Innovation During a Crisis

David Lenberg, the Client Services Director at Exo Digital, and Pierce O’Brien, the Associate Design Director at Exo Digital, put together a presentation for UX Australia, outlining how COVID has affected the business, the challenges that have come up, and what we’ve done to address these challenges.

David and Pierce work closely together on internal projects, external projects with clients, and partner firms to support our people to be the best they can be.

Who is Exo Digital?

Exo Digital is a design and innovation company in the digital space. We rebranded 2 years ago and have a very diverse team, which gives us unique insights into designing and implementing digital solutions. We work with partner firms AGL and ANZ, startups, SME’s, and large companies, and we’re leading the development of digital products and creating exceptional experiences.

As we’ve gone into a remote working environment, we have disruptions throughout the day, and we’ve been trying to work out how we innovate during a crisis.

Companies who have thrived through crisis

Times of crisis are tough to navigate, but they can also present good opportunities. Companies like Airbnb, Disney, The Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, Netflix, Revlon, and FedEx were all founded during a recession and have all gone on to become household names.

As an example of this, FedEx was started during a time of real turbulence. 1973 saw the oil shock where Opec wouldn’t serve the USA, and fuel costs skyrocketed, so it was tough for FedEx to maintain their business. Fred Smith was the CEO at that time, and he struggled to pay the bills, so he took the last $5,000 that he had, went to Las Vegas, put it on blackjack, and won $27,0000, which enabled him to pay the fuel costs for FedEx for one week. During that week, he was able to get funding and find other investors for the business. They also have a unique culture, and back in the day, people were paid by paper cheques that they would take to the bank. Many people working for FedEx didn’t cash those cheques at that difficult time. They now have those cheques framed and hanging on their walls, and it’s seen as a badge of honour that they helped to get FedEx through that crisis.

Mr Yum, a Melbourne-based company, started just before the pandemic. They’re a great example of a business that did research and listened to the market, and from this, was able to grow. Their unique position allowed them to support the hospitality industry. We’ll touch more on this later.

So, how has the last year and a half affected Exo Digital?

Not much changed for the digital industry. Most of the tools and processes that we use are already digital. We use GSuite for all of our documentation, Slack to communicate with each other, Miro for research and ideation, and Figma to design. We made sure that we focussed on processes and that the team was as efficient as possible during this crisis.

Before: We were getting into a room together and bashing out ideas on a whiteboard.

Now: We’re flying around as little cursers on Miro. Many team members had to be trained in Miro so that they were comfortable with using it and could upskill in that tool.

Before: We were pitching proposals in person. We were getting in-person feedback to a presentation and adjusting our approach in real-time, as well as building real-life connections and relationships.

Now: We’re spending a lot of time making sure proposals are really locked down and clear and perfecting them to craft a compelling story around our process and what we’re trying to deliver. We must make sure that we’re building that same connection and relationship virtually and delivering the ‘wow’ factor. We must be able to communicate as best as we can.

Before: We were heading out for drinks on a Friday night.

Now: We’ve moved that into a games night on Zoom. We must give the team the space to put their tools down, come together and have some fun. We want to give the team a space to interact where it’s not about work but rather just connecting on a human level.

We’ve had many challenges during the process, including communication breakdowns, projects slowed and weren’t delivering results, and team members began to work in silence. We worked very hard to figure out these problems to support our team and business.

One of the issues we’ve faced is that we’ve moved from an environment where we had 4 people in an office to a remote working environment. We had intentions to go back into the office, but offices are expensive to keep up. We implemented social contracts within the team, designed to help relationships and help people understand what is expected of them. We came up with an overall Exo Digital social contract. Luckily, we were able to discuss this in person and get feedback from the team about what social contracts represented to them. So, we landed on the over-arching Exo Digital social contract, and then each area of the business has their own social contracts and how they want to behave and things that are normal to them. It could be as simple as: “When you come into a meeting, turn your phone off because we want everyone to be present”. It’s important to remember that when a new member comes onto a team, we need to rerun the contract and bring them up to speed on the norms. So it’s one of those things that is continually growing.

