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In a very short space of time, COVID-19 seems to have fundamentally shifted everyone’s workplace, routine, habits and working practices. Modern Human has been a distributed team since inception, which means that our culture and practices were designed for remote working and the current measures have taken us less adjustment than many. What’s been interesting to us in these past few weeks is the culture and rituals around remote working for other organisations.

We’re seeing many of our clients trying to translate the office-based rituals they’re accustomed to into remote versions of the same thing, with varying degrees of success. Teams are having to figure out new ways of working remotely. What will be most interesting is the impact the current changes will have on the workspace people need when they return to the office. What rituals, cultures and practices will have self-seeded while everyone has been collaborating remotely? Just as people are currently figuring out their new normal, the old normal may feel very strange indeed when we can once again work together in-person.

Although the point at which ‘this will be all over’ is not known, it seems inevitable that the impact on workplace practices, rituals and culture will be as great as Europe saw in the 1950s and 1960s. The modern workplace may never be the same again.

— Chloe


My daughter studied the Great Fire of London not long ago. One of the facts she learnt was that the Great Fire of London halted the spread of the plague. After home-school last week, she asked if we could use the information about the plague to help us fight Coronavirus. We explained that some things, like hand washing and social distancing are things we’ve learnt from previous outbreaks of disease, but that the plague and coronavirus are different. This striking visualisation from Visual Capitalist puts our current pandemic into perspective. Despite an increasing and more mobile global population, advances in medical science are helping to keep outbreaks on the scale of the Black Death, Smallpox and Spanish Flu at bay.

During a project with Ordnance Survey, we were fortunate enough to speak to an epidemiologist using geographical information systems to look at the spread of infectious diseases. This area of epidemiology is fascinating. It includes wrangling with complex data sets, as well as relying on social sciences, like psychology, sociology and economics. The Epidemic Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP) is a partnership between the Institute of Development Studies and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They’re using Social Sciences to look at outbreaks of disease.

ERAP have produced some insightful and useful briefings, including one about online information, mis- and disinformation in the context of COVID-19. The briefing talks about the ‘Infodemic’ of content circulating on social media; some of it factual, some of it incomplete or biased, as well as humorous content and plain old wrong information. We noticed parallels between the circulation of information in a public health emergency and our recent project about information consumption during Elections. It seems that for both public health emergency communications and election communications, a message first of all needs to align to people’s pre-held beliefs in order to impact them effectively. They’re then more inclined to read it and check the source. But if it’s delivered by a source that they already trust, the message is taken onboard almost instantly. It seems WHO are fighting an infodemic as much as they’re fighting a pandemic.

We’re all a bit graphed-out, but the best data visualisation we’ve seen is by John Burn-Murdoch for the Financial Times. In this video he explains his use of logarithmic scales and how displaying cases of coronavirus in linear scale would not allow us to see if countries were on a similar trajectory. As Burn-Murdoch concludes in this twitter thread, “A chart should convey a message and allow people to answer useful, real-world questions about real-world phenomena”. We think this applies to findings and recommendations from design research, as much as it does to charts and graphs.


In this thoughtful piece by Derek Thomson for The Atlantic, an argument for and against remote working is made, pitting loneliness and a perceived hindrance to creativity (more on that later) against the ecological and social benefits of working from home. He concludes that the current pandemic is “a moment for companies to build out the kind of technology and culture that…could make remote work easier for those who want to take advantage of it.”

Even areas of work that have traditionally been the reserve of ‘in-person’ have moved in the space of a few weeks to remote working practices, such as GPs switching to digital consultations. This has the potential to be a real game changer. When this is all over, what might this mean for GP consultations? Might we see better infrastructure and processes in place for GPs to carry out certain consultations remotely, perhaps in combination with health tracking data from Fitbits, Apple watches and the like?

One of the criticisms of working remotely we often hear, and saw earlier in The Atlantic article, is that remote working hinders creativity. We couldn’t disagree more on this point. Generating ideas is often thought of as needing in-person collaboration. We’ve found this simply isn’t true. Part of the problem is that brainstorming has become the default idea generation technique, and in most cases is a ridiculous way of solving complex problems. As this delightful illustration from the Oatmeal explores, ‘There are only Bad Ideas in Brainstorming’. It’s academically proven that people produce fewer and poorer ideas during traditional brainstorming than when developing ideas independently. This article from Inc explores why. Perhaps rather than stifling creativity, this period of social distancing will be followed by a surge in new ideas and thinking.

Studio notes

This month, we concluded a fascinating project for BBC Sounds where we examined people’s podcast consumption, including their podcast listening habits, how they chose podcasts, their preferences for podcasting Apps and the reasons why. We examined how podcasts were arranged for searching, browsing, following series and identifying new episodes. We also looked at how different types of content such as spoken word, music, fiction are represented visually.

Meanwhile, we’ve started work on designing the end-user and systems integrator interfaces for an exciting new technology product that uses AI to recognise objects within spaces. The product has some exciting potential uses including, topically, the use of hand sanitiser in hospitals or desk occupancy within shared working spaces. The term ontology has been overheard many times as they have been working out the correct nomenclature to help make complex interactions intuitive. PJH took our brain trust through the philosophy of the language chosen in rationale to stiff critique.

Last week, Nina presented at UX Crunch to over 500 people around the world in their first ever remote only event. In her talk, she argued that there is no such thing as neutral choice architecture and urged designers to make thoughtful design decisions that help people make better choices. You should listen to her talk: Architecting Choices by Nina Belk.

Finally, we’ve been working hard on 3 seminars to share how we do research remotely, how we design at a distance and how we’ve built a culture that values trust and working openly. If you’re interested in hearing more or attending, you can sign-up here.

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