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Working Better Podcast

Episode 12

Working Better Podcast Series

How Can We Reimagine Human Connection While Working Remotely?

Welcome to our final episode of Season 1!

We posed a challenge to the company: How can we help people feel more connected while working remotely. Today we’re going to showcase and celebrate THREE different answers to that question. Not just theory, not frameworks. Real, working prototypes that our LABS team have developed and put in the hands of employees here at Kin + Carta, to actually bring people together.

  

You can listen and subscribe to Working Better in your favorite app Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts.

Featuring:

  • Chris Weiland, Director of Kin + Carta Americas Labs, Technical Director, Office of the CTO
  • Omar Shanti, Labs365 Lead & Technical Consultant
  • Ahmad Hasan, Senior Scrum Master, Product, and QA Consultant
  • Praneet Sahgal, Senior Technical Consultant
  • Izabela Stamatova, Senior QA Consultant
  • Trish Berry, Principal
  • Joan Artigas, Senior QA Analyst
  • Julie Putis, Scrum Master & Product Consultant
  • Francesca Silva, Principal Product Strategist
  • Charlie Farmer, Product Strategist Consultant
  • Tyler McCreary, Technical Consultant
  • Jorge Viramontes, Technical Consultant
Labs - KINnect Challenge

(02:47) Kin + Carta Labs

OMAR

My name is Omar Shanti, and I'm a technical consultant here at Kin + Carta for around three years...Additionally, I serve as the lead of Labs Americas.

CHRIS:

Yeah. Chris Weiland. At Kin + Carta, I'm a technical director and the Director of Kin + Carta America's Labs.

SCOTT:

Omar and Chris run our LABS team, who has made this all possible. If you listened to our episode about play and experimentation at work from about a month ago - you might remember LABS. I’ll let Chris explain what LABS is all about:

CHRIS:

Sure. As Omar mentioned, we're called the innovation center, but we're driven by innovations. So what we do is we explore, we discover, and we try to realize the heart of the possible, where sort of emerging technologies meet business value for our clients. And so what we want to do is kind of stay out ahead of the curve to make sure that we're prepared to understand, that we understand the value of emerging tech, and really understand how it might help our clients succeed.

SCOTT:

Awesome. And what are some examples of some projects that have come out of Labs, or that Labs has sponsored?

CHRIS:

Sure. Some of the explorations and experiences we've built include explorations in AI, computer vision, data and knowledge graphs, blockchain, virtual reality, augmented reality, robotics, internet of things, IOT conversational user experience, immersive environments and human computer interaction.

SCOTT:

Great, thanks. And Omar. So when I came to you with the idea for what is now called the Connect Challenge, which is basically... how Labs could run some experiments to find solutions for the problems that we see involved with socially distance working? What made you think it was a good match for Labs and what got you excited about that?

OMAR:

Hmm. Yeah. Great question.

OMAR:

In my opinion, the Labs projects that best deliver are the ones that deliver value on multiple different streams. So, as Chris mentioned, you have values on the business scale where we demonstrate to companies how they can leverage emerging technologies in their own industries and in their own settings. But also Labs can help build up people within the company and skill sets that they want to learn, but don't quite have the space for. So for folks who are looking to pick up a new technology, or for designers looking to try out new experiments, or even for product strategists looking to kind of deliver in new fashion. Labs provides a means for us to develop our own. And then additionally, Labs projects might also build something which we can use day in and day out and talk about and be really proud of.

OMAR:

And in many ways, the Connect Challenge kind of lives at the intersection of all three people were playing with technologies and playing in roles that they had never done before.

SCOTT:

Great. So you've decided, okay, Connect Challenge is a good match for labs. How do you go about getting those ideas, soliciting people to submit their ideas? How do you get people excited? And then once we have those ideas, how did we pick the three we ended up with?

OMAR:

So, as always, Labs strives to democratize innovation.

OMAR:

To tackle this, we started with an ideation session, which lasted around two weeks. We had a couple of guided sessions on how folks can come up with ideas, and we presented the template out to the company of how they can elaborate the value of their ideas. The template had questions such as, "What does the MTP look like?" "What will you showcase and doing this?" "What's the argument for how this will foster connections?" "What skill sets are required?" So on, making the [ADA 00:12:36] to think through a couple of the steps involved in executing on this project.

OMAR:

I think we almost hit double digits. From there, we worked with our stakeholders, you, Scott, specifically, and the rest of the team to come up with a criteria based on feasibility, innovation, practicality, and kind of the compellingness of the argument and whether we think that this will actually have the desired effect.

SCOTT:

The desired effect being to help US colleagues, friends, rivals (KENT) reconnect after working physically apart for a year. Which is what made this LABS engagement particularly unique. We’re the users we’re building for. We asked the teams to describe what it’s been like to work remotely for now nearly a year. Here’s what we heard:

TRISH:

I'd say there's definitely pros and cons to it.

JORGE:

It's been tough. It's been a challenge for sure just from a mental health perspective, I'd say.

TYLER:

Originally, I had a desk next to my wife and then we ended up like CHARLIE said, clearing out a second bedroom and making that an office for her.

TRISH:

And the con definitely is the interaction, the physical moving around, being at the office.

AHMAD:

Today's interactions are with my four year old and it's not the same type of interactions. There's some energy there, but it's definitely not the same.

CHRIS:

I originally thought, A, well, first I thought this wouldn't last a year or more.

PRANEET:

I really liked coming to the office and seeing people and everything like that, and talking to them was kind of how I got my social interaction throughout the week.

TRISH:

But there are pros that I try to take with me every day; more time with my husband, who is now my coworker, and then no commuting.

FRENCHY:

These life milestones that we celebrate and experience together that we're no longer really able to do or you find out somebody is pregnant because now you get an out-of-office reply that they're on maternity or paternity leave.

JOAN:

It's been pretty different here. Known as the longest quarantine in the world.

