Namahn in the time of COVID-19

by Emily Pfiester [9 min read]

Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit Belgium in March 2020, we have been using a flexible work structure here at Namahn basically since we opened our doors 32 years ago. Our designers regularly move between our office in the centre of Brussels, their home or co-working spaces, as well as directly on-site at the client’s office as deemed appropriate for the project or their individual needs. Even within the working space at Namahn studios, our employees are permitted to desk hop as much as they like, allowing for the chance to change scenery and roommates from time to time.

The big difference over the past few months has been the forced move to have everyone working from home, isolated from our normal social environments with other colleagues and collaborators.

Given that we are human-centred in how we design and approach projects, it has been fundamental that we retain the human aspect in this new, forced remote style of working, which means evolving in how we collaborate with our partners and clients as well as maintaining the physical and mental well-being of our employees.

Tools we use 

We’re constantly trying out new tools on a regular basis: to organise and make our lives easier as project managers, tools that encourage creativity in design, tools that make it easier to share and collaborate in groups or often tools that are just plain fun to use! With this new style of working remotely, we have challenged ourselves to rate and debate the tools that we use as we rely more heavily on these digital means of working and communicating from one home office to another. Here is a roundup of a few of our favourites and why: 

Zoom

Meetings- the COVID-19 crisis has no doubt been good to the makers of Zoom, but hey, we also enjoy the interface for normal meetings as well as the usability in workshops (see below). Also, the “touch up your appearance” function combined with a cup of coffee is a good confidence booster for early meetings. It should be said that we’re sensitive to potential security concerns and refrain from using Zoom if it is against any of our clients’ policies.   

Workshops and online training- the widespread use of Zoom makes it one of the best for organizing workshops with clients or hosting training sessions online. The ability for the host to create breakout sessions in separate “rooms”, moving around to check in with participants is a plus. Some features could be improved, however, such as the ability to co-host workshops with more than one facilitator. 

Microsoft Teams

Meetings- we’re Office 365 users and find Teams to be well-synchronized with our calendars, setting up meetings, or having an unfinished conversation automatically emailed to you. Plus, being able to blur out your background during a video conference is super helpful for those who didn’t fold the laundry or clean house. 

Same-time communication- being one of our main means of running online meetings, the messaging system is quite convenient for keeping a discussion going. 

Slack

Same-time communication- we’re happy Slackers due to the easy-to-use interface and ability to start a “thread” with someone out of a group discussion without dragging the whole group down. Plus, the ease of commenting and adding emojis 👍.

Miro 

Collaborative design- we find it to be the best tool to co-create together, especially due to the functionalities for working on templates and making system maps. It almost feels like working in the design studio! 

Workshops and online training- a great base for workshop templates and space for collaboration between the participants.  

Figma 

Collaborative design- very useful for reviewing wireframes. Everyone with the link can view the file, while everyone with a free account can drop comments. People can follow your cursor while you present the designs ensuring that they don’t get lost. 

Workshops and online training- a great tool not only for designing interfaces, but also for co-creation in workshops.  

Trello 

Project management- good old Trello keeps our tasks prioritized and easily shared with great usability and simple design. 

Moving our client workshops online 

We’ve been exploring and dabbling in online workshops and training sessions for some time now, but the current crisis has accelerated our efforts to offer our knowledge transfer services online.

A big part of our design process involves facilitating workshops with various stakeholders in different points of a project. We need genuine input from our clients and rely on workshops to gather information and impart our design methods on those involved.

One of the biggest difficulties in relying completely on digital means to conduct workshops with clients is time management and engagement from screen to screen. When meeting in person, it is easier to get a feel for how an idea is interpreted, to share feelings or suggestions and to be together on one single topic for a full day with adequate coffee breaks and meals built into the schedule. With everyone in front of their own computer, the first basic human needs to consider and organize are time and comfort. Given the topic and number of participants, what is the maximum amount of time that we can ask this group to come together and meet on a video conference? How should we build in group discussions and breakout sessions? When is the best time to take a break? How can we ensure that we maintain the participants’ attention and how can we be flexible enough to change the agenda ad-hoc if people are dropping off?

Kristel Van Ael, designer and partner at Namahn, has been fundamental in ensuring that the objectives of our workshops are maintained even when it takes place in a virtual space. Kristel asserts that in planning an online workshop the most important thing is preparation. Specifically, for design explorations, different directions and ideas need to be made much more explicit than they would have to be in a live situation. It is even more crucial to have an agenda upfront with goals clearly defined, together with what will be learned and discussed.

