creating empathy between remote coworkers


BorderlessPortal is a remote work platform where people can discover and interact with others across different offices. It was my final project at CIID, developed over nine weeks, and my advisor was Pedro Nakazato. This was an individual project, and I was responsible for all stages of the process, including research, insight generation, prototyping, and coding.


Millions of people in the world collaborate with remote coworkers every day. Even though remote collaboration is increasingly more widespread, most people have a hard time seeing the person behind the name on the screen. Because of this, people usually prefer collaborating with their colleagues at the office than with remote coworkers.  

BorderlessPortal reduces barriers between coworkers in different offices, improving informal communication, and creating empathy. At first, BorderlessPortal acts as a friend in common introducing two people. Then, the remote coworkers can engage in many activities, like playing AR ping pong or brainstorming, as if they were sharing the same office.

Target audience

BorderlessPortal was designed for people who collaborate remotely with coworkers in different offices. That is because during my research I found that it is a known phenomenon that having initial face-to-face meetings improves remote collaboration. But what else can be done to improve remote collaboration if people can’t meet in-person?


Concept. Although I started my process knowing that remote work would be my topic, I still needed to know what question I should be asking. So I did desk research and interviewed ten people (one specialist and nine current or former remote workers) to understand the problems people face when doing remote work. I designed and used different tools during the interviews to help me get better information.

During the interviews, I used different tools to help the conversation get started and to discover information that might not have been mentioned otherwise

I found that people's interaction with a remote coworker is worse than the interaction with people in the office. And that is because:

1. Remote workers only talk about work and only have formal communication channels, so it’s harder for them to bond with one another.
2. The lack of facetime makes remote workers feel forgotten by their managers and peers.

Clustering data points to generate insights

After ideation, I storyboarded some ideas to get feedback from other people. Then I did video prototypes for the two most promising ones before choosing which concept to move forward with.

From the feedback I got, I decided to build empathy between remote coworkers. One of the reasons for this is that all the solutions I found that address remote work are trying to improve how you do work-related tasks remotely; they don’t focus on the relationship between the remote colleagues.

Storyboards for some of the most promising ideas

Prototyping. Throughout the project, I used different prototype techniques, such as video, narrative, physical and digital prototyping. For these different techniques, I used different fidelity levels to receive different types of feedback, depending on the stage of the design process.

I started trying to find how a fun activity between remote coworkers could happen using the current video portal technology (in which a TV in one office shows what’s happening in another office). I wanted people to feel like they were sharing the same space because many of my interviewees valued the “people in the office” more than their remote coworkers.

First video prototype showing a remote ping pong match to get feedback from people

Early on I learned from the feedback I got that most people were concerned about privacy, especially the ones that never worked in an office with a video portal. So, I decided that, unlike regular video portals, BorderlessPortal would not have a permanent video stream. Instead, a connection will be open between remote coworkers only when both of them are passing in front of a portal at the same time; this simulates people randomly stumbling upon each other in the hallway, but now they can be anywhere in the world.

Low-fidelity prototype to learn how people felt about a connection being open between them and their remote coworker when they were on a break

While iterating and testing my prototypes, I made another decision based on the feedback I got: people should have agency over the connection opening. The video stream should not start as soon as two coworkers pass in front of a portal; instead, they can choose if they are going to engage with the portal or not.

Expanding the concept. Although I started the prototype phase with an idea of playing ping pong remotely, I discovered through iteration and feedback that it was not enough to address my design challenge. Different people need different things and no single solution – whether it is remote ping pong, a guided conversation, or something else –, would be able to build empathy between all remote coworkers. This fact required the original concept to be expanded to accommodate people's needs and profiles.

I developed a framework that shows how different activities fit into the current relationship of the remote coworkers and the intended engagement level for the interaction. The highlighted ones are shown in the concept video

Metaphor. Through prototyping, I also learned that giving people different activities wasn’t necessarily getting them closer together. I needed to do something else to give that extra push to help people bond with each other. This is how the interaction metaphor came to life: The portal is a friend in common who introduces two people and mentions an interesting fact about them to get the conversation started; then, coworkers can engage in different activities as they see fit.

BorderlessPortal acts as a friend in common by sharing something both coworkers have in common to get the conversation started

Available technology. As you can see in the concept video available at the beginning of this page, it shows an augmented reality use that doesn’t currently exist. The reason for this is that I wanted to imagine what remote work relationships can be like if the technology is there to make people interact in the same way as if they were in the same office space. Maybe some years from now, we'll have devices that make all of this possible.

Another possible activity using BorderlessPortal: learning something from a remote coworker

Final exhibition. After the final project presentations to an external panel of design specialists, there was a day-long open to the public exhibition at CIID on December 13th. I did a live demo of my project showcasing the conversation prompts, and an AR game of ping pong using iPads.

Live demo during the final exhbition simulating an AR Ping Pong with current technology

I built a functional prototype using Processing, Unity with ARKit/ARCore, and Spacebrew for network communication between different devices. I prototyped one of the possible activities that coworkers could do remotely using iPads to simulate a multiplayer game of AR ping pong.

My setup during the final exhibition: simulating people being in different spaces while staying in the same room

Would you like to discuss this project with me?

Send me an email.