Podcast 186 — Coping with Corona: Working from home and remote meetings

In the past few weeks, the rapid spread of Covid-19 has made 'self-isolation' an everyday term. 'Working from home' has stopped being a perk, and become a necessity (for those of us fortunate enough to be able to do so). But how do you adjust to working in isolation and communicating via remote meetings?

Written by Ross Dickie
Published 17 March 2020
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Podcast 186 — Coping with Corona: Working from home and remote meetings

On this week's episode of The Good Practice Podcast, Ross Dickie is joined by Owen FergusonRoss Garner and Emerald Workser Craig Dutton to share their advice for coping with coronavirus.

In the episode we discuss:

  • Our strategies for productive home working
  • Making the most of technology
  • Overcoming organisational hurdles to built trust and rapport quickly online
Ross Dickie

Hello, and welcome to the Good Practice Podcast from Emerald Works, a weekly show about work performance and learning. I'm Ross Dickie, and this week we're focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on organizations, a growing number of which are responding to the spread of the virus by closing offices and encouraging employees to work from home

I'm joined as usual by Owen Ferguson. Hello Owen.

Owen

Hello Ross.

Ross Dickie

As unusual by Ross Garner.

Ross Garner

Hello Ross.

Owen

Hello. I was enjoying the serious nature of your intro.

Ross Dickie

I thought it was a serious topic.

Owen

You were like, tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick, update from the front line, tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick

Ross Dickie

This is me building my CV for my job application to BBC Radio 4. And our guest this week is fellow Emerald Works-er, Craig Dutton. Hello, Craig

Craig

Hello. How are you doing?

Ross Dickie

Doing well.

Owen

So is that the term now? Emerald Works-er?

Ross Dickie

Emerald Works-er. Worksketeer.

Owen

Quite like the sound of that, it sounds like a musketeer

Ross Dickie

So Craig, you recently ran a session on remote working for Emerald work staff. And a few of us came along to that and I think that we all found it really informative. So do you want to get us started by just sharing some top tips for working from home? Maybe explain a little bit actually about your background and why you ended up facilitating that session

Craig

Sure. Yeah. So, my role at Emerald Works over the past year has been growing into this agile coach role. And last year I went on a ... it was actually a remote course and it was remote agile facilitation. And that was spread over a number of weeks

But I took what I saw as the best bits from it and thought it would be really useful to share that stuff with the rest of the company, especially when people are doing flexible working and working from home and that. So I did a couple of sessions the end of last year and due to exceptional public demand, I was asked to see if I could do some more. So yeah, I offered to do a few more and they seem to be going down quite well

Ross Dickie

Yeah. So, if somebody is working from home suddenly for the first time and forced to work from home, but are not used to doing so, what are some of the challenges that they may encounter and what sort of tips would you offer them

Craig

I think one of the main things is to make sure you've got a proper desk set up for your workspace, make sure you've got a quiet area, because if you have got small children, they're going to be running around, there's that ... then if you've seen that video, you probably have seen it on. I think it's on the news, where they've got a guest speaker and then the child comes in from the background. Yeah. So, obviously if you've got like a quiet area and ..

So yeah, it's make sure you've got your technology all set up. So if you've got a laptop it's always best to have an extra mouse. I have one of those Bluetooth mice and also even an extra keyboard is quite a good thing. If you are having remote meetings and calls with people, it's always good to make sure you've got good headphones with a microphone. And also, it's always good to have a webcam so you can have good meetings, because it's always good to see people's faces when you're having meetings

I think one of the things is just trying to ... although you're working from home, is trying to keep your home life and your work life separate still. I think that is a bit of a challenge for some people, because obviously they'll be working during the working hours and then they might go off and do something with their family and then think, ""Oh, I need to do that again."" So it's just making sure that you keep those office hours, I suppose, just try and keep that work feeling, I suppose. Take breaks, like I said about taking breaks and talking to people, but also just get outside if you've ... building, a lunch break, don't just sit there and switch the TV on, get outside and go for a little bit of a walk or something

Ross Dickie

Ross, it's not so much kids appearing in the background of your calls so much as your dog, but you formerly worked in the good practices it was then Emerald Works office every day, but then eventually switched to remote working, now live in Inverness and exclusively work from there. How did you find that transition

