Field Guide 2020: Workplace revolution
This Field Guide article sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 16 weeks on designassembly.org.nz and culminate in a downloadable PDF publication which will be distributed nationally.
We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded this 2020 Field Guide, which actively investigates, celebrates, nurtures and challenges current design thinking, methodology and practitioners in the Aotearoa design community. The project is “a multidisciplinary exploration of New Zealand’s post-COVID design practice”. It is produced by five authors, six illustrators, with art direction, design, editorial, publishing and production support from the Design Assembly team & RUN Agency.
Supported by Creative New Zealand
The artwork to accompany this essay is by Lucie Blaževská a graphic designer and art tutor, originally from Czech Republic. She moved to New Zealand in 2014 and has embraced the culture and art scene over the past few years, further developing her art style from a wide pool of influences and techniques. Lucie is a passionate advocate for social change through artistic practice and creative workshops.
‘Designers by nature are futurists’ is a series of 4 essays which investigate future possibilities, trends and expectations about how our design community in Aotearoa might forge ahead in uncertain times. Topics of interest include how developing technologies are expected to impact practice, how educational institutions are preparing emerging talent, the future of indigenous design, changing demographics in the industry and the way we work.
The challenges of a global pandemic are forcing us to rethink the way we work and relate to the outside world. For seasoned remote workers and freelancers, it’s business as usual, but for the average office-goer we’ve seen a marked shift in adjusting to new workflows and environments.
In these uncertain times, Kate McGuinness speaks to those in the know, including Charli Marie from ConvertKit, Laura Cibilich of creative agency RUN and Annie McCulloch from Portfolio Recruitment.
Amidst all this anxiety and change, designers are in a unique position to sniff out fresh opportunities, adopt more agile ways of working and use creative problem-solving. In the new working-from-home (WFH) model, technology has taken on a whole new level of importance and become our “wifi lifeline”.
No doubt there’s been some teething pain… miscommunication…lost communication…total lack of communication, frozen zoom calls and an email ‘ting’ at 5am.
But we’re getting better. Fast.
The shift in embracing seamless cloud-based systems, adopting new communication tools and introducing a little more work/life balance is major. Not to mention cutting out that long commute is easier on the planet. More importantly, this shift has allowed us to begin to understand how we as individuals and teams work best, by breaking out of the status quo.
Whether you’re an independent freelancer or an agency that thrives on teamwork, there’s no doubt you’ll have spent some time these past few months reflecting on your practice, your process and work environment.
Maybe you hated the whole lockdown experience: the laptop covered in rice bubbles, the toddler tugging on your pj’s, the permanent stack of dirty washing you just couldn’t ignore. For you – the return to a ‘civilised’ office life couldn’t have come soon enough.
On the other hand, perhaps you loved it: the autonomy, fluid home office and noticeable absence of chatty co-workers. You slipped into your creative flow and smashed out some of your best work.
The concept of working out-of-office, through remote staffing or freelancing, gives designers radical choice about where they set up shop and how they run that shop. Those who have made the move out of traditional office confines, also say that productivity and wellbeing can be transformed.
“If your work is on a computer, there is no reason why you should have to commute to an office to work. It’s better for the environment and for the health and wellbeing of workers,” says Charli Marie, Marketing Design Lead for US software company ConvertKit.
While some creatives are still beginning to adjust to the rhythm and flux of remote work, there are those among us who are already thriving in this space, and can offer a few tips for success.
Charli Marie is one such nomad. A New Zealand designer based in Valencia, Spain, Charli has mastered the art of remote work. Outside of her main job, Charli runs the podcast, Design Life and her own YouTube channel; offering design tutorials and creative advice to a growing audience.
I asked Charli about her journey.
My journey into remote work was not a common one: I met the CEO of ConvertKit in 2016 at a conference we were both speaking at, and he offered me a job. I was working for a London-based tech company at the time and wasn’t so sure at first about jumping into remote work for a US company – on paper it seemed like a risky move in terms of job security. But I’d always dreamed of living a life where I could work from anywhere, plus I found Nathan incredibly inspiring as a leader. And as a content creator myself, I felt a strong connection to ConvertKit’s mission to help creators earn a living online. So ultimately I decided to take the leap and start working remotely. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life!
How does remote teamwork actually work?
In my experience, intentionality is much more important than any tool when it comes to fostering a spirit of collaboration remotely. If you have a team of people who understand the value of collaboration and have a strong desire to contribute they will be able to do that no matter what tool they’re using.
When you’re working remotely, there’s less chance for spontaneous brainstorms or leaning over to someone’s desk to chat about an idea, so you have to be intentional about making time and space within the company for ideas to surface. At ConvertKit we have a marketing meeting every Tuesday that anyone can propose an agenda for if they have an idea they want to discuss and get input on. We document projects in Basecamp, and anyone can chime in at anytime with an idea in written form if they want too.
What does our future workplace look like?
Remote work is the future – no doubt.
Companies that don’t embrace remote work by setting up solid asynchronous communication systems and allow their employees to work from anywhere are going to be left behind when it comes to attracting new talent.