JULIE:

I could kind of sense the energy at the end of 2020 really kind of fading on our teams, and I think we were all missing normalcy and really craving that.

SCOTT:

Those are the voices who are going to walk us through what they built, how they built it, and what they learned along the way. Omar and Chris - THANK YOU. I want to waste no time and dive into the first team.

The first experience is called Office World. Again the original challenge was to bring people closer together because we’re unable to be in the office together physically. Their answer? Bring people into the office...virtually. Office World is a 3D, INTERACTIVE, virtual space that reimagines Kin + Carta’s Chicago office as a multiplayer video game environment. And it’s incredible.

Here’s my conversation with the Office World team.


The core idea for Office World was to put together a virtual space for people to hang out in.The ultimate goal was to create something that felt like a town square, or an office, where people are able to play in.

Praneet Sahgal - Senior Technical Consultant

OFFICE WORLD

(08:30) The Experience Set up

SCOTT:

This group is working on a concept called Office World and I'm very excited to meet with them. So to get that rolling, I'll just have each of them introduce themselves.

CHARLIE:

I'm Charlie Farmer, a product strategy consultant, for Office World. I was doing product. I was kind of helping out with strategy and some of the more product focus things but also research and a little scrum master stuff.

PRANEET:

I'm Praneeet Sahgal, senior technical consultant at Kin + Carta I worked as the engineer on the project.

TYLER :

I'm Tyler McCreary. I'm a technical consultant at Kin + Carta. I do mostly front end web, but on this project I work with Unity as an engineer.

IZABELA:

My name is Izabela Stamatova. I've been with Kin + Carta for a little bit more than five years. I'm a QA on my current project as a senior and also QA on the office work project, very excited to break stuff.

(09:30)The Inspiration

SCOTT:

Tell us a little bit about Office World. What is it?

PRANEET:

So I think that the core idea for Office World is that it's to put together a virtual space for people to hang out. Because we're all kind of working remote, a lot of us are kind of staying in the same spot, we're sitting at our desks, we're talking to the same people and just staring at a computer screen. But the cool thing about putting together this interactive experience or game is the fact that there is actually a virtual space that you could walk around in and interact with, and there's areas to go and things to explore. … The ultimate goal was we needed something that felt like a space or like a town square, or an office or something like that, that we wanted people to be able to play in.

CHARLIE:

Yeah, and if I can just layer on there. I think we all have kind of adjusted to working from home and remotely, but like Praneet mentioned, there are things about being in the same space with people that is really great, and especially at a place like Kin + Carta, the people are also cool and smart and easy to hang out with that any type of company, sort of event that did take place and there were a lot of them. There's always these happy hours after work and there's always organized coffee breaks or whatever it might be. Those were a lot of fun and a good way to sort of interact with people in a non work setting in a lot of ways where those barriers of like, "Oh, I got to talk about work, or I got to talk about this." You just like get to know people better for who they are and I think that's the piece that's missing when we do work remotely.

SCOTT:

Yeah, definitely, Charlie I'd agree with that, you and I worked on a client for a good period of time and I know that the ping pong table was a form of connection for many people on that team yourself included.

CHARLIE:

Oh, yeah.

SCOTT:

So glad to see it made it into the cut in Office World was that literally the first thing after you decided to build an office? Was that the first thing you decided to put in or did that come through user research?

CHARLIE:

Yeah, good question and guys jump in here. But the way I remember is we were talking about like, okay, we know, we have some foundational pieces we need to build...it was really like high level three themes we wanted to hit on. Identity, or like who you are within the space. What is this space? Actual, the model of the office, and then some sort of interaction. That's where we thought that opportunity for connection would happen….

So Praneet led us through this sort of user journey mapping where we kind of walked through what are the things you do day to day? What is a typical day and what does that flow look like? We tried to look at those flows and say, "Okay, where are those points that kind of bubble up as those opportunities for connection?" If you play like a board game with the group after work, or we have a poker club or if you're at a social happy hour...that's where the connections happened.

PRANEET:

It was also kind of cool because after we put in Pong, during the user research sessions, we actually were validated that this was something that was really useful to put in. I think, in particular, one of our fellow Kin + Carta employees was really happy that it was Pong and not something more complicated because everyone knows Pong. It's such a classic game. It's almost like a rite of passage to build a Pong game if you're working in game development.

(12:28)User Testing

SCOTT:

Hi Future Scott here, I’m going to jump in from time to time to help fill in the gaps. In terms of Office World, what can’t be overstated is the level of detail this team achieved in replicating our office. The dimensions are accurate to the centimeter, the colors of the walls are EXACTLY the blue of our walls, the kitchen looks like the kitchen, the tile on the floor is the real tile. Adam Graham is a UX engineer who helped on this team, he didn’t join this conversation, but deserves a lot of credit for the modeling.

Also, this flawless video game-esque music you’ve been hearing. Matias Macri is also a team member who wrote and recorded it for Office World. Crazy, right? Okay back in the time machine to rejoin interview-Scott in the past.

SCOTT:

Let's talk a little about user testing. Obviously, it's a huge part of what we do at Kin + Carta. We definitely do a lot of user research and with a video game, it's critical because like you say, what you expect people to enjoy in gameplay is not going to be actually what it was. What were some of the first reactions, the first time people actually started the game and saw that shot of the office? I think it replicates kind of coming off the elevators into the main lobby.

PRANEET:

So I think the first reaction that we got out of a lot of people, a lot of people were surprised just how close to the office it looked like and we were also pleasantly surprised to see as long as we got like, 80% of the way there to the office, I think a lot of people's brains kind of filled in the rest, and thought, "Oh, yeah, this is definitely the office."

That's exactly what I'd expect. It was also kind of interesting that I think a couple of people who've been working in Kin + Carta for a long time got very nostalgic and kind of misty eyed about being able to see the office because they haven't been in the office since before the pandemic.