Ross Garner

So it was quite gradual transition for me because I was commuting for three and a half hours a day once you combine both journeys. And so I started doing two days a week at home and then three days at home and then four, and then I stopped going to work, and then I decided to move 180 miles north as far from the office as possible. So it discouraged the occasional trip through. And I agree with some of what Craig has said, not all of it, because I think that ... I don't know if this is as a consequence of having been self-isolated for five years now, but the notion of going somewhere and working for a fixed period of time with a bunch of strangers is actually quite weird, like doing stuff around the household is far more normal historically. And one of the benefits of doing so is that you have the ability to ignore social norms. So for example, if you don't want to put your pants on one day, you don't have to put your pants on and no one knows about it

And so like while I do get dressed every morning and I do make sure that-

Owen

We're reassured to know that.

Craig

Ross, do you have your pants on right now

Ross Garner

Yeah, I do. I do. I've only once done a client call with no trousers on, it was the hottest day of the year. And so we're starting with a shirt and then just my under ... but like, you can set up a routine that works for you. So one of the things Craig talked about there was make sure you go out and get some air. Well, this is not something I tend to do. What, I've done is for our lunch break every day I catch up on household chores and pair it with an episode of Star Trek, which I started watching three years ago and I've now watched something like 700 episodes of Star Trek and done all the laundry and all the dishes and all that kind of stuff

So I think it's like, no one knows what you're doing or where you are. So you can do whatever you want in whatever location that you want. So you don't even need to stay at home. Obviously we do now because we're quarantined, but in the past you could go to a cafe or whatever. But the flip side to that is that no one knows what you're doing or where you are. So I think to Craig's point, you do need to make a real effort to keep in touch with people. And it doesn't absolve you from the consequences of not doing your work. You still have a job to do, but I think you can just work more in a way that suits what you want to do. So if you're an early starter then go and start at seven and get finished at three or something. Or if you work better late in the day, then you can do it later on, around all the organizational restrictions that come with that

Owen

Yeah, I think some of it is just being conscious of some of the potential traps that you can fall into. Because one of the great benefits of working from home is I find it improves the ability to focus. So especially when you're doing deep work, you can sit down and you can focus. The danger is that you are sat there for four hours because you get into flow and you get lost and you lose track of time. And then all of a sudden you can have sat there and you haven't seen or spoken to anyone for any length of time. And particularly when you're working a number of

Ross Garner

Five years.

Owen

Particularly when you're working an extended period from home and you haven't been used to it, it's very easy not to have very much communication with people. And so, one of the things I recognize, Ross, is that you are a very active user of the communication tools that we've got and

Ross Garner

Slacker of the week.

Owen

Yeah.

Ross Garner

Slack sends out the stats and I have a number of times been the top slacker in the business.

Owen

And the other thing, you set up the donut bot, which is a bot in Slack and the aim of it, we have mentioned it before in the podcast, but the aim of it is to put you in touch with people that you don't normally work directly with. So it's to encourage that serendipitous ... you're both making a cup of tea in the kitchen at the same time kind of vibe. And those kinds of things are important. You need to be more conscious that it's very easy to get sucked into a silo and you need to have some kind of mechanisms to break out of that so that you're not only interacting with the very same group of people all the time

Ross Dickie

It does take a while to, I think, build a comfort level doing online meetings. And even when we started recording this podcast remotely, which was for audio purposes, as well as just allowing us to speak to more guests and reach people beyond our immediate office in Edinburgh. I think it took a while, certainly for me to get comfortable just speaking to people virtually, because you've always got like a bit of a lag. And actually I brought this up in the session that Craig Brown the other week, that I haven't really had so many bad experiences of remote meetings as such, but it did take a while for me to build a comfort level just recording the podcast remotely, especially because often with this show, we're speaking to people who we haven't met before in person. So you're sort of breaking the ice over a virtual call, I think it's a bit different than doing it in person. It's different if you've met somebody face to face first and then you catch up later online. So yeah, it takes a while I think to get used to that

