Designing a Better Digital Workplace

A Conversation with the Designers of LexGo Work

One of the great joys of being a product designer is to see a collection of scattered, tentative ideas take shape into a product that brings a new way of working to the world.

Because ideas are fragile, it’s vitally important for designers to protect and nurture those ideas so they can take root in a meaningful form.

The most recent example of that is LexGo Work, a digital workplace that rethinks the form of the physical office. It creates a space that makes it easier to start instant conversations and synchronous collaboration, while avoiding the pitfalls that exist in today’s meeting software.

In an era where working as a distributed team is more important than ever, I thought it would be useful for other designers to learn more about how to craft a better digital workplace from two people who have lived and breathed this topic throughout 2020: LexGo Work’s lead designer Brian Mila and visual designer Caitlin Mackey.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background in design.

Brian: I’ve been with Lextech for six years. Normally we spend a lot of time designing apps for other clients. This is the first time we’ve actually designed something to use ourselves.

Caitlin: I’ve been with Lextech for two years. Prior to that I had experience in graphic design and many varieties of visual design. As Brian said, this was a really exciting project to work on. Not only was it for our company, but it was an idea by our company. I think it has had a positive impact on how our company works.

Looking at COVID-19’s impact on businesses, how has the current situation affected how you thought through the design of digital workplaces?

Brian: I think it’s changed — certainly interacting with other clients and customers. For most everyone in general, interacting in a distributed environment has become the norm really quickly. As things go back to whatever the next normal is, It’ll certainly be interesting to see if a lot of what we’ve learned collectively transitions forward into a new way of working.

Caitlin: The impacts of COVID-19 have obviously not only been stressful on business but also on all the individuals that make a company run smoothly. The pandemic has completely disrupted the way a lot of people work and do business, which takes a psychological toll on someone. This added element of a collective experience of anxiety made me want to discover how to design a digital workplace that would alleviate some of that work-related anxiety through function and form. That goal drove the majority of my design decisions and thoughts on what would make a successful product.

When you first heard about the concept of LexGo Work and the idea of building a collaboration space for ourselves, what was your initial gut feeling?

Caitlin: I was really excited. The idea of creating LexGo Work hit close to home as a remote employee — to fix that struggle of feeling like I didn’t know where people were, or feeling a little isolated. Particularly in a time like the pandemic when so many people feel isolated, nervous, anxious — creating something that would help business continue “kind of” as usual and help people stay connected, that really resonated with me.

Brian: I agree with everything Caitlin said. We pivoted pretty early on as we were doing our research and figured out one of our main goals was being more connected — that really made the work even more exciting. Can we actually make people feel more connected in a remote setting than they would in person? That felt like not only an exciting thing to solve for, but also an immediate need and an interesting design challenge.

Working as a distributed team can sometimes be as much about the tools as the culture of the company. How did you balance those two forces when designing our digital workplace?

Brian: I think the digital tools that you use … really drive a lot of what you can do as a company. If you think about how culture is in a typical company, you’ve got the perception of how things should be run, how meetings should be done and how people interact with each other. But you’ve also got a lot of other things like, is the business actually done in the meeting? Or is the business done in the hallway chats between meetings? Where’s the real action of the company happening? Now all of a sudden for those types of companies, all those physical spaces are no longer available to a company like they normally would. So now you have to figure out a completely new way to interact, and so the culture has to change with it. So I think in that regard, digital workplace tools now have a larger part to play in terms of defining the culture.

Caitlin: That’s such a big question. I feel like there is so much variance depending on the company and the types of employees you have. I think to be a remote employee takes a certain amount of gumption. You have to be really committed and determined to get work done in your own time because you are completely self motivated. So I think that your personal culture has to play into it as well.

So while company culture is very important, the kinds of people that you hire are very important as well if you want a good distributed team. Hopefully, the company provides the right tools to support people so they can accomplish great work.

In that regard, I almost always groan when we have to switch from LexGo Work to some other meeting tool. I don’t want to go fishing into my emails, pull out a link and paste it in my browser. In LexGo Work, it’s so much easier to switch to my room and start an instant conversation.

That’s a good segue into LexGo Work. What one feature most excites you in terms of reshaping the digital workplace?

Caitlin: I really love that I can see everybody at once in a conversation. There isn’t video rescaling or having to page or scroll to view other people. Being able to see everybody in a single window is great.

In LexGo, I’ve had conversations with Brian, where we’ll agree to meet in a certain room and jump in there, and I’ll see that his camera is turned on and he’s waiting. That gives me a signal that I need to hurry up and get myself moving. Also, just having visibility into who is talking to whom in the space: When I see someone free, I can just quickly invite them into a room that I’m in for just a quick conversation, whether that’s personal or professional.

Brian: I like the presence (the map) where you can see where people are at. But really, I’m most excited about what more we can do with LexGo Work as we build it out.

With what we have today, we’re able to facilitate conversations in a seamless way. That’s amazing. Not having to do meetings — just the culture shift of, I don’t need to schedule a meeting to have a conversation. I can just pop in the room and chat with somebody; it feels like it removes a lot of the formality that scheduling a meeting has; I love that part of it.

So I’m really excited about what comes after that: How do we make people feel more connected? How do we take that to the next level? What is that going to look like? We’ve researched and explored many different ways so people can express their personality and stay connected with each other. There’s a ton of potential there.

