Job Title: Director, Information Design & Architecture
Take us through a brief overview of your remote workday
Today was a fairly typical day — I spent an hour designing wireframes and high-fidelity mockups for an emergency management dashboard to be used by a government agency. I then met with the product team developing a payroll leakage detection app to finalize user stories, followed by a sales meeting to identify the remaining actions required for a proposal we're presenting to a client tomorrow. Then, back to the product team for a user story writing session, followed by our daily standup meeting for the latest design sprint. A couple of hours revising the previously-mentioned proposal, followed by a design operations meeting and finally a mandatory training session for a new pricing and engagement management tool. Finally, back to writing the sales proposal for the remainder of the day.
Most of this activity occurred over Google Meet or Microsoft Teams. Otherwise, it wasn’t much different from my pre-COVID days in the office! Except the coffee I make at home is much better than office coffee...
What are you currently working on from home?
Unfortunately, our client and engagement list is highly classified, so I can’t go into many details. I’m usually working on multiple engagements (the term consulting firms use for projects) at any one time — unfortunately, at my level I no longer get to do a lot of design! Most of my time is spent providing high-level design direction, managing large design engagements and pursuing new business opportunities. I also develop the information architecture for almost all our design engagements, which involves designing and organizing information functionality, hierarchy and content into systems and structures which facilitate the efficient management of information.
One of the more interesting things I’ve worked on recently is the complete redesign of the information architecture for the website of a major Canadian telecom provider. The client's design team were great and really knew their stuff — they just didn’t have the time to work on such a high-level strategic initiative given all their other duties and obligations. We were, however, able to draw on their subject-matter expertise, user research and client knowledge and in a few short weeks redesigned and tested an improved site information architecture resulting in a significant overall lift in successful customer searches and sales, particularly in the area of product bundling.
Have you found any helpful tactics or strategies for staying focused and productive?
I try to take frequent breaks throughout the day and block out time on my calendar to ensure no one books me into meetings for those times. Regular exercise is important for maintaining focus — I have a rowing machine that I use frequently, plus I do a lot of bodyweight exercises, to make up for the regular visits I used to make to the gym.
How do you combat feelings of isolation or disconnect from your team?
Not much has really changed in terms of how my team operates. I tend to meet with my team via Google Meet several times a day and this often includes lengthier (though no more than 90 minutes) design working sessions. In some ways, this is easier than when we went to a physical office space — we’re no longer searching for vacant team rooms or private spaces to make phone calls. In the pre-COVID days, someone from the team was always working remotely, so we were using Google Meet extensively even at that time.
How are you approaching working from home while your partner/family/roommates etc. are also home?
That would depend partly on where I’m located. My partner and I rent an apartment in Cabbagetown, in downtown Toronto and also own a house in Stratford. We were renting out our house to the Stratford Festival, but since the season was cancelled, we got the house back earlier than expected. At the moment, we’re primarily living and working in Stratford, with occasional trips back to Toronto.
Fortunately, we have sufficient room in both our places that we can each be working in completely separate locations. In Toronto, my partner tends to work in the home office and I work either at the dining room table or the kitchen island. In Stratford, we have more room — one of us works in the ground-floor office, while the other works in the second floor office/spare room. Both have a lot of light, so each is a very pleasant working space. We tend to exchange offices a lot, because the only large screen is in the ground-floor office.
The main office
The upstairs office
Have you discovered any advantages or disadvantages to working from home? If so, what are they?
The biggest advantage — sleeping in! Also, my partner and I can have more elaborate lunches since we don’t have to transport them to the office. At the start of the lockdown, my partner and I would go on walks every day and we’ve managed to keep this up. Our Stratford house is only a couple of blocks from the river, which makes our daily riverside walks particularly pleasant. Not too many people get to stroll against a backdrop of swans!
The downside to working from home is the tendency for the work day to extend far beyond normal work hours. To address this, we’ve developed a custom in which we “meet for a drink” at the end of each day — whether this is on the front porch in warm weather, or the kitchen breakfast bar in winter. The purpose is to create a formal end to the work day, after which we are officially “home”.
Do you have a favourite playlist or podcast that you’ve been listening to while working from home?
Normally, my musical tastes lean towards punk, post-punk and Detroit techno — however, these genres aren’t exactly conducive to productivity. When working, I listen to a lot of jazz (Miles Davis and John Coltrane are particular favourites), plus more serious contemporary classical works, particularly of the minimalist variety (Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, etc). I also find ambient electronic music good for creative work. I often let the Spotify algorithm do its work and listen to whatever comes up!
There are a few podcasts I listen to regularly, almost all of which are data related: The Cradle of Analytics, by my friend and former PwC colleague Neil Hepburn; Data Stories, with Enrico Bertini and Moritz Stefaner; and Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s Storytelling with Data. I generally don’t do this while working, however — I need to give the content my undivided attention. It’s more of a thing I do on breaks or after work.
Though seemingly contradictory, social distancing and community are intertwined. Do you have any thoughts or insights you’d like to share with other designers during this time? We’re all in this together.
It’s my belief that this is the “new normal” — I don’t see returning to the office any time soon, if ever. Consulting has always been set up to function in a mobile environment — we’re often working from client sites or in hotel rooms and I used to work a couple of days from home nearly every week. But COVID has shown us that we can run a successful global consulting operation entirely remotely. This will be a game changer to the next generation of designers, as it will now be possible to work at the job of your dreams even if the company’s headquarters is in another part of the world.
My advice to other designers in these COVID times is to stay involved with the design community. We now have the technology to extend our circles of influence throughout the world. The opportunities for meetups, talks, webinars and continuous learning are endless — make sure you take full advantage of them. This of course includes the many webinars and other events hosted by the RGD!
Above all, stay in regular contact with your friends and family. I’m fortunate in that I share my space and life with my partner, so I’m never really alone. Many of our friends, however, ARE living alone. Reach out to them. Some day, this will all be over. Our grandparents went through the same thing a century ago with Spanish influenza and their society survived and went on to do great things. So will we.
Chris is the Information Design, Data Visualization & Information Architecture competency leader at multinational accounting, consulting and professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. His team uses information design, data visualization and structured typography best practices to interpret data, develop focused solutions and communicate key messages on behalf of corporate, institutional and government clients. Chris also functions as PwC's Accessibility Lead, ensuring compliance with AODA and WCAG regulations, guidelines and best practices. Outside of PwC, Chris is a sessional instructor at OCAD University, where he teaches Data Analytics & Visualization, as well as Wayfinding & Information Systems.
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