The Clearleft Podcast

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Season Two

Remote Work

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This is the Clearleft podcast.

I’m sitting at home right now. Just like I’ve been doing for the past year. My living room is now my workplace. The table I’m sitting at has my laptop and external monitor keyboard mouse. I’ve got my noise-canceling headphones on, and I’m talking at a microphone.

When I’ve been interviewing people for the Clearleft podcast, I’ve also been asking them to describe their surroundings.

Here’s some of the responses from my coworker, Katie Wishslade, my peers, Amy Hupe, Aarron Walter, and Elaine dela Cruz, and my friends and former Clearlefties Paul Lloyd and Charlotte Jackson.


In my living room I’ve kind of got a dining table but I got I’ve got a nice standing desk attachment to my table.So basically you can pull it up and down so that you can raise it to a standing desk. I’ve got a good monitor and my laptop and, yeah, it’s by the window which is nice but I have to say it’s a bit weird to just commuting to my living room every day and then going back to bed. But yeah no, I’ve got a good setup. At least I’ve got a standing desk and a monitor. That’s helpful.


It’s snowing outside my kitchen doors and I’m inside and warm and don’t have to deal with that. I like a whinge and a moan, so I’m glad I’d have to moan about my commute anymore.


So I’m working from my lounge, which has recently reconfigured so that I’ve got my desk, which was previously in a corner and meant I was sort of sat with my back to the world. I’ve now moved my desk to my bay window, and I’m in abasement flat so the majority of my view is actually just a wall. I’m sort of slightly sunken from the rest of the world, so I have to look up. But I’ve got a tree in front of me. There’s the squirrels climbing up and around that quite often. Yeah. Facing onto the street. Nice. It’s made such a difference, actually. This is something I was thinking of doing for, for years. Never got around to it, but seeing as I’m going to be here for the foreseeable, I thought I better change things around a bit.


Since we started being kind of fully remote, I guess I put a bit more love into the office, so I’m quite happy with how it’s looking at the moment. It’s like our kind of box room in the house. So it’s quite small. It probably like a single bedroom, I guess sort of size.

I’ve got a big desk and my desk is actually made from a chunk of wood from our old worktop in our old house from the kitchen. So we had a load of extra bit of wood. So I just bought some table legs from IKEA and fixed up this desk. But actually it looks like something that you might buy in, like, a hipster shop. So I’m quite proud of it.

I’ve got lots of little bits on my desktop. I’ve got books everywhere that I intend to read and make me feel guilty every day for not reading. And a big plant. And what else? Not much, really. Just lots of books, lots of books. Quite a lot of light, which is a good kind of, I suppose, keeps you awake. Cause I think that can be quite challenging with remote working.

And I’ve got a big “work hard and be nice to people” print on my wall, which reminds me to work hard and be nice to people.

I really try not to complain too much because I think if you’ve got to be in this situation, we probably couldn’t be better set up, you know. We’ve got a garden and we’ve got our own space and don’t have kids right now to have to entertain and homeschool, which is handy.

And I am healthy. So I think in the grand scheme of things, doing okay. I think it’s challenging. I certainly miss being able to go to the shop whenever I want and just get a coffee or some bits and pieces for the house or whatever. And I miss my friends and family. But I think, yeah, in the grand scheme of things, not too bad.


Yeah. So I am at my house in Athens, Georgia. It’s a mid century modern house built in 1956. And my office was really designed for remote work. So that’s one thing that’s a challenge of, if you’re suddenly trapped at home and working remotely, if your space isn’t designed intentionally for that, it can be tough.

Like you’re sitting at your kitchen table. Maybe it’s not ergonomic. Maybe people are walking in and out and making noise. So I do have a quiet space and I have a good microphone, a good camera because I’m just interfacing with people on Zoom every day, all day. So I really have to optimize for that connectivity.


This is quite funny actually. So I’m... so in our room, in our house, sorry, there’s only really one room with really good internet. I discovered that when I started sitting in a separate room. And my husband and I, we both work with kids and stuff. So anyway, we’re tag-teaming out of the study. And I was doing a remote sprint last week,and so I had quite a nice setup with my people on one screen, Miro on the other, and I had my Apple pencil with myiPad. Anyway Alex wanted it and she posted it and Hana texted me just individually on Slack, messaged me on Slack, said "Katie, that’s not your desk." I was like, no, you’re right. Cause I don’t know if you know me that well. My desk is a real mess. And I was like, no, it’s my husband’s.

So we have this annoying setup where he’s also a designer. So I come in, I log into Figma, I log into Google, I go into Miro and then he comes in and he has to swap accounts. We really need to do something about that.

So I’m sitting in my husband’s study. Well, I suppose it’s our study.

