We have created a framework for mapping design maturity here at Clearleft, it has five key areas: impact, purpose, trust, empathy, and collaboration.

We invited a discussion on these core areas between Andy Thornton and Jon Aizlewood from Clearleft, plus special guests Andrea Ong, director of product design at Loopio now but formerly at Loblaw Digital, Robert Fransgaard, head of experience design at H&M Group, and Michelle Morrison, head of design operations at Dropbox.

A template from our Design Maturity Assessment we use with clients

Andy kicked things off by asking the group of these five factors for design maturity, how may they have shifted over the course of the last year with the disruption of the pandemic.

Talking to new starters at Loblaw Digital, Andrea found that the company has actually managed to keep a sense of collaboration intact. A lot of that is down to everyone very intentionally staying connected, especially in Slack. Interestingly, a lot of people connected through pets, for example. Andrea believes that the old way of thinking about keeping work life and home life separated no longer works. Michelle described the big shift that took place at Dropbox. Before the pandemic, the culture there was centred on in-person interactions in their lovely offices. They’ve had to shift their culture quite a bit. Again, Slack really helped.

Andy brought up the subject of empathy. Usually, we talk about having empathy for our users, but the pandemic has really made everyone think about empathy for the people we work with. Perhaps we’re all treating one another as human beings first and foremost rather than as resources. Andrea pointed out that the distancing effect of having everything mediated through a screen can actually mitigate the rawness of some tough interactions for some people. Michelle described how well-being has been a core feature of Dropbox’s strategy during the pandemic. Crucially, the leaders there were very open and demonstrated empathy. Robert emphasised the importance of that kind of behaviour modelling. It’s not enough for the company leadership to say that people can work in a certain way, they must also demonstrate it themselves.

The group wondered whether the pandemic has been something of a leveller in terms of impact. Robert mentioned that the pandemic was actually somewhat useful for getting people at H&M used to remote work—something they had already started trying to do. Whereas before perhaps the designers in the central office had more visibility, now everyone, regardless of location, was able to contribute equally. Jon agreed that the pandemic has been like a forcing function for digital transformation in many organisations.

The question of trust also came up. But interestingly, most people felt that the issue wasn’t around whether the leadership trusted their employees to work effectively from home. It was more about whether the employees trusted that the leadership would value remote work. As Robert put it, “Do I trust my manager to trust me?” Michelle talked about trust manifesting itself in calendars. People need to feel that they can put blocks of their domestic life into their work calendars. Above all, communication is key to establishing and maintaining trust. That was true before the pandemic, but it’s even more important when people are working remotely.

All the panellists agreed that in terms of collaboration there needs to a balance between asynchronous work and synchronous communication. You need to be able get your head down and really dig into something, but you also need to come up for air and check in with your team. Before the pandemic, the heads-down work was often hard to do, especially in an open-plan office. But you’d also get plenty of communication at the water cooler. Remote work favours alone time, but you really have to work at trying to get those water-cooler moments.

Everyone recognised that time tracking effectively went out the window during the pandemic, and that’s not a bad thing. After all, it’s the outcomes that matter, not the hours spent sitting at a desk. Michelle described this as a shift from busy-ness to impact.

Thank you so much to our paneliists. You can watch the full panel here.