In particular, I think Val who used to be our office manager was really, was kind of sitting there for a minute thinking, she had to take a minute be like, "Oh, my God, this is the office, I can't believe I'm in the office, which I think was kind of amazing.

SCOTT:

Val, literally was the leader of the project to build out that office when we moved from five to seven. So she has a really deep personal connection to that entire layout. She took me on a tour when it was all under construction, you could just see the pride that she had in helping drive that project to completion. So if anybody who's going to be choked up about seeing, I can definitely see her being deeply affected.

SCOTT:

Anything that people tried to do in the virtual office that you did not expect?

(14:45) Emergent Gameplay

PRANEET:

Oh, there's a really good one. So one of the things that is standard in games that you would not expect in the office is the ability to jump. Most people walking around in actual office space do not jump around the office, but when we put people into the virtual space, a lot of people who had experienced playing games before immediately tried to jump and they were delighted to see that they were able to and immediately started doing things like parkour and jumping on tables, and trying to figure out how do we how do I get into spaces and get on to things that I'm not normally supposed to be able to do in the office? That was definitely very surprising and when we actually straight up asked people, would you like to keep the jump in the game? Everyone said, "yes" despite the fact that is not something you would ever do in office.

CHARLIE:

There was a conga line at one point, there were races happening from down this hallway to the other door and there was like a referee that made sure that everything was above board and who actually won one. There was a mosh pit that then kind of awkwardly turned into a group hug because arms Don't move.

SCOTT:

What Charlie’s describing here was one of my favorite things to watch unfold. It happened usually in the playtests with larger groups - 10, 12 people at a time would almost immediately figure out things they could do that were NEVER planned for. In game design, it’s an idea referred to as “emergent gameplay.”

In addition to conga lines and relay races, simple text fields provided a similar challenge for the team to consider. The team had created a feature allowing players to add their name or a message above their avatars. It didn’t take long for the team to realize the text field could also say...other things.

CHARLIE:

This is kind of typical in software development, you have to think about like happy path and sad path, right? So when you are creating your username, our idea was let's just create a free-form text field, you can put in as many characters you want, whatever you want, and it will display above your character's head when you spawn into the office. Quickly, everybody was like, "Well, what if somebody puts swear words or something inappropriate or like we're going to have an ex nightmare?"

We talked about trying to find a library that would allow us to do some filtering for swear words and in different languages and all this and I was like, "Holy shit, this is possible." This is just like, you can pretty much do it, whatever you want there. Isabella, who was the QA on the team was like:

IZABELA:

"Oh, I can also test the Bulgarian stuff just to make sure that the system is working."

That’s Izabela, who you may remember, introduced herself earlier as the one who was “excited to break stuff.” Izabela works in Quality Assurance, meaning yeah basically her job is to find ways to break things. Including conjuring up every four letter word she can think of.

IZABELA:

They even have a name on my team for the defects. They're called Izabella defects. We use this name only for the weird defects that they believe that nobody can find.

CHARLIE:

It was just really funny. So we all got off the call laughing that day and added into the definition of the story going forward.

SCOTT:

That's great.

PRANEET:

That was definitely a memorable moment. For me, I actually did go online and look, and GitHub does have a big list of naughty words that you can use for your project to make sure that you catch all of the naughty words that you wouldn't want people to be able to put into your text fields.

(17:56) Embracing Experimentation

SCOTT:

Yeah, that's great. I just one take a step back and maybe I'll start with you on this Praneet and then everyone can chime in. So when we work on a Labs project, it’s a little different than how we work on normal projects. But maybe you sort of describe what are the process that you went through to build this out, generally? Then in what ways is it different than how you normally work and is it the same I guess, as well?

PRANEET:

For me, even though I have worked some game development projects on the side before, this was actually a chance to flex some slightly different muscles. This project was heavier on networking than some of my other projects. So I had a chance to actually... This is a nice thing about Labs I had a chance to kind of experiment as well on something that I would normally have to do on my own. Instead, I got to experiment it with Kin + Carta and figure out okay, how do you set up a server and clients to connect to that server instead of that shared game world? So that was actually really rewarding.

TYLER:

Yeah, I think, just the one thing I wanted to add was that with these Labs projects, these are done in our spare time outside of the core working hours. So an important thing is that we're all excited about the project and we want to work on it. So I think it was nice that we all work together to come up with ideas so that everyone felt some sort of ownership and that we were all willing to work outside of the regular work hours.

IZABELA:

I was excited about all those ideas and I was wondering, should I get involved? But I think that it's PRANEET's fault. There was a company meeting one Thursday, and then after that there was a lunch and learn or something like that about something and then it was just a few people and then we're joking with PRANEET and he was like, "You should join." Because I'm not a gamer so I was thinking more so joining some of the other teams...But we were joking, I'm like, "Why not? I should get involved."
And then I joined the team and for some reason, we were a super good match, I would say, because it's really hard to have a pretty passionate and quick team and I think that we had luck to all of us to be passionate about it and also initiative... I think that maybe the fate decide to put us all together, I would say.

PRANEET:

One thing that I wanted to touch on from a technical aspect, I think there is some, it's a little cool from a technical aspect, what we put together because we generally work on these kind of like single person experiences working on an app and it's kind of disconnected, there might be some talking with a web server. But in a system such as Unity, and like running on Google Cloud Platform that we've actually connected people together in real time in the same space. It's not something that we get to do every day on projects, it's not something that clients even think is feasible. But in a lot of cases there is technology off the shelf that you can grab to actually put this stuff together and get people interacting in real time in a virtual space.

So I think it'd be kind of cool to like, show this off to some clients to kind of show here's the realm of possibilities, here's the art of the possible. These interactive experiences are not like crazy pie in the sky fantasies, they're things that teams can put together pretty quickly and pretty rapidly. So it's definitely worth looking into for the enterprise too.

(20:17)What’s Next?

