I’ve worked remotely in one form or another as a designer for ten years.
In my last office job, my hiring manager was in the NYC office, while I was based as a designer in our parent company in the UK. As our team restructured over time, his 2 hour commute gave way to working earlier at home to have more overlapping time with us. Today, I’m a remote worker to an office in Spain.
To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, I’ve worked remotely from both sides now. As the one in the office waiting for the remote guy to get back to us, and as the remote worker wondering what’s being discussed in the office while knuckling down to move things forward.
Here’s what I’ve learned about creating a healthy remote-working culture:
1. When one person is remote, everyone is remote
The following principles apply to every member of the team, not just the remote ones.
Yes, this will take a bit more work upfront, but the result is a higher functioning, happier, more creative and productive team that retains talent better. Isn’t that worth a little shift in thinking? These principles build upon each other, like lego bricks.
Traditional offices unconsciously enforce a culture of distraction: stopping by someone’s desk to see how something is coming along or phoning instead of emailing a question. This forces people to respond to the squeakiest wheel, rather than according to priorities. By getting results this way, everyone else is trained to make every small request a “noisy one” to get ahead in the queue.
This is a toxic habit that needs to be broken.
Unscheduled status update requests create pressure on the creative, and can feel like their quality of work is in question, or worse: that they’re being treated as human plugin to execute someone else’s design. Unless you are brand new to the industry, these are soul crushing. The quality of work suffers, and the creative will want to move on to greener pastures.
Additionally, remote workers may work longer than they ought to that day to “catch up”, making them a little closer to burn out, less productive and snappier the next day. Because you can’t see them, the scenario risks repeating itself until burnout or a conflict occurs. One ex-remote worker I know woke up one morning and blasted months of pent-up resentments at every client he had, then fired them all.
For remote workers paid per hour, these kinds of distractions can dramatically add to your bill, since it takes 20 minutes to get back to pre-interruption productivity.
The cost of distractions can be roughly calculated as:
(each distraction x 20 minutes x their rate) + (the non-distraction hours x hourly rate)
You’re probably imagining that the distractions are on the workers side and it’s their job to focus, but we’ll see that this isn’t the case in the next point.
1. Agree on feedback points and times with every coworker, and stick to them. These points may be different for juniors than to seniors, but it will allow them to problem solve with calm and creativity.
2. Have a single source of truth for documenting procedures, workflows, how-to’s and on-boarding. Use a group password manager to manage logins. Set up a slack bot for repeatable questions (status reports, who’s up for pizza on friday) or turning conversations into shared knowledge easily. This saves a lot of repeated questions and interruptions later on.
I loved Slack at first, but even with my setting changed to only alert me to direct messages and mentions, there’s still this social norm to start all slack conversations with at least three messages before getting to brass tax, e.g.
“are you there?”
“Hope you had a good weekend!”
“So I was thinking about the design review comments…”
“I sent my reply via email”
“Anyway, no pressure..reply when you can”
That’s six alerts to tell me I’ve got mail, which I’ve already been notified about. Multiply by every person you interact with in a project, and that’s a lot of notifications in a day.
What I’ve noticed about how I work, and what I’ve heard from a few others is that even when I only check Slack messages at intervals (say, to work in pomodoros), the very presence of that red circle with 17 alerts is still distracting.
In the background of my mind I’m imagining what they could be about instead of directing all my attention at solving the problem at hand and moving on to the next step.
I can block distractions from my computer and mobile and manage my time, but this communication style puts me in a tough spot: do I “act aloof” by not replying but deliver fast and cost-consciously, or do I respond in a similar manner and keep the clock running and risk leaving the card in the “doing” column at the end of the day?
Solution: Choose email for non urgent questions and feedback that require thoughtful answers. Use task assignment tools for things that only require action to complete and and use the comments thread to explain further.
Creating a bias towards asynchronous communication is also key to building flexibility in working hours for office staff, which helps retain talent as they seek to gain better work/life balance in the long term.
4. Effectiveness, not busyness
Busyness, is bustle.
Image source: www.ban.do
Busyness is a sign of something being wrong. Perhaps of not being able to decide which project is most valuable to pursue, not being able to plan realistically for the time you have or not being able to share your workload or willing to hire extra help.
Productivity is about getting better results for less time. It can be tracked and improved through logged hours, design uploads or git commits or through various marketing dashboards.
Effectiveness, on the other hand, means first understanding what is and isn’t worth doing right now. Then tackling those tasks with efficiency.
This is why I don’t buy into these “morning routine” posts that promise “increased productivity”. Not everything needs to be done every day to be effective, and some things actually suffer when done every day. You need recovery days between run days, for example. Is a day between standups really enough time to report meaningful progress?
For myself, the most important thing I can do for my creativity and productivity during the week is take Friday mornings off.
Having to sit at a desk until quitting time tends to encourage “busywork”, doing things that take up time, but might not be the best uses of it.
I’ve seen everything from obsessing over an email signup page match a psd file to the pixel, to endless redesigns of logos in the weeks before a launch.
In small product teams with a big backlog, this is busywork, not effectiveness.
Keep team goals and task impact firmly in view, by adding fields to project manager for “effort” and “Impact”. Both should have two options: “low” and “high”.