Supporting team connectivity

The other essential thing was making sure that we had a connection with the team. So we implemented Exo Office Day. We had done remote working for 6 months and decided to do a pulse check with the team. The feedback was that everyone wanted to get back into the office. We discussed how many days people were willing to come in and which days would work. We came up with Wednesday and got a share space in the city that we now use. When we actually had it organised, everyone put on the breaks and didn’t want to go back into the office, so the leadership team put a line in the sand and said: ‘we’re coming back in on a Wednesday’. It was great, everyone enjoyed it and needed it. You get comfortable behind your laptop, but it was great to be together again once we were back in the office. We still wanted ways to connect, and that once-a-week connection enabled us to brainstorm, whiteboard, and connect. We all understood that that wasn’t the norm for us anymore, that remote working is the new normal.

Games Night started as just virtual drinks. We knew that was probably not going to be able to keep everyone engaged, not everyone drinks. So, we decided to put some games in and play some digital games. Guys and girls within the team all really enjoy it. The snap camera plays a huge part as well.

Cheeky Treats is Rob just sending a box of doughnuts or a treat to team members at home. A delivery guy shows up at your door with a box of sweet treats, and it makes team members feel valued and important.

Some of the team had this to say about the culture and working environment at Exo:

“Exo is great! It’s a mix between remote and in-person working; you’re made to feel part of the team from day one” “Design huddles are where we get to share ideas, get feedback on what we’re currently working on, and learn alongside bright, talented people.”

Flexible Thinking… and working

Now, let’s take you through how we changed our thinking around flexible working. A fair bit changed for the industry. The old way of working didn’t make sense anymore. Most people coming from Melbourne had to adjust very early and very fast. We spent most of last year in lockdown, which was tough, but with new talent coming in, we started to see that they were taking advantage of working from a place that made them comfortable. We decided to take this as an opportunity to stand out in a crowded market.

Before: We were chained to the city and office jobs.

Now: Team members live and work closer to nature, the beach and maintain lifestyles that they value.

We changed the way we looked at recruiting.

Before: We only looked at hiring in Melbourne because that’s where we’re based.

Now: We have team members across the entire country, and it’s amazing to have that kind of exposure across the team.

Before: We were working in an office every day.

Now: We’re working from home and dealing with all the challenges that presents – from dealing with cheeky labradors to feeling motivated to do work.

Before: We had direct connection and feedback to the team. Having in-person face-to-face connections, being able to see and respond to each other is really missing in what we have now.

Now: Sometimes at work, it can feel like you’re left alone and you’re in a bit of a void as you wait for people to get back to you. So, it can still offer up a bunch of challenges. We needed to find a way for our team members to upskill, engage with them and help them feel alone or struggling.

Get team feedback

As part of the process, we went back to the team and asked what they needed to engage better, feel supported, and connect. Some feedback was around learning and upskilling. As a business, we’re very focused on self-directed learning. We must provide ways for the team to upskill and utilise online courses as much as possible. This hasn’t been a process that we’ve got right yet; we’re still working through it. We’ve assigned everyone a budget to be able to look at online courses. When that person sits down with the team lead, we’re trying to understand where they want to go with their career, make some recommendations based on what we’ve done ourselves, and trying to share that on Slack. We also have a book club where we’re putting up books to read and giving team members opportunities to educate themselves. Ideally, we’d really like to have a whole course directory that people can go to in their own time and upskill themselves, and it’s also something to do together and keep connecting.

Where you are based is really not that important. We have people working for the company in Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, Tasmania, Adelaide, in a van, the list goes on. As long as you have the right attitude and the right connection to support clients and the team, that’s all we’re looking for. You need to have access to the internet, and if the internet is down, you need to have a phone. We want to make it easy to live your best life.