Ross Garner

I was amazed last year, I had an idea for another podcast and I was going to do it with my wife and my pal Neil. Because the world needed more of me on iTunes. So we did three pilot dummy episodes and then it kind of petered out, and we thought, ""Oh, this is more work than we thought it was going to be. We'll just leave it."" But when we started it, we were doing it over a Zoom because that's what we do with the Good Practice podcast and set up, turn on the webcams and my wife, Amy and Neil, it was like their whole bodies just froze. And they just were not used to doing virtual calls. Meetings, yes. They could have the voice chat on Skype or whatever, but they never turned on their webcams before and the act of seeing each other and seeing themselves had this really bizarre physical effect

I mean the tech hurdle is not that high for, again, most laptops have a webcam in-built as Craig was talking about it, but the organization and sort of cultural hurdle to turn your webcam on can be enormous in organizations. You'll tend to find either, when we do client calls, everyone turns their webcam on or no one does. There's never one person that's like, I'm going to put my webcam on

Craig

Yeah. It's very rare that someone will take the first step.

Ross Garner

But if you want to build rapport and build trust quickly, then being able to see the people that you were speaking to as you would if you were in a room with them is really important

Craig

It is the visual cues. When you talk to people and you can see their faces and you can see that they're engaged. If you were talking to people and they had their back to you that would be a bit weird, wouldn't it

Ross Garner

Yeah, I think engagement is another thing because when there's no webcam on, it's easy to ... you're in the meeting, but you're not actually in the meeting, you've muted yourself and you're doing something else. And if that's the case, maybe you don't need to be in the meeting and you could just politely excuse yourself rather than pretend

Craig

Yeah. I mean, one of the things I said on that course I did is if your team's working remotely and you're having meetings regularly, you could have a remote team working agreement. So, you can say ""Whenever we have a meeting, you turn your camera on,"" and you all agree this, you all agree that you're going to put your mobile phones away and you're not going to check your emails while you're having a meeting. Because if you did a meeting in a room, hopefully you'd all put your laptops away and you'd put your phones away and you'd talk to each other and have an engaged conversation. But obviously, like you're saying, Ross, it's very easy to go, ""Oh, I'm just going to look at that while I'm ..."" Just check the cricket score or something and just like, you know

Ross Garner

It's norms again. When you work from home, then you lose some of those norms that exist in the physical setting. But some of the norms that exist in the physical sort of setting are really important, like paying attention to people and not doing other things. So there are some things that do need to be maintained

Ross Dickie

I think people think that it's less obvious way you do it over a virtual call. Like it's not obvious that you're looking at something else. This is actually something else that came up in Craig's session last week. That in some ways it's actually more obvious when you're not paying attention, because you can see your eyes are looking directly at the webcam a lot of the time, which isn't always the case in face to face conversation. You quite naturally look around the room, look at other people, but because you're always looking straight ahead, a lot of the time you can very quickly tell when someone's not paying attention. And when that point was raised, I was actually checking something outside. Is this directed at me

Ross Garner

There's also this, you know. Someone on this call is not paying attention

Craig

Yeah. One of the other things I was saying, I think Ross, you said about building rapport with your team is, like I said about the social time is ... and I think Ross, you also said about ice breaker at the start of a meeting. I'm thinking those are really good things to use. Because if you're working remotely, like Ross, you have done for like five years, you may not know the people you work with that like you would do if you were in the office

Ross Garner

Well, this is the first time that we've really spoken apart from, for example, and we work for the same business

Craig

No, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. So if you're booking a meeting in and you're planning it, you've got an agenda, for the first five minutes or so, just stick an icebreaker in and it might be just like asking everybody who's in that meeting, what's your favorite movie? Just something really simple like that, and then you can have a little quick chat about it. And then at that point, you now know a little bit more about the people that you work with

And there's the whole thing about the trusting, good teams work better with trust. So, if you can build that trust by knowing people that a little bit much better, it'd be great

Ross Garner

That is something else that you tend to see with some client calls is people will have to come on to a virtual meeting and sit in silence until the chairperson has come on and starts- You wouldn't do that if you were in a room together, you probably would have some kind of conversation. It's not different, but it is difficult to overcome that cultural thing that you have within the business where you don't turn webcams on, and when we start a meeting, we all sit in silence until the person has said, it's time to start the meeting now

