Enabling Spatial Behavior in Remote Workplace

This is the first part of a Mdes thesis project at University of Washington with a focus on design research.

Introduction

While tools like Zoom or Slack enable us to work more efficiently, I suggest that the cut-off of spatial experience makes it hard for people to foster workplace relationships. Co-workers are no longer able to feel each other’s physical presence, there are no more casual chit chats that just spontaneously happen, some new hires are feeling disconnected from the team because they have never met them in person… Therefore I started doing research on virtual communication in workplaces, and trying to enable spatial behavior in these virtual workplaces through design.

How I got here

Observation and documentation

Mindmap in Miro

Interviews

The interviewees have different jobs including software engineer, data analyst, designers and financial consulting agents. I asked about their daily routine at home, their thoughts on how the new normal is changing workplace relationships, things they missed about being in offices, things they wish they could work differently. I also asked about the items that are most important to them in their home offices to learn more about their physical interactions.

Here are some quotes from my interviews:

“I really enjoy when I’m the first person on the call and someone else joins, and then it;s really nice because while we are waiting for other people to join, we have a chance to connect. I see the value of small talks is more pronounced these days, because we don’t get them as much as we used to.”

“Having to present to team(s) you have never met is interesting as well — with no video on and not being able to read their facial expressions is very difficult to get clear feedback ”

“I do yoga with my co-workers together once a week, I find it interesting to get to know them more outside of work. And it’s easier to stay motivated for exercising.”

“1 on 1 discussions have become 10x more important for engagement with co-workers”

“I use this platform called CaveDay for my free month, where people would sit in the same zoom room for a concentrated work session.When I’m feeling low and want to work on something else, I’d remember that there is this room of people. And I would scroll back to it, and there would be this grid of people just working on their own stuff. It’s weird and awesome at the same time that we are in this wormhole together. I’ll then go back to focusing on my work.”

Insights:

  • People are not as comfortable with video meetings as with in-person. There is a lot of stress with video conferences and awkwardness around the interaction. I suggest it is because we are now not able to perform spatial interactions like approaching and leaving, even orientations of bodies. As a result, we are now experiencing facing directly at each other, and all within 18 feet.
  • People want to feel the presence of a workplace. The knowledge of someone else is also present and working is important.
  • Most people work solely at their desk throughout the day. There is a lack of activity, and a loss of placement change in the new WFH situation.
  • Second channel communication like slack or additional meetings is often used to make up for the loss of information people usually get through external cues like body language or spatial behavior.

I also collected anecdotes from the interviewees and my friends or coworkers told me about that addresses pain points in telecommunications among workgroups. I mapped them out to locate the space I’m most interested in.

Design sketches

I had a more narrowed focus on non-verbal behavior. I believe most problems I have addressed is due to the loss of spatial behavior. I started doing rapid design sketches. Most of these sketches are more of a documentation of my thoughts and reflect the problem space I’m interested in. I started grouping these sketches into different categories. After another round of literature review, I had narrowed down to five categories. In our virtual poster show, I did a voting activity for these sketches, and talked to people about how they might feel about using these objects.

Miro board link: https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_lc6_ds0=/

Each of these imaginary products represents a design opportunity. Some are designed to poke conversation, some are more practical to see if people would be actually comfortable using it. But in general, they are all explorations into deeper conversation about what are the appropriate interactions among workgroups. And through my conversation with interviewees and feedback from the poster show, I had some interesting findings to help guide my next steps.

  1. MRICRO INTERACTION BETWEEN COWORKERS:

Do you miss having eye contact with your coworker or having small talks? This camera uses gaze tracking to allow you have eye contact with your co-workers. In a big meeting room, gazing at someone and they will get enlarged to your speaker note. Look into the camera directly to notify them. If they do it back, you will have your own channel in a big meeting! This is the substitution of approaching someone and sitting next to them, or making eye contact across a conference table.

Opportunity:

With video conferencing tools, we are only showing our cropped selves. We are not able to make eye contact because we are looking at each other’s frame and not the camera itself, and we are not able to show attention even if we want to. It is also impossible to receive signals outside of each other’s frames. If you are presenting to a group, even with their camera on, there’s no way of telling whether they are looking at you or at their email inboxes. There are opportunities to make up for these more subtle signals through add-ons and sensing technologies.

Feedback & Reflection:

“The gaze simulator feels a bit intimidating. It might work for people who are in closer relationships, but not sure i would be comfortable using it with my coworkers. I get where the idea comes from though. We do miss “gazes” during the meeting. I think somehow the gazes help communicating ideas in the meeting…”

I created this one because in the interviews, multiple people mentioned they miss being able to make eye contact and interpret signals from it. And presenters telling me they could not know their audience’s attention level. As a result, while most people find this product interesting, apparently they are not quite comfortable with this item. Eye contact seems to be too intimate for the workplace for most people.

2. AWARENESS OF SPATIAL BEHAVIOR:

Are you feeling disconnected and wish you can be in an office to be more focused and more connected with your teammates? This electronic frame displays the status of your team members. You will be able to see whether they are in the “office”, working by themselves, or having a work session. If you say someone on the side of a plant, it means they are taking a temporary break.

You can swipe between rooms to see what the other teams are doing. Some might have their “curtains” closed.

