Working remotely from a product development team is increasingly common these days. At the same time, design and development teams need to collaborate more closely than ever no matter where they’re located. At DesignMap, many of our clients are not located in San Francisco or even the Bay Area making it difficult to work together in person on a regular basis.  

To support such client engagements, we’ve developed a set of remote-work strategies that cover everything from team dynamics to spontaneous communications to collegial empathy. The key for designers working remotely is: be willing to share your process, be willing to be transparent and stay on top of all communications. Here are our 9 tips for remote working success that apply whether you work on your own or as part of a design team.

1. Hold Digital Face-to-Face Meetings and Turn On Your Video Feed

Starting a project with an in-person meeting is ideal, but sometimes time or budget doesn’t include room for getting together in one location. At DesignMap, we consistently use video conferencing tools to hold meetings with remote clients when in-person meetings can’t happen. Studies show that face-to-face communication is crucial to building interpersonal trust and enables participants to pick up nonverbal cues. According to a study from UCLA 93 percent of communication comes in the form of nonverbal cues: 55 percent is visual, i.e. body language and eye contact, and 38 percent is vocal, i.e. pitch, speed, volume and tone of voice.

In our experience video chats using tools such as Skype or Google Hangouts build trust and credibility, establish closer relationships and enhance the communication of sensitive issues. Even when participants on the other end choose not to turn on their video feed, keeping your video feed on sets an example of openness and transparency for the team.

Video Conferencing
Video conferencing at DesignMap

Put your best face forward by avoiding sitting in front of a white board (they cause glare), finding good lighting and positioning yourself so that others can see your face when you speak. Conversely, when other people are speaking instead of typing on your computer look at the speaker so you appear engaged and attentive.

2. Set Expectations at Project Start

Setting expectations is always important, but it’s doubly important for remotely located teams. At DesignMap, we focus on ensuring the following elements are clear before work starts:

  • Team Roles: Before client kickoff, the relevant internal parties should come together to determine who will take on the role of project lead. If you are taking over for another team member, find out what their role was. Defining roles and introducing all team members ahead of time gives remote teams a leg up when starting a new project. During the kickoff meetings, review roles already assigned internally and then establish all team members’ roles.
  • Project Definition: The kickoff meeting is the time to define project goals, deliverables (i.e. Invision, Sketch, wireframes, concept documents, prototype formats, etc.), key deadlines, and future check-ins. If you are taking over for another team member on a project that has already started, get as much information as possible about the current project status.
  • Priorities: If team members are working on multiple projects, work with your Project Lead to set priorities. If a single project has multiple deliverables ask the team to set priorities for them. Being out of sync with team priorities is a common problem for remote workers. Frequent clarifications of what you are working on and in what order helps prevent remote teams from getting out of synch.

3. Air Grievances Early with a Project Pre-Mortem

The Pre-Mortem is concept we’ve used at DesignMap that allows all of the team members (our clients and ourselves) to express their concerns and worries before they surface. A wider use of Pre-Mortems grew out of an engagement with a client that had no experience with the design process or working with a design agency. To ensure success and a positive experience, we decided to allow the client to air their concerns and address them before we started designing. The strategy was so successful at preventing problems before they occurred we now include it in our regular client engagements. Learn more about Pre-Mortems

Air Grievences

4. Build Positive Team Dynamics with Spontaneous Slack Sessions

Building a team and establishing trust is hard when you can’t get together for drinks at the end of a long week and talk about something other than work. For remote teams, opportunities to build good team dynamics do exist but they must be implemented intentionally and can be slow to take effect.

Spontaneous Slack Session
Spontaneous Slack Session

We’ve found that instant messaging tools like Slack help designers feel like part of a team. It may seem silly to participate in Slack chats when you have a lot of work to do, but consider them a virtual replacement for real-time hallway chats or lunchtime conversations. When I work remotely, I typically spend 10-15 minutes eating lunch and use my break time for spontaneous Slack sessions spread throughout the day.