SCOTT:

Yeah. Great. So what's next? What's the next round of features coming out? What can we see where we have beta, alpha? What's our launch date? When do we live for 1,600 people?

CHARLIE:

The next kind of interaction point we want to have is something we heard a lot from the play test and I and I think we've even started on is the ability to drink coffee, or do something with coffee. So what we came up with was, let's say you can go and pour yourself a cup of coffee, drink it and for 15 seconds, you can move really fast. So there's like a meter that would show up and you can get an energy boost after drinking coffee. So that's one of the main things that's coming out next, we have as a result of the play test and presenting at the core or at the company meeting, about a week ago. We had some more people get involved and be interested in actually joining the team. So we have two more developers to onboard and kind of get stood up and get some work too. So we actually are supposed to meet this week on like, next set of priorities. But those are the things that are in progress.

TYLER:

With what CHARLIE said about the coffee is hopefully that supports more of the like emergent gameplay of people trying to do parkour, it's like, "Alright, I got coffee, now I can jump higher or run faster. Let's see what I can really do."

PRANEET:

Another thing that I think was on our priority list now is a little bit more player customization. So right now we didn't really have much outside the color, but one of the things I distinctly remember coming up was the idea of let's add hats, because everyone loves virtual hats for some reason, I'm not sure why but we're going to go ahead and add them at some point, because everyone loves hats.

CHARLIE:

Some we had talked about and some of those things were sort of reflected in the user tests and then also some new things came up during the user test. So to me we thought about, how can this be utilized for events? Every week we have the company meeting on Thursday as you guys know and that was an early idea of like, how could be utilized? Could we have a company meeting in Office World or quarterly in Office World? At one point, I think it was you Scott, even that, in our Office World channel on Slack came up with the idea of hosting our yearly conference forward in Office World.

TYLER:

Scott, you did give us all a little bit of internal panic when you brought up the idea for FWD.

SCOTT:

Good.

PRANEET:

Yeah. For anyone trying to do this at home, just keep in mind building a massive multiplayer online game is not a good idea for your first game project. Try Pong first.

SCOTT:

Amazing stuff. If you’re interested in seeing the full game in action, kinandcarta.com/working-better, we’ll continue to add updates!

So for Office World - the answer to the problem was to recreate the simple joy of sharing a space together - a “town square” as Praneet put it. It was amazing to watch people take to it with such enthusiasm because it really did feel like you were in the office. Plus who doesn’t love a virtual mosh pit / group hug.

Our goal with Fancy Meeting You Here was to find out if we could come up with a technical, digital-driven way to jump out of that whole environment and into another one relatively easily.

Chris Weiland - Director of Kin + Carta Americas Labs, Technical Director, Office of the CTO

(23:15)FANCY MEETING YOU HERE

SCOTT:

Okay next up. If the Office World team was looking at the big picture of really what the OFFICE feels like, this next group zoomed in further into that picture to examine people’s real, every day interactions...particularly those that are tough to replicate remotely.

The concept is called “Fancy Meeting You Here.” Let’s meet the team.

AHMAD:

Hi. My name's Ahmad Hasan, Kin + Carta. I'm a scrum master. Several teams on this particular project. Been the champion, pushing things forward, kind of trying to figure out where this thing is going, and really kind of wrangle everybody in there, bounce ideas off of, and just the champion of the project.

FRENCHY:

I'm Frenchy Silva, a product strategist. And my role on the team is really being Ahmad's right-hand person, keeping us on track and following his lead.

CHRIS:

Yeah. Chris Weiland. At Kin + Carta, I'm a technical director and the Director of Kin + Carta America's Labs. On this engagement, I'm the product owner.

TRISH

My name is Trish Berry and I'm program manager at Kin + Carta. And on this particular stream of work, I am a cheerleader. I tend to jump in and encourage the team.

SCOTT:

Well, welcome, everybody.

SCOTT

So Chris, I'll throw this over to you, but what's the inspiration for Fancy Meeting You Here?

CHRIS:

Well, as its name suggested, I think it, kind of in my head, captured the idea that, when you bump into something or bump into something you weren't expecting to see in some context maybe you weren't expecting to see them, it's like, "Hey, fancy meeting you here. Surprise, surprise."

At the office, I’d walk to the café and just kind of stand there, hoping to bump into someone. I was walking probably to get coffee or whatever, and Ahmad's standing there. The thing of coffee and it's, "Ahmad, what's the latest in coffee? What are you drinking?" Three minutes, not work-related at all, but every connection and bond-related at work.

CHRIS:

And one of the things I wanted to try to accomplish was to find out if we could come up with a technical, digital-driven way to jump out of that whole environment and into another one relatively easily.

(25:02)The Solution

FRENCHY:

We were doing all this brainstorming and ideation and then we kept, like, "Oh, how are we going to connect this to something technical? What's going to come next?" trying to make it super complicated. And then, through research, which is so cool to me, sent out this survey to the firm. And from everybody's responses, we found Hallway.

What is Hallway?

SCOTT:

So this underscores an important part of the Labs process, and the tech world in general: Not building things from scratch if something’s already built that you can build ON TOP of. Here’s what Chris had to say:

CHRIS:

We essentially shaved off four months of development time to get to a point where we had a digital tool to test our hypothesis, by bringing in something like Hallway. The project didn't start out, "Let's find a tool that does what we need." Our project started out , "Let's find a way to address this problem of connecting people remotely."

SCOTT:

Hallway quickly became that foundational answer for Fancy Meeting You Here. It’s a plugin that works with Slack, our messaging service, enhancing a tool we already use to connect. An app within an app, so to speak.

The idea is basically to create quick opportunities to interact with coworkers, via a Zoom call, but instead of action items and powerpoint presentations it’s 5 min conversations about Bridgerton...or grilled cheese recipes...or how Benedict Cumberbatch can’t say the word “penguin” . Literally anything. Other than work.