You don't have to do that. I do believe that one or two people can make quite a big difference in challenging those norms. So if you're listening to this podcast and you don't normally turn your webcam on, you could go and try it today, and on your next call, just start having a chat with whoever's there. And you do an icebreaker like Craig, or you could do something less formal, but these things do have an impact on not just work, but then also the social connection that we were talking about earlier on, about the water cooler chats that you would normally have if you were in a building together

Owen

Yeah. I think especially for organizations that don't have a culture of frequently working from home, it's really important that you are consciously building up comfort. So there's different types of comfort. One is with the technology, so if you're not doing something all the time, then every single time that you use a tool, whether it's Zoom or Teams or Slack or whatever, the people who struggle the most of the people who use it the least. So if you're not implementing working from home protocols right now, then start using those tools anyway, build up your comfort with the technology so that you know how to change the settings and get your headset set up properly and how to switch on the web cam, et cetera

And then the second thing is building up those social comfort levels, start using the camera more often, have a think about how you're going to keep in touch with people in your team, start using the chat applications that you've got, because otherwise, if you're not intentional about it at the start, it does take quite some time to build up that degree of comfort

So we've been fortunate because we've had a flexible working approach for quite some time. Different people have had different levels of comfort, but I think over time we've built up both the technical comfort and the social comfort in using those tools. Our Slack channels are usually quite interactive, it's not a case that several hours will go by and nothing is posted in any of the channels that you've got. It's quite active, but it's also not just focused about work. So, thinking about how you're going to operate when you're in a situation where you do have to work from home I think is an important step to be taking. If you've not done it already, then you should definitely be doing it now

Craig

Yeah. And especially people who are used to having meetings in rooms and then doing those kinds of activities where ... I love post-it notes. So I do lots of post-it note activities, getting people to talk, getting people to ... like when we do retrospectives and things like that, but if you suddenly find yourself completely distributed, and you've never used an online tool like that, it can be quite daunting

There are some great tools out there that you can use to recreate that in the room activity. Obviously, Ross, I think you obviously saw on my presentation, there's a couple of tools that we use, there's one of them called Mural and also Google jam board. And they're basically just online whiteboards where you can put post it notes up there, and it's a collaborating tool ultimately. So you can work with your team and you can do these kinds of little activities and vote on things and get good discussions. So you can still recreate that in the room feeling even when you're scattered around the world. So that is really, really good

Owen

But if you are interested in using those tools and you are expecting to work from home for a reasonable period of time coming soon, then get comfortable with them. So practice, get two or three of you, get yourselves onto a call and experiment with them, because the worst thing would be that you're trying to use these tools for the first time properly, in a session where you genuinely do have to collaborate, get comfortable and practice with them before you're actually using them

Ross Garner

I think there's two things that Owen and Craig have said that maybe there may be less relevant to Emerald Works, but more so to those organizations that aren't used to remote meetings. And so there's the ... because we obviously are used to this, but having a remote meetings agreement, I thought was going to be really good if you've never done this before and just setting up some sort of shared expectations. Because we all come on a call, it's easy for us to say, we do this all the time, but that's not the case for everyone

So yeah, I think a remote agreement's really good. And then also trying the tech beforehand, sort of like 10 minutes before the meeting, if you make sure that your microphone is working most of the conferencing tools will have some sort of tests that you can check the audio and make sure that the microphone is picking you up, and doing that 10 minutes in advance rather than at the start of the meeting, so then the first 10 minutes of the meeting is folk going, ""Can you hear me? Can you hear me?"" It's a really good idea

Craig

Yeah. I think it's the same thing. Like, again, going back to the tools and like Owen was saying, if you're delivering it and you're getting people to use it then obviously you want to practice with it, but it's the people who are say, you're going to be collaborating with, if you say, ""Oh, we're going to have a meeting next week, and we're going to use this tool."" So rather than you suddenly in the meeting, ""We're using this tool right now,"" and suddenly they can't log onto it, they have to create an account, they don't know what they're doing. So like you say, just give everyone who's going to be using that a bit of time just to get used to it. Because like you say, you're going to waste 10, 15 minutes of your meeting straight away if you start using stuff in the meeting

Ross Garner

It also pisses people off as well. The ones that are prepared get pissed off by the ones that aren't prepared. So if you want to talk about building trust and rapport, then having a degree of tension and then from the person who can't get it to work, defensiveness, is not the best psychological space to create for your productive meeting

Craig

Yeah.

