings to share work-place progress and negotiate future plans, plus an additional day each week on site to accommodate special interest task meetings. Supplemented by team building sessions and monthly team socials, these structures help to streamline collaborative workflows and build team spirit.  

Moving online, this approach has had to shift.  In addition to the (now remote) fortnightly review and planning meetings, each day starts with a 30-minute morning video conference where the team share progress updates, jokes, hopes and concerns, followed by text posts outlining daily tasks, remote team meet-ups, ongoing social chat via team networking channels and also casual game-play sessions making the most of networked play facilities.   It’s not perfect, but in the circumstances this robust suite of interaction pathways helps to ensure engagement, cohesion and focus across the entirety of the team.

For more discussion of this approach see a recent Remote Working white-paper published by the Agile Research Network, as well as a helpful remote working tips published on the gaming media site, Gamasutra

As a collaborator in this project, the University plays a leading role in audience research. Over the past 6 months the research team have been working on an approach that combines both traditional UX design, user testing and qualitative research methods to formulate an audience focuses methodology. Much of this required face-to-face testing to ensure the experience promoted inclusive design for a varied audience. In light of recent events the team have now had to re-evaluate their approach and explore new technologies that can incorporate remote testing while utilising existing research networks.  

Broadband speeds

While Fictioneers have been able to adapt relatively quickly to the changing landscape early planning meetings focused on ensuring that all staff were equipped for remote working. In addition to ensuring that people’s equipment was fit for purpose, home broadband speeds was a priority concern, especially due to the nature of the work and subsequent demand on domestic broadband connections. Having observed the increased demands on services across Europe, Ofcom released guidelines to ensure households were ready for the shift and increase in data use releasing its new guidelines on the 13th of March. As reported on the 19th of March in the Financial Times, Thierry Breton, one of the European commissioners responsible for digital policy announced that there were concerns that the internet infrastructure may not be able to withstand the demand being placed on the internet. In addition to increased usage by remote working, there is increased pressure coming from streaming platforms and telecoms companies. Subsequently, the BBC reported that streaming giants Netflix have been asked to lower their picture quality in a bid to reduce data consumption.

The concern for a small nation like Wales in this current climate is the pre-existing inequality that exists across the UK in terms of superfast broadband coverage. According to Ofcom figures 95% of homes in the UK have access to superfast broadband, however when this is broken down we see that Wales (93%), Scotland (92%) and Northern Ireland (89%) are lagging behind England (95%). The debate surrounding access to broadband will no doubt be raised again in light of the pandemic as the vulnerability of one of Wales’ most important industries has to adapt.

While the demand for digital services increases it is essential that the cogs of the creative industries keep turning.

Three key observations:

1. Broadband speed in Wales needs to be monitored closely over the coming months to evaluate the impact this pandemic will have on the Welsh creative industries.

2. Robust communication tools are an effective investment at this time.  A wide variety of networking and collaboration software packages are available to help companies move their work online.

3.  Remote work is different from face to face and needs specific strategies to ensure success.  Top tips include maintaining regular and humane contact between teams using a combination of audio-visual and text communication channels, setting clear goals and performance metrics, emphasising independent tasks, as well as ensuring that there are supportive feedback pathways, and where possible, social play time to help maintain team morale.

As we this disruptive working week draws to a close, we hope everyone enjoys some fun playtime this weekend. Cymerwch ofal pawb!