AHMAD:

So with Hallway, just like you said, basically you can set them up at random. You can set them up at scheduled times. It all depends on who's creating that specific Hallway-type meeting. And there's ways to force it, but basically we set up a channel for people to voluntarily join if they want to have these spontaneous interactions, which was one of our hypotheses, are people feeling the same thing as we're feeling?

And we have over almost close to 100 people in this channel that are voluntarily there, wanting to join. And they can just join a random hallway that gets popped in.

Right now, I have it set to three times a day. So three times a day, it'll just say, "Hey, take a break. Join this hallway. Click this join button," which was another thing, making it very seamless so that nobody has to type anything in. All you have to really do is press a join button and you're already in a Zoom call with the other people that voluntarily join this bumping into, spontaneous interaction meeting.

(27:20) The User Experience

SCOTT:

You mentioned you did a lot of user research to get to this point. Were there any surprises in that user research?

FRENCHY:

I think what we've tried to be most mindful of or sensitive to this whole time is knowing that, because we are remote, we can't physically get together right now, due to the pandemic. And people do have Zoom fatigue and our employee experience team is evaluating how we're all managing through that and how we're all dealing with that. And I think, for me, just the most encouraging thing, maybe not surprising, but encouraging, was that people still wanted to do this.

AHMAD:

I do have an experience to share. It was the first week we introduced Hallway and it was the first Friday that there was a Hallway meet literally at 4:50 or 4:55. And I joined it. I think I was the only one, at the time, but then people just started rolling in, just like if they had just grabbed their bag and their jacket and they were heading towards the hallway, and they were just kind of bumping into me as they passed by to go to the elevator and they're just like, "Hey," and talking to me for a couple seconds and, like, "Have a good weekend and we'll see you soon," and all these other things.

And I just had this feel, nostalgic, of that normal cadence that we used to go through when we were in the office. And a couple other people were joining and leaving and coming back. And this happened for ... I think it was 20 minutes or so, we were just kind of chatting up before the weekend. And then, as soon as everybody dropped off of the call, I got a stream of messages from the people that were within that hallway, just like, "Wow, that was amazing. For a brief second, I thought I wasn't on a Zoom call. I was in a hallway with the group, kind of just passing by them, talking to them. I haven't seen this person in forever."

CHRIS:

It's not that we're trying to recreate the actual experience. It's almost like the benefit of the experience.

CHRIS:

I think it was the very first hallway that was just put out there that I jumped on. And I think Omar and, Ahmad, you were on it, as well. And I literally said, "Fancy meeting you here," and it wasn't planned. It just happened. Now, I know it was stuck in the back of my head because I've done the project, but that was my first thought. It was like, "Oh, random chat. Fancy meeting you here." I wouldn't call that validation. The research set N=1, but that was pretty cool.

SCOTT:

Great. And Trish, have you joined any of these conversations? And if so, how is it different from your sort of normal? I'm assuming you're on a lot of Zoom meetings, in and out of the day. Did it feel differently? Was it close to the feeling of being back in the office?

TRISH:

Yeah. I've been in quite a few. What's really great about it, for me at least, is that it seems to pop up when I have just five minutes. I don't know if that's just coincidence or just me. One of my favorites that I've been to was the ... it was a coffee break and I think Ahmad even showed it at one of our town halls, weekly team meetings, but it was super ... Omar went walking with his coffee, right? To go get his coffee. You saw his coffee mug. It was about coffee and that's what we used to do. So that makes it feel like we're in the office, as well.

(30:20) A solution that sticks

SCOTT:

Anything that can make someone say “I forgot I was on a Zoom call” is magic in my book.

What really struck me about this group was how pleasantly surprised and ENERGIZED they were when people responded really positively to the experience. Particularly, when for folks like Ahmad, this was not their first attempt in trying to rally co-workers around different ways of interacting while remote.

AHMAD:

I tried a bunch of different ways to get people to connect and interact with each other. I set up a movie night. I set up a game night.

AHMAD:

I didn't even know anything about this connect challenge until Omar kind of pointed out to me, "This is me. This is my challenge." This is something that he knows that I've been wanting to do and get people reconnected with. And when he reached out to me, he was like, "You are the champion of this. You should take this on." And I was like, "Let me hear what it's all about. Fine. Go ahead, Omar." And Omar, with his accent and all that stuff, he put the magic on me.

FRENCHY:

I think the most memorable piece of this has just been this, I don't know what word, the sincerity or the goodness behind all of this. Even though it's extra time or it's after-hours type of work, to be able to be supported, to think of ways to better foster connections between old kin, new kin, it's very unique, I would say. Whether or not they're related to the billable bottom line, I think there's always that support or encouragement to pursue new ideas, to work better together, to grow ourselves, to learn, and it's just really special.

SCOTT:

Thanks, French. We'll send you your Working Better gift certificate for working the title into your response. Well done, well done. Maxx is cheering you on.

(30:10) What’s next?

SCOTT:

So what's next? We've discovered that people we want to connect. We discovered that there's definitely a low-cost way, there's no bill-to-buy option to sort of generate some level of interaction. And it's got its pluses and its minuses. Obviously, I think it's been mentioned, everyone's on Zoom a lot, which ... Any ideas on where's next or is this an opportunity for user research? What's next for Fancy Meeting You Here?

CHRIS:

The benefit of Slack and Zoom is we use them every day, they're familiar, they're in everyone's face all the time. The detriment is they're in our face all the time and we use them all the time. Right? I'd love to explore other ways we can sort of detach and physically move away from the desk.

AHMAD:

I've already started formulating, Hallway does one thing, but there's a couple other things that I would love to get after and maybe even build our own type of Hallway interaction or Slack integration that could just put our Kin touch on it…

We have this thing where we do meet the new hires. We were hoping that maybe we can do, every week, five of them sign up to be introducing yourself, talking to a group of people. People can jump into a hallway, jump out of a hallway, and really get to know your new kin, but there's so many different things that I would love to put another survey together, I know it’s another survey but it’s way for us to actually see and validate if people would like these additions or if Hallways is a really great option at this point.