When I moved initially in Clearleft, I went into the corner of our bedroom thinking that I could work in there on a horrible chair. And I did take a monitor from work, but yeah, this study is a box room, I would say. It’s got a window. It’s comfortable. Yeah. And then a proper desk chair. I’ve got two kids that are two and four. So actually this is like tranquil. It’s actually a bit of me time. It’s nice.


Back when we could have in-person events. We used to have breakfast panel discussions in London every few months. The last one was in February of 2020. They were kind of like this podcast, I’d be the moderator and we’d invite smart people on to discuss the design issues of the day.

Now that Clearleft is working remotely. We’ve also made those panel discussions remote too. That means we can invite people from beyond London and Brighton. At the last event we had Emma in Wales, holly in the Netherlands, Lola in Canada, and Jean in the United States.


I’ve been working remotely for three years. I used to live in London and when I moved back to the States I started a full time remote gig. So I’ve been working here for the last three years.

The big difference for me has been that in the last 12 months everybody else has wound up feeling my pain, which in a way is very helpful. The downside is I used to travel quite a bit as one of the coping strategies for not having physical presence with people and building that human relationship. And I haven’t traveled in forever.

Lola: I’m currently in Toronto, Canada having moved to Canada with the family earlier this year. Tip: don’t move during a pandemic. Just handy thing for everybody there.

This time last year I was heading up design at Capital One in the UK, working out of the amazing offices in London at Old Street with an awesome team.

When I joined Shopify I was expecting to come and work in what other than Shopify people described as the best office experience in the world. And then the Thursday before my first day the offices were closed. And then about three months into starting we agreed, decided as a company that we would be remote forever.


We really value that in person time for getting to learn each other’s personality and just build a connection. So about a year ago we had about five less people on the design team but we still had a couple of new people and we were just having our design team offsite.

We usually pick somewhere around the world to meet. We were having a lot of fun hiking around Joshua Tree, playing with goats and just having a really nice time getting to know each other. So I’m getting all the reminders of that time and it makes me a little bit sad because we’re trying to recreate that. I think it just all makes us a little bit sad because we have so much fun together but we’ve actually been able to recreate virtual offsites pretty well. We have one coming up for the design team. I’m excited to try a few things.

And we can bring in people like yourself and Clearleft to do workshops. We did that. It really helped to unite us.

We think we’re pretty great at having found good processes to work remotely pretty efficiently. But there is still something different about remote work now. So we’re in the phase of well, we’ve added more people to the team now and we’re figuring out how to recreate that bond and getting everybody to know each other again. So definitely a difference.


I spent probably the first, well ’til February, March, what six months, traveling to London from near Cardiff where I live, which is a three hour slog. Yeah, so I’d do that sort of once a week maybe or once a fortnight and spend a day or a couple of days at a time. So that, like Holly was saying and Jean was saying, that you obviously can then develop those relationships with people. That was really, really important in the early days of my role there. So when we went remote entirely I think everyone else was struggling whereas I’m, like Jean was saying, I’ve been working remote for about three years. But I hadn’t obviously coped with homeschooling and helping a team through a pandemic before. So I think it’s been quite a new experience for all of us really.


I wanted to know how much of a cultural change it had been now that everyone is working remotely.


A year ago I kind of… we were in conversations about this role but I hadn’t committed to moving countries. So it is quite, sometimes a little bit mind blowing to think about all the things that happened last year. But as I said, working out of the Capital One offices in the UK in Old Street, best places to work, you’re on the doorstep of Shoreditch in terms of food and lunch options. And had to do regular commutes to our Nottingham office. That was about as glamorous and disruptive as it got.

We had really good work from home culture and I think in terms of like businesses where I’ve worked where I felt like the transition may not have been as catastrophic for them, people were regularly working from home and we already had good practices in place.

Certainly with Shopify, starting a job in a pandemic, I have a level of empathy with anybody who’s joining my team or anywhere else in the company or joining anywhere remotely now that I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been put in this position.

And like Emma said, homeschooling in a seven, eight hundred square foot tiny little temp apartment with my husband also working and a three year old who doesn’t understand why everybody’s always on meetings. Like, that was definitely the breaking and making of me this year for the first three months of lockdown. So it’s been very interesting.


I think for me I find that the isolation, if you will, of working from home is really convenient for doing, you know, deep work type activities and that’s really nice. The thing that I think you wind up losing out on when you don’t have physical proximity is the accidental drive-by things, right? It’s the walking by somebody’s desk and looking over, just glancing at their screen and going wait, wait what? Hold on, let’s chat. Let’s chat about that. Or, oh that’s so cool.