To avoid people just staring at their screens and not participating, Kristel is a proponent of breakout groups. It is much harder in an online workshop to make people work, so she uses Miro boards with very clear and short instructions using prepared templates so that participants immediately know what to do.

As far as when things return to normal, Kristel believes that people will be more accepting of working in remote workshops, as our clients have seen that it does indeed work. Now, we are ready for it. The corona crisis has given us a chance to experiment, and in the end, we have seen that even without international travel people are able to collaborate from different parts of the world.

Sharing knowledge, in the digital space 

As for our training courses, part of the experience has always been spending the day at our design studios in the centre of Brussels, giving our participants the chance to escape their offices to come and be a part of the Namahn team. We also have a fully stocked tea and coffee bar and delicious healthy catered lunches. Now that we have had to move all upcoming training courses online (and cannot yet offer to individually deliver lunch from our caterer), we’ve made some basic changes to our online training course structure similar to those for our workshops. Focusing on time management and comfort, we structure our courses with appropriate breaks and check-ins to make sure participants are engaged throughout and feel that they have the attention of our facilitators.

Sabrina Tarquini, a designer at Namahn, has been championing the format of our online training courses and exploring how we can adapt to keep them engaging and interesting. Sabrina stresses that the most important thing is to modulate the energy flow, offering short plenary presentations mixed with interactive group activities.

Varying the activities like switching between online research, brainstorming, working with pictures and shapes, or maybe just uploading handmade sketches keeps people engaged. Virtual whiteboards are a great tool to facilitate these different types of activities. It is key to produce moments of interaction between the participants where they can look at each other’s work, give feedback or draw inspiration. We try and always include these basic learning moments in the training courses.

A good tip for ensuring engagement during a training course is to choose case studies that people can relate to. Instead of choosing a complicated, far-away case, we are considering themes that people can feel close to, such as improving life during the lockdown. It is also important for the facilitator to be ever-present. We include instructions on the Miro board (or whatever tool we’re using), assist the groups in different breakout rooms and make sure that we give people enough time to warm up and do the exercises. We keep in mind that not all people have the same skills, so we also need to provide alternative activities for the less digitally savvy users.

The basic idea is to have something that can boost people’s creativity and ensure a fun way of learning. Cases, tools and choice of activities can address all of this in order to create a memorable training experience.

Staying sane 

We all have our challenges at our various home offices, whether its children, sharing a workspace with a spouse (and by default listening in to all of their video calls) or trying to keep the cat from walking on our keyboard during client Zoom meetings.

As we are a relatively close-knit group of colleagues, we’ve tried to translate our regular social work habits to the digital space. Weekly yoga has now moved to Zoom, some of us meet for a “virtual lunch” a few times a week to avoid eating alone and we even have a Slack channel dedicated to sharing recipes and food ideas. We also check in once a week at our general meeting to organise work and projects, but also to see how everyone is doing, to find out what quarantine hacks people have discovered, or what grocery store has yeast in stock.

Taking it easy and taking care of ourselves has been our approach to handling this period of working from home. Looking at it more like a marathon rather than a sprint will help everyone cultivate healthy work habits that can resist a long period of working from home. As much as we’d love to be back in the office with each other as soon as possible, the reality is that even with restrictions slowly lifting, many colleagues or clients will be extending their work-from-home due to health or other reasons.

What the future holds 

Who knows what the future holds? When current restrictions ease up, how do we know that a relaxation of the stay at home order will be permanent? How long will it be before we can comfortably meet with more than 10 people in a room? Or shake hands? Or, imagine this, give the two-cheeked Belgian kiss greeting?

It will likely be quite a while before what we once took for granted feels “normal” again, but the most important thing is to keep as many means possible to maintain our daily rhythms, duties and obligations.

The COVID-19 crisis snuck upon us at the beginning of 2020 as it has all around the world, affecting all sectors of work and populations. In this sense, the crisis has been one of the most inclusive and unifying events to ever affect the entire globe. It has an odd way of reminding us how much we have in common- we are all human, fragile and interconnected in so many ways through our daily interactions, both professionally and on a personal basis. No doubt the way that we conduct business will be forever changed by this event, but hopefully, in the end, we will be able to look back and say that it was changed for the better.

We can aim to be more flexible in how we approach problems, organize work and communicate with those around us. We can aim to be more empathic, truly understanding the needs of our neighbours, colleagues, friends and anyone who is a bit vulnerable in a health crisis. We can aim to consider the entire system, rather than focusing on our own little world. How do the jobs and actions of others in the service, logistics or health industry directly impact the way that I need to live and work? At any rate, one aim to consider is the human side of everything, as always.