TRISH:

When I was listening to Francesca say that, I was just really thinking about how J Schwan always says for people to find their passion. And it's really clear that this is your passion, Ahmad. And French say you're bringing out your passion, too. It's just cool. It's cool that you guys feel that passion, that you're so geared up about it. And actually, when you get into the hallway, it shows. Right? Everybody's just energy, is just cool.

SCOTT:

Yeah, absolutely. And I'd have to say, one of the things that ... It's more than just remote working. It's remote living. Right? This is not just our workplace that has been turned remote. Just, literally, almost every single aspect of our life has been turned remotely. And so it really just puts the pressure on our work relationships that it wouldn't if you were working remotely. So I don't know if anyone else has worked remotely, but I did it for about a year and a half, but it was nice I could go into the office when I wanted to. Right? I saw my remote teammates. Every six weeks, we'd get together, something like that. Right?

And again, once I left work, I was free to go interact with all my friends and family without impedance. And I think what's making it just difficult to deal with the lack of human contact in our workplace is that it's also been cut off, out of most other aspects of our lives, as well.

AHMAD:

It might be just a small, five-minute window of a hallway, but we are getting back some of that connection. And it is branching into other areas. People are like, "Hey, we're in this hallway. Let's go do this other meeting," or, "Let's go do this other thing or jump on a phone call rather than a Zoom."
And I feel like we're getting to these next evolutionary states of this and people are now taking it upon themselves to do those things, as well...
And before, to be honest with you, they weren't. I'd reach out to ... "Hey, let's do a ... " I don't know, " ... a movie. Let's watch a 10 minute, 15 minute of a movie, just so that we're on the same call, watching a movie together." And people were like, "I'm busy," or, "I can't do this. I can't do that," but now that they actually felt it for a minute or two, this connection in a hallway, now they're like, "Oh, let's grab coffee," or, "Let's go do this," or, "Let's go do that." And it's really feeding into that, which is pretty awesome to see.

FRENCHY:

I think that hits on something, Ahmad, that the power of these connections is not determined by the length of them or the ... even a fleeting 15-second, 30-second interaction can change your whole day. It can make you feel energized, it can make you feel connected to people and it doesn't have to be ... I think, before, were like these big, grandiose things, but the office, it's mundane things. It's walking to your next meeting, getting a glass of water, and riding the elevator. So it's just proving the power of just a small moment can really make a big difference.

AHMAD:

Oh, yeah. I was passing by Omar a year and a half ago by his computer and he was listening to Sum 41. I heard it and I was like, "Man, I haven't heard that song in a really long time," and I remembered that. And then, the other day, I was in a hallway and I see Omar is joining. I jumped onto YouTube, I pulled up Sum 41, I had it blasting. And as he joined, he was like, "Oh, yes. That's awesome. I needed that. I needed just that second of this music, rocking out." His day was full of busy meetings and he just heard a blast of Sum 41 and it just changed his mood for the rest of the night, which was awesome to hear and see.


SCOTT:

We confirmed later with Omar:

OMAR:

Does This Look Infected? is probably the best Sun 41 album of all time, the best of the entire sub genre.

Kinnect is an app that connects members at our firm based on their interests. It was inspired by some popular dating apps, where you put a little bit of information about yourself and then other people are able to like or match based on their interests.

Jorge Viramontes - Technical Consultant

(37:08) KINNECT

SCOTT:

Again fantastic job to the Fancy Meeting You Here team - including lots of other folks who you didn’t just hear from. Which is true of all three teams.

Alright, so far Office World showed us how to literally recreate the office into the digital world. Fancy Meeting You Here focused in on the unplanned, spontaneous moments with coworkers. We have one more team to showcase. They started with a different hypothesis: That the human connection we get from work is also about meeting NEW people and forming NEW connections. Which can feel nearly impossible when fully remote work means interactions are scheduled and 99% of the time work focused.

This is the KINNECT team. That’s K-I-N-N-E-C-T, like KIN + Carta, see they’re clever already.

I’ll let them explain what they came up with, but I love how they approached it, particularly with a member of our Buenos Aires team joining the fun. Let's meet the Kinnect team:

(37:58) Intros

JORGE:

Hey everyone. My name is Jorge Viramontes , technical consultant at Kin + Carta.

JULIE:

My name is Julie Putis. I am a product strategist here at Kin + Carta. On the team, I filled both roles, product and then scrum.

JOAN:

Well, my name is Joan Artigas. I've been working at Kin + Carta as a QA analyst for the past... almost two years now. In this case for the Kinnect initiative, I took the role of UX researcher and I've been enjoying it. Every part of it.

(38:47)What is Kinnect?

SCOTT:

All right. Cool. Jorge, since you're working on the product end maybe you can just tell us... help our audience understand what is Kinnect?

JORGE:

So, Kinnect is an app for us to be able to connect with other members at our firm that we may not be able to interact with based on similarities or similar interests. So essentially it was based on the idea of some popular dating apps, where you put a little bit of information about yourself and then other people are able to like or match with the things that you put and then basically creating a platform for people to interact with one another.

(39:26)Designing the Experience

SCOTT:

So, obviously you have a model in terms of something like a dating app of the structure. But, how did you go about sort of choosing what kinds of questions that you're going to ask people to determine compatibility or interest?

JULIE:

So we were looking at some of the silly polls that Praneet had put together and shares weekly with the team and there's so much that the Kin + Carta team is really engaged in those polls.

SCOTT:

Quick side note here, because Julie’s right. Praneet (who you heard earlier from the Office World team) sends weekly polls out to the company. And they’re outstanding. My personal favorites include: Which of the 12 days of Christmas gifts would be the WORST one to get? And Which type of freshly baked food item would be your weapon of choice in a fight? Okay, back to Julie.