Pluses and minuses?
Working remote has meant a complete change to my lifestyle, for the better. I always thought I would have to go the freelance route in order to have the freedom to live and work from anywhere. I don’t particularly enjoy doing freelance work, and I love being part of a team, so remote work has been the perfect fit for me. I thrive in the uninterrupted focus time I get working on designs at home.
I have people in my creative network from many different cultures and countries and have learned so much from them. Speaking to many of my teammates who are mothers, their remote role has been a huge factor in enabling them to continue levelling up in their career while having a family.
It’s not without its faults though, the biggest one being that even as an introvert I sometimes miss being around people. As adults, work is often the place we make new friends. Last year, after moving to a new country, and now being unable to travel and visit people means that I’ve really been missing that more. I have also had to learn to be very disciplined with “switching-off” from work at the end of the day. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to find yourself doing little bits of work from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, because there isn’t a clear distinction between home and work space.
How can a designer land a job with a remote company?
Communication skills are key.
One of the main things we look for in applicants at ConvertKit is their ability to communicate clearly in writing, because it’s a key skill that you’ll be using every day on the job no matter what role you’re hired for. Most of our team communication is done asynchronously so you have to be able to write clear, concise updates of projects you’re working on, articulate your thoughts in response to a pitch someone has written, and have text-based conversations effectively. You should put a lot of focus on that when applying for remote roles.
Whilst remote working can offer more freedoms, freelancing goes one step further.
Internationally, we’re seeing exponential growth in this area and it’s easy to see why; you only have to look at increased bandwidth, accessible and affordable software, easy (free) PR and simple payment platforms.
Freelancing provides the opportunity to cultivate a side hustle, gain more experience, increase your savings, and connect with global clients. If done well, freelancing can be an empowering investment in yourself as an individual and a rewarding practice in self-belief.
Traditional barriers to entry are disappearing. Online platforms give designers agency to share their talent and dictate their pay rate. A 2020 Payoneer Global Income Freelancer Report even found that the freelance workforce is moving closer to closing the gender pay gap than their mainstream counterparts.
Freelancing is a serious call though. You need to get on top of your finances and have a basic understanding of how to do business. Relationships are incredibly important for freelancers too – maintaining and fostering new ones are all part of the job.
Annie McCulloch from NZ’s Portfolio Recruitment explains why we are seeing such rapid growth in freelancing across the digital design industries.
Using freelancers offers a lot of flexibility. Studios can bring in a suitably skilled person for all or part of a project, and not have the continued overhead of a permanent person in that position. Freelancers can also fill gaps in last-minute situations to help get something across the line or fill in when someone is sick. It also gives businesses the opportunity to work with someone who could become a more permanent fixture down the track.
How might freelancing change in the near future?
I think the shift will continue to move into that more agile space. Studios and businesses will develop long term relationships with ‘staff’ who work more flexibly.
A larger and more varied pool of skill sets will be available to studios and businesses; not just designers, particularly as working remote becomes more accessible.
Charli Marie offers her thoughts,
With more designers available for freelance work, it becomes even more important for each freelancer to distinguish themselves and what type of work they do best.
With the rise of remote work, more and more companies are becoming open to the idea of hiring a freelancer in a different location, which opens up a huge market for kiwi designers to take on high-paying projects from companies based in the US.
“We’ve seen many previously-office-based US companies change their tune and start hiring for remote roles since the pandemic started,” says Charli, “ It’ll be interesting to see how kiwi companies respond to that. I’d expect to see the average design salary increase in NZ in an effort to keep the top talent.
If there is key takeaway from the WFH experience, it is that the future of working is in our hands – literally the phone or tablet you may be holding right now or the laptop under your arm. Although we’re physically restricted, our digital communication isn’t. As we follow and utilise technology that is consistently faster, stronger, and smarter, we naturally create space for more decentralised work models. Seamless remote tools and software are working to make integrated tasks seem more natural and intuitive in these new modes of working.
Laura Cibilich, Design Director of Auckland-based RUN shares her outlook,
Hopefully, it will be a more fluid work environment. It won’t be about the number of hours you’re sitting at your desk in the office. It will be more about the work you deliver and doing it whenever and from wherever works with you. It’s already heading this way and I think creative industries, by nature, will adapt quicker than other industries. Who knows, maybe we’ll all be holograms in each others’ lounges! I’m also hoping there will be something so much easier than email, so it’s quicker to get down and receive information than having to type it out and read through it all – making things happen at the speed of thought – fingers crossed.
As our work habits change, so do our perceptions; with the reliance on technology for remote and freelance work, a higher value will be placed on face-to-face interaction. These exchanges will feel special and unique. Organisations who recognise this importance have found new ways of showing appreciation for employees and clients, with a greater focus on well-being and empathy where valued physical contact is just not possible.
As our daily lives are challenged by global events, we are seeing new workforce strategies evolve to become the new norm. Adopting the flexibility and expertise of freelance and remote work may be an empowering shift in the right direction.
This is a chance to reflect, reset and reimagine. It’s a workplace revolution.