Mentorship is important. It’s traditionally looked upon as those who are leads supporting those coming up through the business, but it should work both ways. We deal with many amazing talents that come out of university, and we want to harness that enthusiasm. We have a powerful culture within the team to learn from each other. We use small improvements to provide feedback from team members; it’s part of our culture. If someone does something well, we like to highlight that, even small wins. Highlighting these wins forces you to vocalise what your process is. When you vocalise it, you have analyse it and it makes you better at your job. So, we’re always improving ourselves, our work, and our processes.

Onboard, offboard

Remote onboarding can be strange to navigate. When you start in person, you get face to face welcome. It’s a bit harder to do that with remote onboarding. As people join from around the country and eventually internationally, we’re going to have to be smart in how we do things. For example: getting them their technology. We developed an onboarding pack for this purpose. The first experience with the company needs to be exceptional. We want them to feel the love and have everything they need in the pack. We haven’t got it right yet, and it’s still something that we’re working on and that we’re very committed to.

We’re also committed to the offboarding process. Offboarding for us is an opportunity to celebrate people’s growth, and it needs to be memorable. We develop a video for them, which lets their teammates talk about their experience and celebrate the person leaving. We get them a gift or give them a gift card to spoil themselves. We’re still working on it, but we must celebrate those that leave the business and go on to grow their careers. When they look back, we want them to remember their fantastic time working at Exo Digital.

Some of the team had this to say about flexible working at Exo:

“The flexibility of working from home and co-working has increased productivity.”

“All ideas are valid. We have sessions of showcasing, brainstorming, and elevating everyone’s ideas. Review sessions are valuable to have a sounding board that promotes discussions and sparks ideas, and we look out for each other’s blind spots.”

“The support is infallible, and the team is flexible and responsive.”

Creating projects that feel good

Sometimes in design, you don’t get to work on a project that you think is doing good in the world. Exo decided that we wanted to prioritise this as our focus. We didn’t want to just work; we wanted to innovate with purpose. Designers want to be creative, on the leading edge of design. They want to work on something with social importance, but sometimes it’s not always able to be done. Jobs from clients are crucial to business but not exactly creative. You might be researching terminology on a button, for example. It’s vital in driving ROI and revenue for that business, but not the thing to get designers out of bed every day. We wanted to initiate a start-up culture and mindset within the business. Provide a unique opportunity for people coming back to the business from the client-side or those on the bench between projects, for them to just jump straight back into a project that everyone saw as exciting and beneficial.

Internal Project: The Let’s Go Community

The initial concept was to look at what was happening in the hospitality space. There was a lot of pain there; people couldn’t get their dine-in experience. Everyone was trying to pivot to remote working and socially distancing. The large players in the market were controlling delivery systems: UberEats, DoorDash, Deliveroo and Menulog. Those big players charge 30% – 35% for the privilege of using their services. In the restaurant industry, 30% – 35% of your revenue is paid to get staff into your business; you don’t generally have an extra 35% lying around for a delivery service.

We went to market, ran some research to understand what was happening in the marketplace, the needs of businesses, and tested assumptions. Our initial idea was instead of having large businesses promoting themselves, how could we promote the business and have those businesses control the leads themselves. When we looked at the research, it was very complicated. A lot of what the businesses discussed was around how to support and engage with the community. We looked at ordering an entree from one restaurant, a main meal from another, and a bottle of wine, and getting a delivery person to go around and pick it all up and deliver it to the person’s home. When we looked more deeply into it, the mechanics around this idea were a lot more complicated than we first thought. We wanted to make sure these hospitality businesses were our central focus but weren’t sure how we would do that.

We started to flesh out product infrastructure. We needed 4 different products, all branching out into a custom hospitality experience. It was far too complicated, and we realised that we were biting off more than we could chew and stepping into an already crowded arena. So we pivoted.

We went back to research to see how local users and businesses thought about community and how they interacted and engaged with each other. We have such a strong connection with the local community in Australia, and it was fascinating to learn what was important to the local users. Supporting local means different things to different people, but we managed to isolate three overarching motivations for supporting local businesses: Loyalty focussed – the old Mom & Pop store on the corner that you’ve been going to for 25 years; Community focussed – supporting the small, independent businesses in your area; and Monetary-focused – the cheapest place to buy a coffee.