JULIE:

So, we modelled a lot of questions off of those existing polls, looking at the ones that were probably a little bit more highly engaged. So those were some questions. We were looking at BuzzFeed. I was looking at BuzzFeed trying to get some inspiration as well as thinking about... I was writing some of these questions and it was taking me so long to think about really great questions and answers because I feel like the organization and structure of Kin + Carta, we have offices across multiple regions. We have team members of different demographics.

(40:57) Cross-Cultural Challenges

JULIE:

And so, we're trying to think about if I was taking this quiz and if someone else was taking this quiz and Joan was taking this quiz. Thinking about, is there a question? Is there a response for every question that everyone feels like they can associate with and rings true for them? That was really hard because of just the growth and the structure of the business and the organization today. So, that was a challenge, kind of brainstorming things like that and thinking holistically about how is this applicable to everyone.

SCOTT:

I mean, that's got to be challenging. We have a slack channel dedicated to nothing but misunderstandings between language and culture called Cricket Jack, based on the fact that in Buenos Aires when your car gets a flat, the device you use to lift up the car so you can change the tire is called a cricket and in the U.S and in the U.K, it's called the Jack, right. And so, I could just see even asking the same question. Again, I don't know how you work tire jack into a question, but people have no idea what you're talking about. So, Joan as a user researcher, how did you approach that problem? How did you try to find what questions you thought would help people? You'd even consider maybe we could look at locale and say, if I'm going to ask this one question for some person who's coming out of Buenos Aires versus a person who's coming out of the U.S but they may match if they have... we ask a different question, but it's driving towards the same personality.

JOAN:

It was one of the most challenging parts of the reading of the app. We actually decided to go with the first version of the app that is only in English because even when we have an office in a Spanish speaking country or in different countries, the people here communicate in English. Between Europe and the States maybe you could have some words that differ, but the language is at least between England and United States is the same. That brings some complications because some people from Argentina wasn't aware of some words that were maybe pretty common in English. So we think, we keep it simple with words. We use drawings or images. Do we limit the amount of answers? Do we allow them to pick from a list of answers? This was one of the most discussed and debated features.

JOAN:

Do we have skip button on to allow people to skip? And if we do, what if they skip all the questions? How are we going to match? That is something that we are still working on so far. We still haven't come with a right answer. But, yeah. We have several interviews with several people from all over the world. All the ages. All the levels of knowledge of English language, and the answers are so diverse. And it's so hard to give a universal answer for all of them. But, I wanted to show that we are working to have the best experience across the map so people can interact with each other without caring of where they are or who they are or how long they've been working in Kin + Carta.

JOAN:

One of the things of the key pillars I kept during the whole research is, I am trying to find a way that this app is as inclusive and diverse as possible because I think this is one of the course of idea of what we were drivers as a B Corp for the last year. I think that's the way to go and what we should have as a North Star during this development.

SCOTT:

Yeah, I think that's great. Did that come through in the testing? Were you able to get a diverse group of testers to sort of validate your assumptions?

JOAN:

I think that was the most fun part of this. At first, I was really skeptical of how people will sign up to be the subject to try this. So, without any hope I sent an invite. I need to get four or five people to answer, and I got over 25 responses from the U.K, the States, Argentina. I had to pick who will be the better combination of people to have the most diverse range within the less amount of interviews. So I performed about seven of them. We found that even so, we have a pretty diverse pool of users. Some answers were unanimous.

(44:47) Connections One Question At a Time

SCOTT:

Great. Thanks. And so, maybe to also help us understand a little bit about how we're looking at things. This is, Jorge or Julie jumping on this one was, what are some examples of some of the questions that you asked?

JULIE:

The question I feel that was probably one of my favorite was... I think it was a... Which is your favorite Harry? Was the question. And so, I was thinking about the options and I think it was Harry styles, Harry Kane who's a professional soccer... football player, Prince Harry was one option. I can't remember the fourth. But I thought that, that was cool.

JOAN:

Harry Potter.

JULIE:

That was it. That was it.

JOAN:

Harry Potter and was answered unanimously by all the users. They all be picked Harry Porter.

JORGE:

Obviously. That was the number one answer.

JULIE:

I love that. See, that one I feel like I just grabbed. I was like, "Okay, our fictional character." But that was one of my favorite questions because I feel like it really touched on the personality at the firm and I think it was silly and light hearted, but I also feel like you can really have a conversation off of that. If you were somebody that answered that Harry styles was your favorite Harry, it's like, okay. So maybe you like pop genre music, like….. Have you listened to his latest release singles? Let's talk about Watermelon crush. Let's talk about his music.

SCOTT:

I love how this group tapped into this , and it’s become a common theme we’ve throughout each team...it’s the little things. Particularly as people within the company started using it, it became really clear that yes a brief conversation about why Harry Styles might be a genius, with someone you otherwise might not have met within the company, can do remarkable things for morale. It helps fill up the part of our brains that needs that sense of belonging and shared experience. The conversations can happen naturally, they just need the right nudge.

Something else that really struck me in our conversation with the Kinnect team, was that there’s so much you can only learn through DOING. They uncovered so many critical questions - like the cross-cultural questions, through extensive scenario planning, user journey mapping, which made them continuously have to prioritize what they did next, just like a client project. Here’s Jorge walking us through what that looked like:

JORGE:

So at the beginning, there was a huge effort from the technical side to get a lot of the firebase infrastructure in place to get some of the backends we chose the GraphQL. We chose all of these different... and we created these architecture diagrams, which are great and they're necessary.

JORGE:

And at the same time, given the timeframe that we have for ourselves, we started to pivot and say, "Well, it's really more important for us right now to make sure that..." Lauren, she did a great job on the design work to have some great designs that show the prototype. And so that Joan can then use that for validation research...There are lots of questions that we didn't really think of. Well, if somebody skips all of the questions, how can we match them to anything? So, figuring out those and just being able to prioritize to understand what we should be focusing on first, that definitely changed throughout the months.