The upside is that when you’re doing deep work people can’t interrupt you by saying "Hey have you seen this?" So I think it’s a bit of both. There’s both pros and cons to that in a way. It definitely makes collaborating on a whiteboard together much harder.


One of the things that I think is interesting around the tension between deep work that you can do remotely versus what we want from design teams and what I see is missing is the vibration of the design is kind of at a lower tone, you know? People aren’t being... the serendipity of inspiration because you’ve had a conversation or you spotted a scribble on someone’s desk or you got someone around something for five minutes and they looked over your shoulder. We’re having to create a lot of rituals to try and introduce those moments. And it’s actually much harder to engage people in them. And so you get more deep work but you actually end up be less excited sometimes by the work.

And I think this is an interesting tension with us because we have a really strong design system that we use at Shopify and we’d like to talk about it as the floor not the ceiling of design. But it’s actually much harder to strive for a ceiling when you feel like you’re just not getting all of the stimuli that I think helps creative juices and energy flow differently.

That’s an ongoing challenge that we’re trying to figure out. What are the right sets of rituals and activities to just rub people up to bring some of that serendipity and energy back into the design work.


What’s been really interesting has been doing one to ones with the team over Zoom and I found them to be quite abit more intimate and that was true before lockdown as well. Cause obviously I was doing a lot of the in person meetings one to one with people over Zoom before because I wasn’t in London all of the weeks. So I find that you can really give people your full attention and you know it’s almost very much like a research interview, right? So you’re just kind of asking questions, guided structured conversations. So that, I think that’s been really valuable.

The thing that I’ve missed from a sort of team management perspective is just those times where you just want to go for a walk and have a chat or take someone for coffee and not have the kind of proper one-to-one sort of chat. Where you just you know something’s up with them and you can’t figure out why and they just need a bit of that sort of more pastoral help. So that’s what I missing.


The general consensus was that remote work is the future of work. In some form.


When everybody’s going into the office there’s sometimes a tendency to think, well you just go into the office and you sit there for eight hours and there is work to be done and you do it. Now that everybody’s remote and they’re dealing with a lot more challenges around juggling their personal lives at the same time as work, what we’ve found is that we’ve wound up having to be much clearer around the goals that we’re aiming for in the product that we’re hoping that people can achieve. And whereas previously we might have had some conversations about, well this person always comes in late and leaves late, the specific hours people are working doesn’t matter anymore because it allows you to focus much more on the results that people are achieving and how those match up to the goals that you’ve setup for everyone. Which in a way is a much better way of working


Not everything has to work between, like, nine and five. We can ask people “When are your working hours? When do you work best?” Maybe somebody now who’s your remote you say, “Well actually I want to spend some time with my kids in the morning. I’ll put them to bed maybe work a little bit.” Like, everybody has a bit different situation for them but I think it gives us the opportunity to still work efficiently. And also when everybody says like for themselves "This is when I have deep focus and an opportunity to work."


I do think successful remote cultures are like a definitive thing that we’re moving towards and we don’t like change, human beings are just rubbish at it, right? So there’s that whole resistance because we know what was and we have no idea what could be. And I think that isn’t it good enough reason to not try working remotely. Like, for me personally as Emma was saying, the choices we have as a family, the lack of commute the ability for me to design my day in a way that works for my family and then work; that as a benefit is not something I’m going to give up that easily. And I’m encouraging all of my team to do the same thing. It’s like, don’t just assume you need to fit this work life into how you lived previously. Look at what you want your day to look like. Look at what you want your environment to look like. And start there and then figure out how you plug back into work. And I think if we are conscious in that looking for, like, better ways that, you know, I like that phrase of build back better. Like, if everybody kind of found remote an opportunity as opposed to a constraint and we figured out ways to get some of the right rituals back in, I actually think we will be working in a much more rewarding environment in a years time. And it will involve, like Holly was saying, amazing in person activities. They just won’t be the default. And so we get a better balance for like working life and opportunities to kind of plug into other people. I’m kind of hopeful.


It means we can have more diverse teams, like, looking at people in my team have chronic illness for example. But also now I’m hiring I’m able to talk to people all over the UK, all over the US and hopeful that when we go back to normal I won’t have to ask them to relocate to Austin or London because that way we can hire the best people rather than the best people that live in a particular city.


I hope that a lot of organizations really learn and take on and keep on some of the things that they’ve had to do because they’re working from home because it opens up so many doors for so many people, not just those who can’t make it into the office ever. But just for windows and fleeting moments of time where I do need to stay at home because of whatever reason. It allows us to break the barriers for only offering flexibility for parents and forgetting about carers.

So there’s loads of reasons why working from home, being flexible about geography is good.


Thank you to everyone who shared their stories for this episode of the Clearleft podcast.

And thank you for listening.