Owen

Yeah. And it's not even a case of not preparing, it's people who aren't as comfortable with the technology. So, have a really good think about how you can support ... if you are used to working from home and you're used to working with virtual tools and you're going to have a whole bunch of colleagues who are not, think about how you can help support them to get more comfortable

Ross Garner

So one of the things I think we could do to help listeners is that ... we won't have Craig run his Lunch and Learn on remote meetings for the entire world, but we could share the deck that he created for it. And we'll put a link to that in the show notes

Craig

Yeah, no worries

Ross Dickie

Okay. So we'll move on now to our regular feature, What I Learned This Week, we'll each share something we've picked up in the past seven days. Owen, would you like to get us started

Owen

Sure. Obviously, all I've been doing is reading up about Coronavirus, COVID-19, and the differing responses that governments are taking. It's been quite interesting. I saw a chart about three weeks ago and someone had said, ""This is the best public health visualization I've seen about coronavirus and what governments are attempting to do."" And it was that flattening the curve chart, the one where it shows the NHS capacity and the peak of the infection rate. And what was interesting to me was that started off with, the original chart didn't have the health service capacity on it. And someone had taken an initial chart that didn't have it and then added it in and you could almost see online it evolving, and then you saw, it got presented in one of the UK government's press conferences. I looked at that and I thought, ""Oh, I'm pretty sure I saw that literally evolve online as people were starting to share information about this."

And then, just over the weekend, the Washington Post, it's a series of data visualizations. The article is called ""Why outbreaks like Coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to flatten the curve."" And it's a series of four different models. And they visualize how infections spread as little dotted balls you've got everyone moving around and then they say, well, what if we cut that down? And it's only a quarter of the population's moving around, or what if it's just an eighth of the population is moving around

And it was a really nice way of explaining the difference that self-isolating can actually make to the rate of increase of the infection. So we'll post that into the links, but I just thought it was really interesting to see the degree of sophistication in trying to visualize and explain a relatively sort of complex idea and how that's evolved over time

Ross Garner

It's always fun when you describe visual media on a podcast, may be useful. And listeners may also be wondering why there was a loud beeping noise whilst Owen was telling that anecdote, and it was a large van

Owen

Some portaloos being delivered.

Ross Garner

Someone there could have been stockpiling portaloos, they've taken the toilet roll step to the next stage, reversing up the street behind Owen

Ross Dickie

Ross, what'd you learn this week

Ross Garner

So I was reading a really fun, actually it had a lot of visuals in it as well, it was an article from 2018 about flight paths. Remember when there used to be flight paths? Well, I thought that the pilot just took off and flew in a straight lane to Moscow, or what have you, this is in fact not how it works. I've just realized that we criticized Ross for his boarding flight anecdotes a few months back

Ross Dickie

Oh, I have more this week

Ross Garner

I have a boarding flight anecdote as well.

Ross Dickie

Excellent.

Ross Garner

So the routes that planes take is based on all sorts of complicated things, like for example, you have to pay the country that you're flying over a fee that's decided by them for the right to fly over them. And so the planes will often take quite a weird route around certain land borders to avoid the more expensive countries. And then there's all sorts of political things as well, like flights to Israel have often not been allowed to fly over Arab countries and Taiwanese flights to Europe have not been allowed to travel over China. And so you end up with these really weird paths being taken by planes around the world, and lots of fun visualizations there as well. We can be all linked to that in the show notes. I thought it was interesting

Ross Dickie

I appreciate it. Yeah.

Ross Garner

One for the plane in there.

Ross Dickie

So I will go ahead and share mine as well because it is related, it follows on, tediously related to Ross'

So Ross and I were down in London for some filming job last week, and were slightly nervous about being on a plane, particularly with everything that's going on. I think it's one of those things that you hear a lot because of the still air on planes, you're more likely to get sick, and it's like every time you come off a flight, ah, you've got a bit of a cold, probably picked up on the flight home

But apparently the air on aircraft is actually probably a better quality than in your office and certainly on other forms of public transport. So this is an article on the BBC website and according to a professor from Purdue university studies air quality in different passenger vehicles ... niche, I know. The air on a plane is replaced, completely replaced, every two to three minutes compared to in an air conditioned building where it happens every 10 to 12 minutes. Obviously on a plane, you're sitting in closer proximity to a lot of other people who could also be sick, but it was just, sort of flew in the face of the commonly, or the received wisdom about the air quality on planes

Ross Garner

It's not the air quality you have to worry about. It's the little tray in front of you, which apparently is a harbinger for disease

Ross Dickie

Always filthy.

