Community-Accountable Design


Care-based approaches to remote work

As we write this, cases of COVID-19 are increasing exponentially in many places around the world. In response, organizations, schools, and businesses are closing down their physical offices and urging staff to find ways to work from home to minimize the risk of exposure. Early this week, our team met to reflect on what we’ve learned about prioritizing care, accessibility, and our humanity while trying to create beautiful work in a remote context.

And Also Too formed in Toronto, Canada around 2013, but over the course of the last five years has evolved into a fully remote studio with members based in Toronto, Montreal, and Vermont. The transition to remote work has been bumpy and we continue to learn how to maintain a real practice through virtual means.

We’ve gathered our favourite practices here and hope that they’ll help others create remote workspaces based in care. A quick summary of what lies ahead:

  1. Morning check-ins provide a ritualized space to connect with and support each other.
  2. Digital safety: practice consent and resist surveillance.
  3. Create humane accountability systems.
  4. Create support systems for wellness.
  5. Create opportunities for social interaction.
  6. Practice patience, grace, flexibility, and curiosity.
  7. Think deeply about disability and accessibility.

1. Morning check-ins provide a ritualized space to connect with and support each other.

These happen at the beginning of each workday, and provide us with a ritualized space for all the other practices below. Morning check-ins happen on video chat (and phone if someone doesn’t have internet access), and follow a strict agenda:

  1. Personal check-ins — a moment to share anything that folks feel comfortable with. Anything from the weather, to news about children or family, to updates about one’s health and wellness.
  2. Major updates — any changes to a project or news that will affect other team members. This keeps information flowing to those that need it.
  3. Today’s priorities — this provides high-level insight into what’s happening in the studio, and can also reveal whether someone has too much on their plate.
  4. Blockages — anything that is preventing someone from completing a task, and who they need support from to get unblocked.

Before we implemented these check-ins a few years ago, important information wasn’t being shared in a timely fashion, and it was also difficult to know whether someone was struggling, experiencing pain, or feeling overworked. This daily ritual reconnects us as a team and enables us to move forward with purpose and support.

2. Digital safety: practice consent and resist surveillance.

There are now a plethora of digital collaboration tools for remote teams — we’ve listed the ones we use at the bottom of this post. Unfortunately, very few of these tools are designed around privacy and consent; in fact, many have surveillance mechanisms built in as feature offerings. Slack, the popular workplace messaging app, allows account owners to snoop on employees’ private conversations. Google, which offers a robust suite of collaboration tools, has built its business model on mass surveillance.

Moving fully or partially to online work exposes people to risks they may not be aware of or have a choice about. When deciding whether to continue to use a tool or adopt a new one, we assess the risks and benefits and make a consensus decision. Questions we ask ourselves when considering a new tool include:

  • Is it easy to learn and use?
  • Will it improve collaboration?
  • What is the price?
  • What are the risks? This can be assessed by reading through the privacy policy and terms & conditions, as well as researching the company.
  • What risks do we have the power to mitigate?

Risk mitigation can look like:

  • Training on digital safety and privacy
  • Committing to not using surveillance features
  • Avoiding storing sensitive data on non-private cloud services
  • Staying aware that certain platforms can be used for surveillance and manipulation

Here are our recommended resources on digital safety and consent:

Consentful Tech Project
Digital Defense Playbook by Our Data Bodies
Digital Security resources from Equality Labs

3. Create humane accountability systems.

Moving from a shared physical space to remote work can create concerns about accountability. Management and leadership might be asking, “how do we know everyone is actually working?” On the flip side, workers might be asking, “how can I prove that I’m actually working?”

We find that our morning check-ins, along with using a collaborative project management platform, addresses both concerns. More importantly, we resist micromanagement, which is toxic to all workspaces, physical and digital. Instead, we move with trust and a sense of interdependence —  when everyone knows that they are trusted and that their role is vital to the work the studio is doing, it results in better work.

For leadership, when designing an accountability system that works for your organization, lean into trusting that you’ve hired the best people, and lean away from mechanisms that are based in or instill fear and anxiety.

4. Create support systems for wellness.

Sharing physical space conveys a lot of information. You can know, just from sitting next to someone, that they are exhausted, overworked, or having a hard time. In a remote context, this information evaporates without intentional ways to share it.

These systems begin with leadership communicating to the team that wellness is indeed a priority, and that people will be supported rather than penalized if they disclose an issue. Without reiterating this and backing it up with action, people will be hesitant to speak up.

Our morning check-ins provide daily opportunities to inquire about and share updates on our wellness. If we don’t share that we’re struggling, it’s nearly impossible for others to know. Of course, it’s crucial to respect boundaries and not push people to disclose private matters if they prefer not to. What’s important is creating an environment where support is genuinely offered so people can ask for it when they need it.

