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Going Remote, But Not Too Distant (Or, Conducting Fully Remote Work When You'd Normally Go Visit)

Physical distancing because of COVID-19 has challenged our team with perhaps the most urgent question for us: how can some of our more high-touch processes translate remotely?

By Curt Kotula

Category Work Culture

Date Published May 04, 2020

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Physical distancing because of COVID-19 has challenged our team with perhaps the most urgent question for us: how can some of our more high-touch processes translate remotely?

Like many teams, Fastspot had to transition to being fully remote almost overnight. Our pre-existing flexible work-from-home policy and years of experience collaborating with our few permanently remote-working employees meant we didn’t have to start from scratch. Still, many of us— me included—are feeling the effects of isolation. We didn’t choose to be a distributed team, but due to years of communicating with remote tools we are already quite good at it.

This flipped format, in which most of our interactions happen online rather than the other way around, is a bigger change to some of our entrenched methods, but we have already found benefits to working in this new paradigm.

Let's walk through the milestones in our process that have traditionally relied on in-person engagement.


The majority of our large project engagements involve on-premise discovery meetings. They are a multi-day intensive that in many ways kick the project into full gear. Within a very customized agenda there are usually some combination of stakeholder interviews, audience focus groups, workshops with the core team, leadership onboarding, tours, and meals together.

A lot is accomplished throughout a multi-day agenda that is customized for each client. We learn a lot in a short period. The client learns a lot about working with us. Members of the organization have an opportunity to give input. Collaborative work begins on select foundational recommendations. And a mutual understanding and camaraderie develop between our teams, the importance of which can't be overstated. Our large projects are long and complicated engagements. A good working relationship goes a long way.

One overarching benefit of conducting remote discovery is scheduling flexibility. Without the need to fit everything into consecutive time slots within a set number of days the whole agenda is less harried.

Stakeholder working groups and interviews can be conducted quite successfully over video chat with subtle shifts to the maximum number of attendees. In our experience, the sweet spot is 6-9 attendees. The aforementioned scheduling flexibility means we can conduct a few more meetings, which makes the feedback we receive more inclusive.

There is a bit more nuance in conducting remote audience focus groups. They can be harder to facilitate for two reasons. It's harder to incentivize attendance without making pizza and snacks available, and we need more sessions to accommodate smaller groups that can operate in a conversational way.

We conduct several different workshops but have developed excellent software-assisted remote versions of each. Some of them, like our design workshop, work better with screen sharing technology than they do when everyone is gathered around a projector. There are great digital whiteboarding and card sorting applications, as well as document projectors when sketching by hand. Oftentimes access to collaborative software, can more than make up for the digital divide.

Tours were the first experiences we feared missing. We value the tours we get to take, whether it's a campus tour conducted by student ambassadors, or a behind-the-scenes look into a cultural destination. It's nice to tangibly experience a location. There's just no digital analog for presence. But, beyond experience, it’s the stories we hear while on tours that make more impact in our findings. Stories are everything.

Storytelling helps us to understand an organization, and often reveals vital areas of distinction and topics overlooked in interviews and discussions. Stories also come out in serendipitous moments when we’re one-on-one, in person but also online. Remote discovery puts an added responsibility on us to make even more room for storytelling to account for what often happens organically in person. We are developing a new workshop to make sure these stories get told.


Over the last four years, we have seen a steep drop in in-person presentations of design and strategy recommendations. We still present in-person on occasion, when the situation requires or it's a strongly held preference, but it's actually much more common for us to present work remotely these days, saving time that is reinvested into the project. We have demonstrated that there is no discernable drop off in success and presenting remotely is not a barrier to gaining organizational buy-in.


We conduct several different training sessions on topics ranging from content development to CMS development. In terms of structure, our training sessions share a lot in common with our discovery workshops. Ensuring they are successful as remote sessions require the same limiting of group size and openness to conducting multiple smaller sessions. A unique challenge is the specificity of the training curricula; they are less exploratory and more detailed and tactical. We find it incredibly helpful to share materials beforehand and even assign a small amount of pre-work to ensure the whole group can hit the ground running.

Bonus Round: Business Development

Typically the woo-phase of signing a new client culminates in an in-person presentation. We are usually allotted two hours to present to a committee and answer questions. Even before COVID-19, we had been experiencing a trend of more and more remote presentation requests. We developed a confidence in Zoom presentations even before this month when we have pitched several clients remotely via the all-too-familiar Zoom Grid. It has been a pleasant surprise that the Question and Answer portion works so well in Zoom, perhaps better than it did in person as it is possible to see and pay attention to individuals more closely than usually happens in cavernous meeting spaces.

Making it Work

Whether an activity works remotely often comes down to determining whether technology increases or decreases clarity and adjusting accordingly.

Workshops conducted remotely bring participants closer to powerful tools for collaboration and can broaden the possibilities for input. Organic discussions and focus groups limitations on group size and clear agendas can be every bit as successful as in-person versions.

If social isolation has created a barrier to interpersonal contact, how must we adapt to sustain a richness of experience necessary to our success? Working relationships are incredibly important, and we are figuring that out together.