Visual Artefact Rendering
The Royal Society of Medicine and the not-for-profit design studio Fuzzy approached us with a speculative design project named ‘the Soul at Work’ which involved re-thinking what work can be by creating healthier, more human-friendly and more productive work environments.
JOURNEY 1: What Is the Problem here?
Work Online, Work More?
Covid changed lives. Achieving work life balance is even harder as work invades personal life. Driving from the brief, we assume that employees are experiencing mental health issues as a result of changes in working conditions due to Covid-19 with more remote working and an ‘always-on’ culture present in knowledge industries.
As a group, we chose to focus on tech workers, seeing they are as stressed as NHS employees in the UK and 5 times more depressed that the general UK population. Another reason for focusing on this sector is that it moves fast, usually pioneering new ways of working and influencing other knowledge industries. It will be easier for us to observe the changes Covid from the fast adaptors.
We started our attempt to draw the full picture of the situation by conducting interviews with people from the target industry.
We had the chance to access people working at major tech companies. Most of the tech employees we interviewed were young ‘decision-makers’ such as product/project managers or lead designers, so we focused on this segment specifically.
We also did expert interviews with the head of wellbeing from a major consultancy, a psychology student and a former nurse to understand current initiatives in place in corporates.
The Negative Impact Covid Did on the Way We Work
Started as a dream-like scenario before the pandemic hits, work from home doesn't sound so good for some people. From our interviews, we found some mark left by Covid.
The online communication is not easy, especially when people only started to learn how to communicate entirely online after the lockdown properly. The majority of our interviewees pointed out that they miss having things like the lunch break talk or the hallway chit chat. It is also harder to sense people's emotion through video chat. This leads to many problems.
1. The Uncertainty
The first problem we observed is uncertainty. People in the organization are seeing massive changes, while the unspoken rules of work are breaking down. For example, some interviewees agree that they don't think they are and will need to wear suits in front of the webcam the whole day.
No requirements to wear suits sounds like a good thing. Yet we learned from our interview that people felt like they were losing control over their work time and space. How is this possible given that work from home is supposed to mean freedom and flexibility?
Seniors have to be conscious of the fact that they are creating a newly emerging online culture. Does the supervisor think that it is okay not to wear suits to a zoom call? Should a manager directly tell their people that it is okay to wear pyjamas? The list of questions about what should be worn to a zoom call can be a surprisingly long one. If the new online culture is inadequately established while people think the lockdown will only be momentary, it burdens employees with mental stress.
When there are too many new questions to answer, flexibility becomes uncertainty. Thus, people may experience the feeling of losing the sense of control.
2. Over Working
The second problem we observed is even more overworking.
Some tech companies are notoriously known for deeming overworking as a virtue. The lockdown and the 'always on' culture made the situation even worse.
The office culture is a set of rules and common senses that help shape our daily life. The culture is a set of ways to measure how a worker performs and behaves. With Covid, all of it has changed. We found that some of our interviewees work longer hours due to inefficient communication and their concern over not being resembled as a hard worker.
The Mental Health Problem
Uncertainty and overwork, in combination, could lead to serious mental health problems. The correlation of the factors mentioned above and the mental health problem has proven to be the main drivers for mental health issues through existing research. Now that we have pinpointed the problem, it is time to design a way to solve it.
With the enormous changes happening to our lives, It should only be reasonable to see our work structures differently. Nonetheless, the work described by our interviewee is pretty much the same. Take away the commuting and face-to-face interaction, add in the tedious back to back zoom call and an accessible kitchen that is ten steps away, that is pretty much the new working environment.
Our research has prompted us to find a way to change the work structure with the goal to lower the risk of mental health illness. During our interview, we did acquire some insights over some potential solutions.
"My company doesn't have the authority to help me meditate, but can help me prioritise workload."
'A nagging feeling when you are off and your colleagues are still working.'
"Focusing on giving people a sense of control helps me keep my organisation together."
JOURNEY 2: Scenario Creation
Service Design and Speculative Design
We hypothesise that the changes to the work structure will be desirable for the new online working culture. Yet is it very difficult to create the entire set of work structures on our own. Our solution to advocate a desirable online working experience for the sake of mental wellbeing is Speculative Design. Speculative design creates a scenario related to the current developing concept. We would create a fictional scenario to immerse our audience into it. We would then expect our audience to criticise the concept. No matter good or bad, we can learn from the audiences about what they want to see in the future. After collecting precious opinions from our audience, we would then be able to deliver the service design experience.
Building the Scenario
To build our scenario, first, we made a list of forces that could affect the ‘industry’ of mental health in the workplace, thanks to a PESTL framework. We then mapped out these forces according to their likelihood and impact on tech employees. This resulted in the below matrix. The forces in the impact + and uncertainty + areas represent critical uncertainties to look into, such as flexibility of work hours and adoption of wearables to track and improve mental health.
Libratus and Tech Society Lastest are nothing close to any conventional design output. They are crucial ‘artefacts’ for immersing our audience in the future we created. We did not create another service design solution to improve wellbeing but rather built a unique worldview, with the sole purpose of provoking thoughts and inspiring current actions. We pushed the audience to ask ‘what if?’ rather than ‘is this feasible?’. What could happen if we only work for three hours? Is there a futuristic way to collaborate when people work at different times in the day? Is working less desirable? How do I define myself if work is only a small part of my day? As we exposed people to this scenario in a workshop, we refined our story taking into account fears, hopes and new ideas. The result is a set of principles guiding tech organisations to a desired future scenario.
Limited Wifi access for work
Yes or no?
A CEO's speech
A fake CEO speech was one of our first steps to creating the narrative of our world in 2030. It structured the background stories of Libratus. With Emma, the fictional CEO, we give our audience the idea of what it is like to live in such times.
Secondly, we imagined dialogues between a Libratus’ employee called Hannah and her father to tell the stories of the conflict between old and new values. The audience would have the same questions and reflections as the father’s character, while Hannah would be a model of how the future people would think and act.
We also needed tangible objects or services that shaped our vision of people's lives in the future. However, we did not go into the context of how these artefacts have been made to prevent people from trying to think about how they work. We ran several 'Crazy eights' to create ideas that fit in the story.
We came up with several furniture, wearable gadgets and even some daily rituals that only people in the future will enjoy. Part of it is the Moment of day profile, made by Libratus to pinpoint employees’ individual most productive hours.
Another output is a wearable gadget called 'Sticky Fingers'. It is a tool that can help you track how your working performance is directly by recording your finger's movement. The data generated is 99.99% secured with next-generation encoding methods that we have no idea if feasible.
JOURNEY 3: Creating the principles
Excited? or Agitated?
Once we had this compelling story, we had to show it to the world to test and refine it, and derive our principles. We organised a workshop with 6 people with two intentions in mind:
Putting our scenario out in the world and gauge reaction
Getting inspiration from participants to enrich our story
Participants included students from the RCA, tech professionals and Clive Grinyer.
The result is a set of principles for organisations to transform their working culture to the future.
Speculative Design: A provoking news report for feedbacks
Tech society Latest, a We Media in the future is doing a review on how "Libratus" transform the working culture.
The video is our last artefact crafted for the project. It has been sent out to various organisations for helping them collecting their employees' vision for the future of work.