When we started getting into early design work, the initial idea was around a gamified experience encouraging users to interact with local businesses, potentially taking on challenges that would direct you into those businesses and moving up ranks as you complete challenges. We had so many ideas around gaming levels, unlocking staus, gaining rank, and moving up leaderboards, all centred around helping the community and doing some good. We have quite a lean team, and the number of features was stacking up. A gameified experience is a large amount of infrastructure to build up. We soon realised it was far too costly to build this experience. Luckily, we were still early on in the design process, so we pivoted again.

Going backwards to go forwards

We started to think about how we can focus on the value, how we can help businesses, how to get them out of the covid crisis, and what the users and businesses value the most. We landed on a challenge and reward system that incentivises users to get out and support local, called ‘Let’s Go’. End users do a simple review challenge or check-in challenge, and we give a reward and get you into the door of the business. We were trying to focus on value.

By pulling back and coming back to our DNA as a business, which is routed into looking at what people and businesses actually want and need, instead of what we think they do, we were able to really lean into a product that has the potential to make a big impact on small and local businesses. This is very important to us. There’s a lot of pain right now in that industry, so it was something that we really wanted to be our main focus as a business.

Going through this process, we have engaged with businesses at a different level. It’s been very emotive, mostly due to the situation that we’re in. We have been able to talk to end-users to see what they want out of the process and local government agencies. During our research, we uncovered a move locally for communities to be within 20-30 minutes, on public transport, of home, where everything is available. There’s also a focus on environmental issues. We wanted to look at how to use that in the app to benefit our end users, the general public, small and large businesses, and the community.

We love working with smaller businesses; it’s important to engage at that level. As entrepreneurs, we love people to have a side hustle and support people to do that. It’s part of our DNA and enables us to think outside the box in some cases because we are entrepreneurial and a lot of the guys and girls are very commercially savvy.

Team Feedback

Some of the team had this to say about the development of the ‘Let’s Go’ App:

“It gives users a fun, engaging way to interact with local businesses. If I could change one thing, it would be great if we could go back and do better in the research and design phase.”

“We’re making a difference by supporting local and bringing people together. If I could change one thing, it would be to include more user research and user testing.”

“This is going to a really great cause and is a value add to businesses. If I could change one thing, it would be to identify value propositions a little earlier on”

Team feedback is very valuable for us as a business. We’re trialing as we go and don’t always get it right. Some things we’ve implemented haven’t been successful. Either the team hasn’t taken them up, or team members have said that it isn’t adding value.

Moving into a 100% flexible working environment, we had to have a lot of trust in our people to be able to do the right thing, communicate when needed and be part of the team and the culture. Some things will work for your business, others won’t. We’re not suggesting we’ve got it right and that we’re the leader in remote working, we’re certainly not; we’re just giving everything a go and trying to support our people the best way we can.

Get help

If there is anything we can do to assist you, we would love to speak to you. We’re always looking for new clients, so if you’re looking for a partner firm to work with, we’d love to speak to you. If you know someone who would fit within our team, we are always looking for amazing people. We have $1000 on offer, if you have someone who’s interested, send a referral to or give us a call on 1300 92 99 92.

Thank you for your attendance and enjoy the rest of UX Australia.


Q: Do you have any suggestions for online team bonding activities?

A: The games work really well for team bonding, and we do have those to send out to you. You’ll be able to see some of the games we’ve used to engage our team.

Q: Will we be able to access more in-depth insight from some of the points that you’ve covered today?

A: Absolutely! We’ll make the entire presentation available, and we have the video content as well. We’re sending out a link for the landing page to UX Australia to sign up for a newsletter with packs available for onboarding, offboarding, our favourite games nights, and social contracts.

Q: Will employees have access to shared offices around the country?

A: At the moment, it’s just in Melbourne because we have our HQ in Melbourne, but absolutely. If you need to get out of your home office and into a shared office, there’s no reason why we can’t set that up around the country.

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