So let’s address something that I know some will ask: If LexGo Work makes it easier to have instant conversations, won’t that result in even more meetings? If there’s already meeting fatigue out there, won’t synchronous collaboration make things worse?

Caitlin: I haven’t had more meetings. I’ve had more collaboration. It’s way easier for me to just grab somebody quickly and work together on something without having to schedule a meeting. Perhaps that person on the other end feels like I’m sucking them into it … but that has not been my experience so far, because we’re all agreed that we’re collaborating together for a meaningful reason.

Brian: Yeah, I agree with that. I did a ton of research on meeting software and meeting fatigue. What I found is that when people are complaining about it, it’s because they’re having these back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings all day. Because you don’t have to walk anywhere between meetings, they can literally start the next meeting one second after the previous one ends. And so really, it’s a problem of how a company’s culture has adapted to the online world in the wrong way, by how people steal work time from others. That mindless approach to meetings is what is making distributed work so much more painful.

When thinking of distributed work, two approaches exist. The first is asynchronous collaboration, such as email: I send you something, you send me something back, and back and forth. Then there’s synchronous collaboration, with people working together at the same time in the same file or a conversation. When it comes to doing great work, which is better? Or is it a mix? How should a designer of a digital workplace think about those tradeoffs?

Brian: I think for me — especially now — you have to use the tools that you have available at your workplace, and use them in a way that works for what they’re really designed best for. You can combine tools to maximize those strengths and get a better result than just trying to funnel all of your communication through one particular tool.

So as an example, we have a tool for instant messaging, but it’s terrible for things like trying to have a long conversation. It’s even hard to tell a joke! You don’t know how it’s going to land; there’s no voice inflection or facial expressions in chat. Expressing sarcasm is especially difficult, right? You can try to throw in some emoji but then you’re spending time searching for the emoji that matches the attitude that you want to convey. For me, I just end up using five or six emoji for everything, which then makes me feel like I’m just getting more and more one-dimensional.

I think if you start looking at and use the tools for what they really excel at — the things they solve the best — a mix of tools makes a lot of sense. When I want to have a deeper conversation, or when I want to really make sure that what I’m going to say isn’t misunderstood or misinterpreted, I’m definitely going to be using video to make sure we can see each other, our facial expressions and demeanor, and facilitate a better conversation.

Caitlin: Something that I think is missing from work, particularly in this new distributed environment … there is a certain energy that happens when people get together and communicate ideas. You see it in live music, you see it in live dance, you see it in live performative art forms where people are coming together and creating something that just doesn’t happen in isolation or necessarily asynchronously.

It’s an energy that is contagious. People react and respond; they get excited. You can feel that in a video conversation in a way that you can’t over letters on a screen. I think having a space to communicate in that way with somebody, so you can “vibe” off ideas, get excited and see their face — and even jump in and interrupt. That is a flow where great work can happen, I think. And so having a platform like LexGo Work that makes that easy is critical to business.

You bring up an interesting point, about energy and flow. When you think about great improvisation and building upon ideas, it could happen asynchronously — but sometimes, the greatest live jazz and blues performances are when people play off of each other in real time. But it’s rare to think “improv” in a business setting.

Caitlin: Exactly, that improvisation and the back and forth between performers. It’s beautiful.

So, looking back at your journey nurturing and crafting the ideas around LexGo Work, what frameworks or inspirations did you rely on to design a new digital workplace?

Caitlin: I wanted to make a space that was professional and creative and fun, because I think that creative and fun spaces allow people to be themselves and express ideas and feel included in a way that a sterile space might not. I looked a lot at Ingrid Fetell Lee’s “Aesthetics of Joy” because I really liked just a lot of the things that she had to say about the use of color, different shapes and the different places that we find joy in everyday life — visually, sensory, experiential. I wanted to bring that into our digital workplace — particularly because of the period of time we live in today, which is stressful, difficult and forcing people to make big adjustments. Ultimately, the goal was to create a space that was inviting and friendly.

Brian: I did a lot of research into personality tests, and really think about how people want to interact in a digital way. How does the digital medium affect different people and personalities? Is an extrovert going to use LexGo Work differently than an introvert? How can we design and present the interface to cater to those different personalities and needs?

There was also a lot of scientific literature on what makes people feel connected. How do you measure that? What’s the rubric for measuring how connected somebody is? It turns out that is a difficult question to answer just by itself. So as we tried to figure out what would make sense to put into LexGo Work, we also wanted to measure how well it worked. It was fun to look into that aspect of the product.

Most recently, I’ve been doing a lot of research on Christopher Alexander and his work, trying to apply his ideas around form, context and fit. It’s amazingly applicable to software design, but it definitely takes some time and a bit of thinking to get your head around his ideas — but I’ve definitely enjoyed looking at that and trying to apply that to LexGo Work, to make sure it fits with not just our needs, but companies similar to us as well.

Thanks Brian and Caitlin for taking the time to share your design experience!

To follow Brian on Medium and find more articles he’s written, visit https://medium.com/@brian.mila.

To learn more about LexGo Work, visit https://lexgo.work and schedule your personal tour of our actual digital workplace. (You might even get a chance to say “Hello!” to Brian and Caitlin!)

Principal Designer at Lextech. Focus. Boost signal, kill noise. Solve the first problem. Embrace uncertainty.

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