5. Be Transparent on Your Progress and Process

Remote teams benefit from frequent status updates. Are you 10 percent complete with your tasks and making incremental improvements? Or are you stuck on a design issue? Don’t be afraid to discuss progress or ask for help. The more transparent you are, the more the team will trust you and your work. At DesignMap we use the following touch points to maintain transparency when working remotely:

  • Team News Give all teams members access to the same news and updates, no matter how big or small. Make sure the process is a two-way street. Your remote team should inform you when people leave or join the team, for example. At DesignMap we have an in/out board to track of who is in the office at any given time.
  • Daily Stand-ups A recent high profile project needed daily check-ins between remotely located designers to combine files and coordinate tasks. Daily stand-ups also help coordinate team members when time is short.
  • Weekly Updates Weekly updates on project details keep all stakeholders informed about project progress and specific project tasks.
  • Issue Flags Raising issues as the arise instead of waiting for the next scheduled meeting contributes to a culture of transparency.
  • Explicit Feedback Requests Tell team members what kind of feedback you want. Add explicit notes and questions to your design to reiterate what you need to move forward.

6. Communicate Your Process

Designers put a lot of thought and effort into their work, often laboring over details and perfecting designs before they share them. When working remotely it’s even easier to get caught up in endless cycles of iteration and perfection before communicating with the client. Then, when the clients sees your designs, all those iterations and thoughts are hidden and unseen.

Sketches and Models can communicate progress

Instead of waiting to show a perfect design, build trust and establish a good feedback loop by sharing your process with the team. One way to do this is to show early sketches so that stakeholders can discuss design concepts without getting bogged down in minutia such as color choice, icon shape or exact placement of detailed controls. If you’re working with stakeholders unfamiliar with concept sketches, use the opportunity to educate them about how quickly you can turn their requirements into designs.

7. Show your Value

Being remote, makes it hard for your boss or coworkers to see how much time and effort you’ve put into your work. As a designer working remotely your hard work can sometimes get lost. Iterations on designs, for example, go unseen if remote teams don’t meet frequently or there isn’t a way to keep team members abreast of the work you’re doing. As more and more companies choose to work with remotely, designers that can communicate their efforts clearly with humility will become more and more valuable.

There are many ways to participate with remote teams and demonstrate your engagement with a project without being physically present. You can establish a presence in virtual channels, ask to be video-conferenced in for company-wide meetings or communicate proactively to team members who might forget you on the team or need a reminder of the valuable work you are doing. A simple action for establishing reliability is to respond to emails in a timely manner. Another is to follow up promptly after meetings with notes and next steps. We often print and deliver poster-sized versions of our personas to clients so they can hang them in their offices and encourage conversations.

8. Use Co-working Tools

At DesignMap, we’ve found that co-working tools really work to keep remote teams on track and on task. Here are some we use:

  • Trello Many of us use a shared Trello board to keep track of  weekly tasks and move them to a done column when completed. Everyone on the team can see what you are working on and raise high priority issues to your attention.
  • Slack This is a great tool to keep the whole office on the same page, regardless of location. Feeling part of office camaraderie is easier when all water cooler talk is done in the #watercooler channel. A dedicated channel for you and your team will keep everyone in the loop and allow spontaneous questions and answer sessions about your designs.
  • Invision is a great tool for collecting feedback as well as creating quick prototypes. Our content writer for client projects prefers gathering and iterating with Invision because it’s easier for tracking comments by page and eliminates the need to send commented documents back and forth.
  • Collaborative Workshops Collaborative design is a well-documented area of UX design. Many collaborative design methods can be adapted to web or video conferencing. Remote brainstorming can also be done successfully using video and online tools.

9. Have Empathy

Designers represent the voice of the customer. It is our job to speak for them both in our designs and in the way we work with remote team members. The empathy we apply to our design thinking process can also be applied to understanding the perspectives, objectives and needs of remote stakeholders. The workplace might be a more pleasant if we all try to be empathetic when dealing with bosses and colleagues.

TL;DR

Working with remote teams that never meet in person poses unique challenges and offers great opportunities for designers. Working remotely forces us to be on top of our game in all areas. We need to reach out and establish connections, set clear priorities and expectations and, most importantly, ask for feedback early and often in the design process. Building trust is an important part of any professional relationship and the strategies outlined above show that even when working remotely designers have opportunities to be responsible, efficient, transparent and collaborative team members.

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