October 10, 2021 Remote, office, hybrid: what we learned about co-creation

Judith Janz and Markus Meißner reflect on how co-creation has changed as a result of virtual opportunities.

Judith Janz and Markus Meißner, both senior experience designers and enterprise design thinking coaches at IBM iX in Berlin, worked mostly from home during the pandemic. Now they are returning to the agency more frequently, and reflect on how co-creation has changed as a result of virtual opportunities.

As designers, during the pandemic we found ways of transfering almost everything we did in person to digital. In the process, we've observed and learned a lot and rethought our guidelines 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 toolkits are now very well stocked. So, what do we need to look out for in the future when it comes to co-creation?


Continuous co-creation instead of one-off 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: instead there is more frequent creative collaboration that takes, for example, the form of multiple 2-4 hour sessions spread out over a longer period of time. This model is both more flexible for responding to new insights and, in our experience, leads to more detailed and thought-out results.

In addition to direct teamwork, however, user-centred thinking also requires periods of intense focus. Between co-creation sessions, we give participants space to organise their thoughts and work in their individual flow without distractions or time pressure. In a Design Sprint with morning group sessions, participants can prepare in advance for the next session either directly afterwards or in the morning, 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

Through many personal conversations, we've heard 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 more often again in person 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 background technical hiccups like providing equipment, granting access to tools and re-sharing materials that may have been lost. It also includes increasing the visibility of remote participants in order to democratise discussions and decision-making, motivating people to speak their thoughts aloud, reading out comments from the chat, and detecting moods and emotions 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, for example from their studies.


Keeping pace with technical developments

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

In the past, as part of our consulting and technology expertise, we usually provided the toolkits and empowered all participants. Now, companies have invested in their own toolkits and expect us to be the ones to adapt (including to any unforeseen technical quirks). Facilitators and designers need to keep an eye on the tool market and technical developments, and be prepared to master the occasional spontaneous bizarre 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. As designers, we need to realise that the world has fundamentally changed in the last 18 months. 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 can trust second-hand information even less: a manager can probably only tell us a little bit about his or her employees and customers, as contact with them and insight into their work, habits, and challenges are likely to have lessened recently. 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 working from home, digital whiteboards kept our creative collaboration alive, 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, the digital documentation of results allows us to continue working seamlessly: to rearrange, export, cross-link and duplicate results. How can we bring this back to analogue workshops? Here's where we hope to find new solutions for instant translation between digital and analogue 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 and live by the motto "everything is a prototype", using whatever the desk, the kitchen or 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 necessary to engage all participants with haptic experiences.


Winds of change through new challenges

In the past we occasionally 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 months of the pandemic. Yes, virtual and face-to-face creative work with partners, clients and colleagues from all over the world needs to be reconciled. At the same time however, we are looking forward to a 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.


*This article was first published on PAGE Online in German language.


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