5 Ways to Help Your Design Team Work Remotely

Greg Picarelli | 04/17/2020

Like most businesses around the world, our studio has found its team members in a drastically new work environment: our homes. How can an inherently collaborative process — UX design — work when colleagues are dispersed?

We’ve been feeling our way through this like everyone else, assessing what is effective and what isn’t. Here are five things we’ve been doing that work well for our team and might work for yours, too:

  1. Frequently check in on people and teams

We’re not just talking about checking in on employees’ work and project progress, but also on each individual personally and the situations they’re dealing with. At our studio, we’ve instituted a weekly virtual all-hands check-in via video conference. Our Chief Architect, Bob Rullo, even created landscape images of different areas in our studio that people can use as backgrounds!

During each session we leverage an online polling tool to get interactivity and feedback. We want to get a sense of things like how people are feeling, which can be hard to read virtually.

What are your top three emotions?

We pose different questions in each session, but every week we make sure to ask how everyone is feeling.

So, how was your week?

Many employees have said this new virtual check-in is one of the highlights of their week.

  1. Frequently check in on people and teams

Yep, this is worth repeating. The online polling tool we use allows for anonymous reactions and check-ins. But while it’s perfect for that purpose, we can’t know who specifically might be feeling overwhelmed or anxious. That’s why one of our leaders suggested from the beginning that we establish a frequent cadence of touching base with individual team members via instant message, text or phone — and to do this not only with people you normally interact with, but also (and perhaps more importantly) those you don’t.

We’re hoping a bit of randomness across our one-on-one communications might serve to lessen the feeling of isolation some people may be experiencing. We are also hoping that this tactic will result in our staff actually feeling more connected because they are talking to people they may not have typically interacted with in the studio.

  1. Reprioritize work

We’re being conscious about helping everyone stay focused on the critical and important. Your people and your customers and users are now drastically more reliant on digital solutions. For your web and mobile offerings, make sure your calls to action are prominent and easy to find. And double-check that your teams are laser-focused on solving for the situation we are in right now. Are your people empowered with the tools they need? One action we took on this front is that we decided to provide monitors to our people to better work from home — which especially helps those accustomed to more optimal setups in our studio.

Are your products and services right for the situation we’re in now? How can you tweak them? Do you need new ones? Do you need to optimize how you’re virtually servicing your customers? Does your design system go so far as to cover your repeatable patterns of designs for chatbots? For voice? Are you collecting data on how your customer experiences are working? Are your studio teams solving for these things right now?

  1. Allow for flexibility

Our people are dealing with unprecedented challenges working from home. Some have suboptimal desk spaces. Some are also caring for children, loved ones, parents or grandparents — or others particularly at risk. Those with children may be learning how to home-school in addition to simply trying to keep their children occupied.

Who are you caring for during this crisis?

That’s why we’re allowing for even more flexibility in when and how our projects get done. We’re shifting work between people and recognizing that for some, they will only have time to focus after others in their household are fully cared for, fed and schooled … and that may end up being at night when the kids are fast asleep. For other employees, our new circumstances have necessitated a lower overall workload. For still others, we’re growing concerned that they may be working longer hours, with no clear delineation of work and life balance. On that front, one team member shared a tip that they only allow themselves to work in some rooms, but not others, to encourage their work-life separation.

And so we’re doing more virtual happy hours and pushing people to shut their laptops down for the night or weekend. We’re putting “send delays” on emails we may happen to write after hours or on weekends — though it’s especially difficult these days to even remember what day of the week it is!

  1. Stay in the moment

No one knows how long we will have to continue working remotely. How we adapt and stay connected will be more like running a marathon — an endurance test — than surviving a sprint. It will require staying connected and being nimble, which can seem so foreign in the face of days on end working from our homes under complex circumstances. We’re looking for things that may be deterrents to success for our employees and figuring out ways to help.

What's your biggest challenge so far while WFH?

We’re adapting tactics that worked in our studios for this virtual existence. If none of us are in the room together anyway, then why set boundaries on who is included? For example, we’re expanding audiences of our regular in-studio collaborations to be nationwide and even global. Our technology team’s “Dev Monthly” sharing sessions are now multi-studio video-conference meetings. And our weekly Design Collab has transformed into more of a “creative happy hour” instead. It’s all about promoting and keeping the spirit of seeing each other and interacting — like a virtual happy hour — but with a fun, playful and participatory agenda that creatives appreciate.

We’ve also turned our Collabs into global events, pulling in representatives from our studios across the US and even Milan.

And we’re talking with our people about how to keep up their resilience — getting them to share what’s working with each other.

This week, we’re looking forward to having a “show & tell” during our virtual check-in. We’re hearing more and more stories about how our people are using this time to learn new skills, put a puzzle together, practice their art or fill their recycle bin (ha!), or just pass the time.

So there’s our work-in-progress set of tips. We’d love to hear what’s working for you and your design teams – let us know at studios@ey.com. As we learn more about what enhances productivity, encourages work-life balance and lessens the stress of our collective unprecedented situation, we’ll be sure to post a follow-up to these tips!