Ross Garner

Yeah.

Ross Dickie

And they never looked like they've been cleaned.

Craig

Or it is the trolley going past and it whacks your elbow into the tray.

Ross Dickie

Yeah. Whacks your elbow, your hand flies into the face of the person sitting next to you. Craig, what did you learn this week

Craig

Yeah. So mine's, well, it's one of those things. You either know this or you don't. So in the last seven days, I learned this and I was like, how did I not know this before? And it's not that exciting either

Ross Garner

Certainly not compared to mine and Ross'.

Craig

So if you've got an iPhone, the calculator on your iPhone, so I've been using an iPhone quite a while now, when you type the numbers in there, if I made a mistake, I'll always press the C button to clear it, but you don't have to, because if you want to delete just one number, you just have to swipe left or right on the number at the top. Mind blown

Owen

I had no idea.

Ross Garner

That's the most practical thing to come out of this podcast.

Craig

Everybody's going to be checking their phones now and doing it.

Ross Garner

Their grubby, grubby phones

Ross Dickie

And that's all for this week. If you'd like to share your thoughts on the show, you can find us on Twitter. I'm @RossDickieEW. Owen is ..

Owen

@OwenFerguson.

Ross Dickie

Ross is ...

Ross Garner

@RossGarnerEW.

Ross Dickie

And Craig is ...

Ross Garner

Looking panicked.

Ross Dickie

Not on Twitter.

Craig

I was supposed to prepare, I don't have a Twitter account

Ross Dickie

Ah, that's all right

Craig

How backwards am I?

Ross Dickie

Where can people get in touch with you? If not on Twitter.

Craig

They can find me on LinkedIn.

Ross Dickie

All right.

Craig

Yeah. So Craig Dutton at Emerald Works. So yeah, find me on LinkedIn

Ross Dickie

You can also tweet @Emerald_Works. To find out more about Emerald Works, our performance support toolkit, custom e-learning at LMS visit emeraldworks.com. If you've enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Bye for now

Owen

You said LMS there like you'd never heard that word before.

Ross Dickie

I know, I sort of stumbled over my own script. I'll do that bit again

Owen

LMS?

Ross Dickie

LM-what now?

Craig's guidance on getting the best from remote meetings is online at: https://goodpractice-podcast.s3.amazonaws.com/craig-dutton-remote-meetings.pdf 

Owen's coronavirus simulations are from the Washington Post, online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/corona-simulator/?itid=sf_

Ross G's fascinating insight into the world's weird flight paths is online at: https://multimedia.scmp.com/news/world/article/2165980/flight-paths/index.html

And Ross D's tedious insight into air quality on planes is at: 
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51736185 

Craig Dutton

Craig Dutton

Agile Coach, Emerald Works

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Ross Dickie

Ross Dickie

Learning Experience Designer, Emerald Works

Ross has been working in L&D since 2015 and is a key member of the instructional design team at Emerald Works. Most of his time is dedicated to writing articles, scoping infographics and contributing to video projects.
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Owen Ferguson

Owen Ferguson

Product and Technology Director, Emerald Works

A self-confessed nerd, Owen is passionate about taking an evidence-led approach to developing digital products that solve real-world problems. He is also a regular on our weekly podcast.
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Ross Garner

Ross Garner

Head of Learning Experience, Emerald Works

Ross has been working in L&D for seven years and he heads up the instructional design team at Emerald Works. In 2019 he completed a Masters in Digital Education and was named Learning Technologies’ Learning Designer of the Year. He is also one of the hosts of the GoodPractice Podcast.
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About the author

Ross Dickie

Ross Dickie

Learning Experience Designer
Ross has been working in L&D since 2015 and is a key member of the instructional design team at Emerald Works. Most of his time is dedicated to writing articles, scoping infographics and contributing to video projects.

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