Remote, Office, Hybrid: What we learned about Co-Creation

Authors: Judith Janz & Markus Meißner

Judith Janz and Markus Meißner, both Senior Experience Designers and Enterprise Design Thinking Coaches at IBM iX in Berlin, worked mostly in their home offices during the pandemic. Now they return to the agency more often and reflect on how co-creation has changed due to the virtual possibilities.

As designers, we found ways during the pandemic to transfer almost everything we did in-person to digital. In the process, we’ve observed and learned a lot and rethought our principles for future co-creation. We can no longer simply assume we know the routines of others – habits and workplaces have changed. Demand for hybrid meeting and workshop models is growing, and most companies’ digital tool stacks are now at a very good level. So what do we need to look out for in the future when it comes to co-creation?

Continuous co-creation instead of singular events

We’re pleasantly surprised: virtual collaboration has finally led to teams, users, and customers maintaining continuous co-creation. We see fewer full-day workshops with packed schedules and instead more frequently creative collaboration that takes the form of, for example, multiple 2hour sessions spread out over a longer period of time. This model is both more flexible to respond to new insights and, in our experience, leads to more detailed and thought-out results.
In addition to direct teamwork, however, user-centered ideation also requires periods of deep focus. Between co-creation sessions, we give participants space to organize their thoughts and work in their individual flow without distractions or time pressure. In a Design Sprint with group sessions in the morning, participants can prepare for the next session in advance in the morning or directly afterward, depending on their preference.

Whether virtual or on-site: we prefer co-creation to be shorter, more frequent, and more in-depth. Individual arrangements must be made with each team.

Be prepared for hybrid approaches

We’ve heard from many personal conversations that teams and customers want to see a return to on-site collaboration. IBM’s Global Leader Rich Berkman sums it up well, “I would think we absolutely go back to in-person workshops where they are appropriate. The stimulation, collaboration, and energy exceed the virtual in numerous ways. That said, virtual is still valuable when in person is not available.”

We are seeing colleagues and clients meeting in person more often again to share insights and develop ideas together. But there are also individuals who, for good reasons, will continue to work primarily from home.

This begs the question of how we can successfully enable hybrid co-creation, where each person is heard and contributes equally. As designers, facilitators and coaches, we face new methodological and technical challenges, need to acquire new skills and learn to multitask. This includes mastering technical hick-ups in the background, such as providing equipment, granting access to tools, or re-sharing materials that have been lost. It also includes increasing the visibility of remote participants to democratize discussions and decision-making, motivating people to speak their thoughts aloud, reading out comments from the chat, detecting mood and emotion without perhaps being able to see everyone.
One thing is certain: hybrid co-creation will become the new normal. However, this requires not only the right technical equipment but also the right skills. We see great potential, especially among young professionals, so-called “remote natives” who bring a lot of virtual or hybrid collaboration experience with them from their studies, for example.

Keeping pace with technical developments

At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to constantly learn new applications or find workarounds for missing features. This is not diminishing, but becoming even more critical as we work with clients.

In the past, as part of our consulting and technology expertise, we mostly provided the toolstack and empowered all participants. Now, companies have invested in their own toolsets and expect us to be the ones to adapt (any unforeseen technical quirks included). Facilitators and designers need to keep an eye on the tool market and technical developments and be prepared to master the occasional spontaneous exotic program.

Back in the office, a large proportion of work still takes place in virtual environments. However, needs and setups are still evolving rapidly.

Becoming aware of what we do not know (anymore)

As a company dedicated to user-centricity, our work is based on user research and hypotheses. We as designers need to realize that the world has fundamentally changed in the last 1.5 years. Our previously gathered usage insights may no longer be valid. We need to challenge basic assumptions and check for bias, as we may be too influenced by our own personal experiences during the pandemic.
In addition, we may trust second-hand information even less: A manager can probably only tell us little about his or her employees or customers, as contact with them and insight into their work, habits, and challenges has likely diminished in recent years. The same is true for pre-covid research publications: Can we assume that the findings remain valid for our current situation or will become true again after this crisis?
As Socrates said: “I know that I know nothing”. This old wisdom gains new meaning for us.

Preserving the spirit of “thinking with our hands”

During the abrupt move to the home office, digital whiteboards kept our creative collaboration alive and allowing us not only to adopt existing methods but also to develop completely new successful formats. Mural, Miro etc. will definitely stick around and we benefit from not having to take photos of results after a workshop and then decipher wonky handwriting. In addition, digital documentation of results allows us to continue working seamlessly: Rearrange, export, cross-link, and duplicate results. How can we bring this back to analog workshops? Here’s where we hope to find new solutions for instant translation between digital and analog output.

Creating primarily digital artifacts comes with a trade-off: They are rather two-dimensional. Without writing, drawing on paper, or even building something, we lose the haptics of creation that helped insights and ideas to mature within us. To still make co-creation a tangible experience, we send materials or shopping lists to participants or live by the motto “Everything is a prototype” and use whatever the desk, the kitchen or the children’s toy box can provide.

Even after the pandemic, the majority of Post-its will probably continue to be written virtually. But good co-creation has never been measured by Post-its. New approaches and ideas are needed to engage all participants with haptic experiences.

Wind of change through new challenges

Every now and then in the past, we had the feeling that Design Thinking had lost popularity and relevance. But on the contrary, the co-creation mindset has proven its legitimacy and reliability for us again in the last month during the pandemic. Yes, virtual and face-to-face creative work with partners, clients, and colleagues from all over the world need to be reconciled. At the same time, we are looking forward to the much-needed breath of fresh air to help shape our new world for users and businesses in a meaningful way. There are still many challenges ahead and we will continue to learn and experiment with remote facilitation and co-creation.



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