remote-collaboration-lessons

Empathy Produces the Best Results when Remotely Collaborating

Using observation, interviews, and other research, here’s what we’ve learned about honing our remote work skills

Take a moment to think about the last few meetings you’ve been in online. Have you found yourself checking messages? Maybe popping open a tab and finishing off a grocery order? Turned off your camera to attend to a kid, pet, or something else in your home environment?

Totally human. Totally expected. 

You can find research that makes the case for a range of attention spans, depending on what the user is doing and in what format (phone, computer). Factor in Attention Deficit Disorder,  people and things vying for our attention, the technical challenges of slow VPNs and old routers, multiple household

members on a home network, and using technologies that might be new to us …well, you get the picture. 

Focus is hard. I mean, really hard. Even for super-motivated folks.

Short attention span

At best, typical meetings run longer than an adult attention span. But the exact adult attention span is a tricky thing to define.

When I dug through all the resources online trying to find a good  evaluation of adult attention span and focus, it proved to be a lot more difficult. There’s an 8 second number that gets brandished about, but it turns out that’s a little bit less solid than originally thought, and it didn’t actually come from Microsoft where it’s typically attributed to.  

While I’d like to give you hard numbers, when I looked at research around academic environments and lectures, on a deeper pass, it looked like the magical 15-minute figure that often gets quoted is also a little bit squishier than my researcher self would like. So what I can offer you is the qualitative experience above: think about your own attention and what you’re observing in meetings and workshops remotely. Pay close attention to your ability, and that of your colleagues, to understand how challenging it is to stay present and focused on the work at hand when everything is happening through a screen.

Learning styles

Your collaborators have different learning modes:

  • Visual: need graphic/meaningful symbols
  • Auditory: need to hear information (may not write it down to preserve their attention)
  • Reading/writing: need slides, handouts, need to take notes to process and recall
  • Kinesthetic: need to take an active role in their process with hands-on activity

Between 50 and 70 percent of users are multimodal, meaning they require more than one mode to learn.

What we’ve been learning

I’ve been working with my colleagues and our clients over the past few months to understand the experience of virtual collaboration and how we make our time together more productive and engaged. 

Imagine this: you walk into a room — and there are no walls, ceiling, floor, or windows. It’s a wide open space. Some of our virtual tools have that limitless feel. It can be exciting – and daunting. Many of us, even the tech-savvy early adopters, may be working  in new ways with unfamiliar tech.

Add the stress of working from home, lack of all the cues and support from in-person work, and saying to a virtual room full of people that you don’t understand is just not appealing. It can be a huge roadblock for a team.

What can you do?

  • All users gain comfort and competency through repetition. So find lots of ways to start small and practice. You can also offer one-on-one, private help. 
  • Engage user experience professionals if you have any available. We live and breathe this stuff.  We can help you think through how to create experiences. 
  • Design meetings and work sessions that use multiple learning modes to engage all the different types of users.
  • Consider shortening meetings. Can you, in a very focused way, get through everything in 30 minutes and shift modes enough to keep it interesting? Are there other alternatives? 
  • Practice, practice, practice. Try things. Get feedback. Make adjustments. Keep iterating. 

Companies that spend time understanding what it’s like for their employees and clients/patrons/customers to work with them remotely, then meet those users with a deep understanding of their needs and the context of their interactions will gain a significant competitive edge. Happy, engaged workers = productive. Happy, engaged clients = continued relationship. 

The more empathy you have for your remote collaborators and their learning styles, environments, and challenges, the easier you’ll find it to work remotely.


Lisa Bruce has been working on how we craft the experience of working remotely at 1904labs. She uses her UX researcher skills to understand the needs of users and her facilitation skills to help create remote collaborative environments.   She spent time in March and April, then again in July and August, in an  Online Facilitation Masterclass  with other facilitators – product managers, agile coaches, user experience designers  lead by Daniel Stillman, who just published Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter, She’s spent a couple of decades doing research and facilitating all kinds of collaborations in digital space. 

Reach out to her if you’re interested in participating in our current research on collaborating remotely.

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