Mark Boulton

You've found yourself leading a remote design team

This week, due to the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, you may find yourself leading a remote design team. If it's your first time, it may be a bit daunting for you and your team but by following a few, simple principles not only can get into the swing of things quickly, you can start to become more productive and effective. After leading remote teams for years, here are some simple approaches I've found useful.

Rituals

A few rituals help (a daily standup, weekly demo, 1-1's, weekly critique for example). You may already do these if you come from being co-located. So now, just use Zoom instead. Keep everything else the same.

Design Triage

One of the advantages of being co-located are the random conversations, the little moments stood by the kettle, or the quick 'could you just have a quick look at this for me?' questions. The reason these happen so readily face-to-face is there are minimal barriers. In the right environment, people readily ask questions and for help. This is good. To do this remotely, I've found a little structure is useful though. Having a couple of times a day – and you'll need to experiment with duration – where you are available for triage on design work can help you, the team, and the wider organisation feel connected.

Async-first

A shift in expectations of availability is required to work remotely. To get around this, my default collaboration mode is asynchronous over Slack and email. People should not expect responses immediately, or write expecting one.

Just enough tools

The majority of issues over remote, in my experience, come from communication and people problems, not from which tool you do or don’t use. Try not to replicate in-person high energy work (like workshopping) remotely. The go-to to try and fix this is generally a tool and, in most cases, they don't work. It's better to explore other ways of working than shoe-horning in tools into your existing way of working.

Quick to adopt, quick to ditch

I think it was Bruce Lee that once said 'Use only that which works, discard the rest'. I like that. It does mean being willing to try everything and anything – tools, processes, working methods – to get the right formulae. And the thing is, in my experience, every team is different, so the recipe of tools, process and methods are different too.

Prioritise people

Prioritise how people feel. This is probably the most important for me. I’m a big advocate of the benefits remote can offer, but it takes time (for both the org and team) for it to be effective. Focussing on coaching people through the lumps and bumps will pay off in the mid to long term.

Coaching the change for everyone

As a design leader, you won't have to just help your own team and direct reports adapt. This will be new to management and executives as well. In fact, I'd guess that most of them will be reluctant to fully engage in this change of working pattern. But stick with them, help them through the transition, make yourself available.

Expect people to prefer this (and the opposite)

You may find that entire teams prefer working this way. What will you do to accommodate it after the crisis has been averted? Or is it 'back to work'? You can bet that, as much as this is disruptive now, it will be equally disruptive when it's over.

Wear shoes and commute

I went freelance 15 years ago and found myself in my home office needing to create a distinction between home and work. In the end, I settled on two simple tricks: I wore shoes during work hours (I still do), and I commuted to my desk (I took a walk). These may seem like tiny little insignificant tricks, but the psychological theory – especially in sport – is sound. This is about simple habit forming and creating a trigger to help you move from one mode of being (home) to another (work), and back again.

It's going to be interesting how enforced remote working will affect teams who are not used to doing it. My hunch is that some will quickly realise they are more effective working this way. I also think, in some cases, it will be a disaster where organisations are unable to adapt their tools or processes.

Time will tell.

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