SCOTT:

Have you thought through also, what if nobody matches anybody, right? I'm the one guy who picks Harry styles, everyone else picks Harry Potter. Clearly, I don't belong. So, what is it just like, maybe you should go somewhere else for friendship?

JORGE:

Yeah. I think that what we said was you'll be ranked with everyone. So, we started with a very small user base, but let's say there were 10 people, if you literally matched zero across the board. Well, hey look, here's 10 other people on this platform, but then the more questions that you answered the higher up the ranking algorithm would put them with your interests. Probably wouldn't scale if we're trying to be the next dating app, but.

SCOTT:

Okay I feel better about not being a digital black sheep. Again the effort to make this real, even as a prototype, is extraordinary. Can you speak to what the experience has been like? To dive into this type of challenge, outside of work hours, to solve a problem so many people are experiencing right now?

JULIE:

So for me, it was nice to kind of, after working an eight hour workday to kind of put work aside and just connect and see friends on the team. So for me, I felt like I was getting connection out of this experience and I felt like that plus our Wednesday check-in where Joan was always in attendance. We could see his face too, just given the time difference I really enjoy just seeing people and having fun with the Zoom versus like Zoom fatigue, which is very, very real experience and something that I think for me personally, I was struggling with throughout this remote work world.

JOAN:

I can't lose sight the fact of being able and given the opportunity to learn a new skill and work on that in an internal project was amazing. People were really open to help and give me a hand whenever I needed and I think that allowed me to do a pretty good job. So it was my first time doing this for a project, but what I like the most is being able to work with a team that I never worked before with either of them, with none of them I didn't work before.

JORGE:

This opportunity, it was just an opportunity to flex a different muscle, like flexing different muscles in our brains. Obviously I've been writing code for so long and it could have been, "Oh, okay. This is a different project to code," which is fine, but it was more so, "Okay. We have this idea, we have this problem. People are not being able to connect with each other. How can we solve it? What do people want? What don't people want? How much time do we have? How much time do people have to contribute?" Flexing those different muscles that I wouldn't regularly flex on a client engagement. It was super cool and yeah, it was a great investment of having some good times with some new and old friends.

Just yesterday at our quarterly, oh my gosh. I almost shed a tear from the background music and just seeing that I think a lot of people really responded positively to at least the intent behind the project and if we're able to continue to stir up excitement, I think that people will definitely be open to learning more, engaging with it. So the excitement that comes from us, the people who are leading it is just as important as the product that we're making.

JOAN:

I was going to say, I agree with what Jorge just said. I was also very, very happy on the acceptance and the receiving we have during this quarterly because we invested a lot emotionally in this app because it was so fun to work it and we work on it because we want to. It wasn't something we were forced to. We believe in this project.

JULIE:

Truly the reason why I joined this project was because of the idea and the theme and the importance around connection. When I was 18, freshman in college, I heard someone mention that the purpose of life was all about building relationships and connecting with others and it rocked my world to hear that and for me it really resonated like, "You're absolutely right." I feel like when I was thinking a lot about the purpose of life pre-college before that experience, it was like, "To be happy find joy," and everything that I was saying was like, "That's true," but it just kind of fell flat, felt really 2D and when I heard that in passing, I remember the day. I remember it was sunny where I was. I stopped in my tracks and I was like, "No one's ever told me that no one's ever formed that, that in my head," and I felt like for me, it really started to kick things off with like, "That's important to me."

I don't want to be remembered, and I think everyone here, like I can't speak actually for everyone, but I don't want to be remembered so much for the things that I do, but for the way I make people feel and I think that that directly translates into your relationships with others and the connections that you have and so it kind of just really started my focus. It shifted my focus on what was really important, which was the people around me and how I can lift them up and make them feel. So for me, that's true. I said this months ago, but that was the reason why.

SCOTT:

That's great. That's really great, Julie. I love that.

JORGE:

Well said, Julie.

Truly the reason why I joined this project was because of the idea and the theme and the importance of connection.

Julie Putis - Scrum Master & Product Consultant

(53:20) Closing Thoughts

SCOTT:

Well said Julie indeed.

Each one of these teams was given the challenge to help reconnect and revitalize relationships within the company. And as we hope you’ve gotten a sense of....they absolutely succeeded. Not only did they build real, viable experiences...but what QUICKLY became clear: The project itself WAS accomplishing the task. People rallied together, and as they brainstormed ways to feel connected to one another, they became better connected to one another.

We wanted to make this episode because we’re clearly still overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, and we know we’re not alone in feeling the effects of unprecedented remote work. So if the stories you just heard resonate with you, honestly if you’re still listening to me by this point it seems SOMETHING has resonated.

Or you fell asleep a long time ago and I’m currently talking to your floor.

Either way. If you’re a manager or leader of any kind, and if you have creative people on your team, not necessarily people with creative in their job description, but people who love to solve problems, build things, test ideas, play with solutions....unleash them on it. See what people come up with. At the very least, the pursuit of what’s possible is often reward enough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a virtual conga line that’s calling my name.

That’s our episode. Which means that’s a wrap on Season 1 of Working Better! Thank you for listening and engaging with us - it’s been a heck of an experiment itself. Thank you for letting me crawl out of the internet and into your ear. I have had a blast and I learned a lot. I hope you have too.

If you have feedback, ideas , questions about the NEXT season of Working Better - we want to hear from you! Reach out to us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn. Or if you don’t want to continue to support the Social Media Industrial Complex, all you have to do is jot your ideas down on a piece of paper, step outside and then light the paper on fire. The smoke will carry your thoughts to us.

If you liked the show remember to subscribe and give us a bajillion star review on your podcast dispenser of choice.

Thank you to the team that continues to make this possible.

Chris Mitchell is our sound engineer.

Belen Battisti is our production coordinator.

Maxx Parcell is our writer, producer and editor.

Katie Pooler is our Pooler.