Opportunity:

There is a loss of spatial behavior in telecommunication, such as proximity between people, orientation and awareness of presence. Such signals are all crucial to an office environment and to communication. We used to have rooms where we can see each other from afar but not necessarily engage with one another. Nowadays it is either we don’t see the person at all, or they are suddenly in our personal space (within 18 inches). The opportunity lies here to create distance between people in a workplace while making it possible for approaching and having conversations.

Feedback & Reflection:

“I love the way the framed office space captures the ambience/social quality of the workplace in a non-intrusive way. When I was on sabbatical working on my book, I had to go to coffee shops to work — I needed the feeling of other people around (the silence in my apartment was deafening). It’s also why I liked living in an apartment vs. a house — as a single person, I liked the feeling that other people were around (but not directly with me).”

Among all five products, this is the most wanted one based on people’s reaction at the poster show, I found that they would actually be comfortable using it. It is the reverse of having a picture of your family at work, here you would have a real time picture of your workplace family at home. Future steps for this product would be to figure out how to input information that determines personal status.

3. RANDOMNESS OF OFFICE SPACE EXPERIENCE:

Do you miss your chit-chats in cafes or in hallways? This mug might make up for that. The set analyzes the remaining liquid in it. When you reach the maximum desired working time, it will set your status to available. The system will then match you up with another person in the company for a chit chat.Take your mug with you, use the embedded speaker for a nice coffee room chat with a coworker.

Opportunity:

Teleconferencing tools make every meeting within a few clicks. However, the randomness we experience in a space is cut off from it. We have to schedule everything detailed into minutes to live through the day. There seems to be no place for chit chats anymore. And when we do a casual session, because we use the same tool and we still sit at our desk, it feels burdensome while it should be relaxing. The opportunity here is to create a more natural experience for office chit chats.

Feedback & Reflection:

“I’m interested in the chit-chat mug or any method for signaling an openness for informal conversation — the barriers now to dropping in for casual chat are very high now.”

This is the second wanted item among these products from the poster session. Instead of setting up everything on our schedule, this item allows a more natural way to signal availability using simple sensing technology. It mimics people going on a coffee break in offices and having random conversations by the coffee machine/water cooler.

4. PRESENCE AWARENESS THROUGH SOUNDS:

Are you tired of text-based communication for everything? Do you miss the background sounds of your office? Did those sounds used to keep you motivated and concentrated? This box translates your work group’s activities or achievements into sounds. Use the buttons to move to other soundrooms!

Opportunity:

We used to feel people’s presence in multiple ways such as visual, sounds, smells, or touches. In physical offices, we could get a hint of what other people are doing merely through listening. But now with telecommunication, the moment we leave a meeting, the sudden silence throws people off. And we receive almost all the other information through text in a notification. There are opportunities to design a more natural way of receiving these background activities to help feel more connected

Feedback & Reflection:

“ I like the idea of creating the environment through sounds. I do miss hearing the background noises and having a subtle knowledge of what people are doing. I’d be interested in how you will translate movements or activities into sounds.”

From initial feedback about this product, people find this product intriguing because it uses sounds to mimic an environment. But moving forward, it would be challenging to determine what the sounds should be.

5. PURSUE OF A MORE ACTIVE WFH LIFESTYLE:

This is a substitute option for company gyms. It came with tutorials and analysis tools to help you train. You have the option to practice with your coworkers. This gives you a chance to connect with them outside of work, and keep each other motivated to workout. There will be a prize for each month’s most active member.

Opportunity:

People are lacking activities working from home. Most people do everything sitting in front of the desk, and spend more and more money on upgrading their chairs. Employee’s health and well-being should be taken more seriously from employers. And with the money saved from renting office places, there should be more money to support home workouts. People always need strong incentives to pursue a healthier lifestyle. And what if employers put small prizes on it?

“I used to work out in a company gym and the biggest negative for me was seeing my co-workers (sometimes my boss!) in the gym. I use exercise to escape (and I am self-conscious about my lack of athletic ability) so I don’t miss working out with others.”

“The fitness mat could be really interesting. I know after starting to wfh I do less physical exercise and have changed what I do. I now do a lot of walking because it’s accessible.”

Reflection:

It was interesting to hear about the two sides of opinions on this product at the poster session. The product seems to be not for everyone, and less related to my topic. Maybe this is more of a suggestion for employers?

Next steps

  1. Re-create the randomness in architectural environments where spontaneous conversations can happen.
  2. Make the interactions more natural to human behavior, embed interfaces into people’s physical environment.
  3. Enable the awareness of presence in virtual workplaces.
  4. Enable users to perceive the equivalent of physical proximity in telecommunication. Create levels of distances for different types of communication.

Since I already have some feedback from initial design sketches, and had some interesting conversations about these items, I would take the insight from it and explore deeper on the interaction design. I will continue to do interviews and surveys as needed, as well as literature review to support design decisions. After I have a more clear idea of what to make, I will start to do prototypes and testing in the next few months.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more updates :)

Please feel free to leave comments or thoughts about this topic, or drop me a line at sfei0620@uw.edu if you want to talk more!

Mdes Candidate at University of Washington , Interaction Designer with a background in architecture.,