5. Create opportunities for social interaction.

Remote work can be isolating — even more so in this time of social distancing and self quarantine. For the last few years, we have built casual catch-ups into our morning check-ins. Starting our days with human connection, laughter, and even hard news grounds us.

In the past, we have tried eating lunch together over video chat, scheduling a weekly tea time, and have also floated the idea of playing online games together (which we’ll probably get back to investigating now). The format is much less important than creating time for people to interact as humans and not just workers.

6. Practice patience, grace, flexibility, and curiosity.

Even though large portions of our lives seem to be unfolding more and more in the digital realm, remote work is still quite new and, tbh, can be awkward. People will have different levels of familiarity with the tools, varying Internet connection speeds and reliability, and (especially now) may be juggling work and caregiving responsibilities.

Practicing patience, grace, and flexibility in the face of digital hiccups and frustrations has gone a long way for us. Staying curious about how these new systems are working (or not working) for everyone has allowed us to continue iterating on them.

7. Think deeply about disability and accessibility.

Online work brings up a number of issues related to disability and accessibility. Digital tools are often designed with the so-called “average user” in mind rather than accessible and diverse user experiences. It is also harder to know how those with disabilities and chronic illness or pain are experiencing their work lives.

We have learned to ask ourselves and each other about our access needs and have adapted our systems accordingly. Spreadsheets, for instance, are very hard for some of us to read and provide feedback on, so instead of struggling through them alone, we’ll often schedule a call to walk through them together. If someone is experiencing a flare-up of chronic illness, we work to reschedule meetings and deadlines so they can take care of themselves.

It’s important to mention here that many disabled workers and students have been advocating for years for remote options to support their access needs. Organizations that have implemented these options now face a smoother transition to a fully remote work environment.

We also recognize that we need to think beyond access. We love this talk by Mia Mingus on Disability Justice, in which she says:

“[W]e live in a society of just relentless violence and intense amounts of oppression and discrimination. And in a society where there’s so much violence and oppression, I don’t know how we could not talk about disability, because people are becoming disabled through violence, they’re becoming disabled through trauma, or not having access to resources. And so even people who are not necessarily born with their disability, the disabled population as a whole, our group is growing. And we are one of the largest oppressed groups in the world…

“I think that an important piece of Disability Justice is that we’re not just doing access for the sake of access, that we’re not just doing access for assimilation, and we’re not just fighting to get access to the horrible system, current system that we have, but that we’re doing access that moves us beyond just access towards the world that we actually want – access for the sake of justice and liberation, access for the sake of deeper connection and breaking isolation… 

“I think another big concept, at least that I talk about in Disability Justice work, is interdependency and thinking about how do we build relationships and how do we build in such a way that really pushes back against the myth of independence and this myth that we can and should be able to do everything on our own. Or even this myth that that’s what everybody wants to do, that that’s what everybody desires, is to be independent. And I think interdependency is really asking, what does it mean to move from a place of where we need each other, what does it mean to not move from a place of like, oh you’re dependent on me and I’m a benevolent oppressor, and I’m going to give you pity and help you do this thing so that I can feel better. But what does it mean to actually move from a place of interdependency, like we both are bringing things to the table, we both have things to offer, and where we really value everybody.”

We continue to learn from Disability Justice, and continue to dream up ways that our studio can reflect this framework.

Tools we use

We know people will be curious about the online tools we use to make this all happen, so we’re sharing these as well. However, this is definitely not an endorsement, which is why we’re not linking directly to these companies’ sites.

  • Slack for chats and file sharing
  • Whereby for meetings
  • Google docs, sheets, slides
  • Basecamp for task management and asynchronous discussion
  • Good old phones

We have chosen these tools mainly for ease of use, and are aware of the tradeoffs, particularly around privacy and consent, that they present. We know there are many talented people working on better alternatives, and feel hopeful that due to growing demand for these alternatives in this moment, the user bases for these tools will grow and will support their improvement.

We’re always interested in building and supporting alternatives, so if you’re working on something we should know about, please get in touch.

A final thought

It’s important to remember that those who don’t have the option of transitioning to remote work are overwhelmingly low-wage and shift workers, who are being deeply impacted by closures and cancellations. In this moment, it’s as important as ever to be organizing mutual aid and fighting for economic justice, climate justice, disability justice and more, so we can grow more resilience in times of crisis and change.

On this note, we recommend reading this list of Demands from Grassroots Organizers Concerning COVID-19 and engaging with your local government and community groups to see how you can give and receive support.