Image from asana blog
Now you can bring visibility to projects that return highest impact for the low effort, and filter out the low impact, high effort ones.
Add another dropdown for “goals”. This should list your current big picture (not project specific) goals for the company. Every task or project should be building towards a goal.
5. Communicating and embodying company culture
The previous point means there needs to be clear understanding of company goals, weaknesses, and values.
I’m not talking about that inspirational poster of values that hangs on the wall.
Company culture is like the 12 steps of AA: it’s something to be discussed and explored and put into practise in different ways regularly. So if you say you’re all about “openness”, actually hold a seminar and talk about what that means and how it’s applied, when it isn’t, and regularly ask for feedback and ideas. To make sure your remote workers can participate, make it available on a platform like Workplace by Facebook so they can comment live, or on a webinar platform with live comment and replay options.
6. Shared values
Since the company culture and values guide every team and person in decision making, it’s essential that these are truly believed in, or group discussions will not move forwards.
If you’re all about flat structure, for example, then someone who wants to control the flow of communication will eventually cause things to come screeching to a halt.
If that person or team is managing someone remote, this can cause even more of a disconnect, because this is now their only window to the priorities within the company.
The truth is, remote workers are easy to blame. I’ve seen remote workers get thrown under the bus for managerial misjudgments, like giving them approval to launch a new design without letting other teams know in advance.
Shared values are also necessary for sustained motivation, since we need tasks to have intrinsic value or they get procrastinated.
This is partially why busywork in step 4 can become so engrossing. It may be the only step in the process the employee enjoys or feels rewarded for doing.
7. Open information/communication
Top-down hierarchy doesn’t work well when it comes to giving every employee the “why” and “how” behind projects and roadmap features. It’s also not very effective: each time we relay a conversation to someone else, we’re filtering and interpreting what we heard – and not always correctly.
With remote workers, lack of visibility between the remote worker and different teams and team members also breeds distrust. That slowly erodes relationships over time.
Solution: Keep communication channels open.
If remote standups or group VOIP or video call meetings aren’t feasible for design feedback, then hold a slack channel meeting where all key players in a project get to speak directly to each other. Copy the whole discussion and email to everyone so there’s a record that won’t be at risk of being archived at the end of the month.
If your team is multilingual, gmail and Workplace may be better options for group communication because of the auto-translate feature.
Tell me if you recognize this scenario:
Business intelligence is sure marketing are messing up based on the numbers they see. Marketing complain about the web team not meeting their needs. The web team hates IT’s slowness. And IT is just angry all the time.
This is clan culture in the workplace. It’s always toxic, but with remote members in the mix, it can boil over quickly. I’ve seen teams plan elaborate plots to try and “oust” other teams, apparently forgetting that we all work for the same company.
Why? Because they sat in different offices.
Management believed this distrust produced harder workers, but all it did was keep valuable process, information and technology from being shared company-wide.
Solution: My ex-manager was a smart person. He knew changing our seating plans regularly so we were sat next to different teams throughout the year changed how we interacted with those teams.
But how do you change seating plans with remote workers?
The Buffer team has started using pair calls. Every work day starts with a worker
calling a randomly assigned person in the company. You talk about their previous day, their home life and what they do during the day. The idea is the same as the seating shuffle plan: you create a bond and empathy with someone new and understand their work processes better.
Every person should have the power to manage their tasks, timetable and workload.
If you report to someone, that someone has final approval power for designs or code. The work won’t be sent up a management chain and information relayed down the chain again – we’ve already talked about how that gets bad pretty fast.
Also, that feedback chain takes longer, and the different levels sometimes have different ideas of what looks good, creating mixed messages for the designer at the end of the line, who may not even be in the room to “sense the mood”.
Solution: Empower people to make decisions and then hold them accountable for the results of those decisions. Workflows will speed up, and not only will they learn to think above their pay scale, you may be surprised at what ends up working best.
10; Growth mindset
Fulfilled workers are the best workers, and to be fulfilled you need to feel valued and see continual advancement in your career. But advancement isn’t dependant on professional skills alone.
Solution: Make developing a mix of professional skills and personal qualities a key objective for every new hire. Create time each week not just for skill training, but for personal skills. A goal without time is just a wish. Advancement in both of these dimensions should be discussed in one-to-one manager meetings and in annual reviews.
Having a designer confident yet tactful enough to propose a better solution to a bad idea, or a developer able to explain a technical solution simply is key to maintaining quality products and healthier group dynamics.
Here’s what I’ve seen: a lot of busywork is created as a way of dealing with personal issues or insecurity in or outside of work. Not knowing how to raise issues without confrontation has killed projects and careers. It’s easier and cheaper to pre-emptively tackle these issues before they develop.
11. Give away your Legos
This phrase means getting to a place where it’s ok to give some of your responsibilities to your junior, for example, your new hire. It’s scary, but if you want to scale your company and retain your brightest talent without burning them out, then they need to learn to let go of their older, familiar roles and teach those skills to someone new. If they’ve been learning to think above their payscale and learning new skills from steps 9 and 10, this is less daunting, because growth has become a way of life.
Preparing each member to do so early on also reduces friction between established team members and newer members.
Solution: Start noticing and documenting your processes early on. The idea is to make it easy to explain to a future you how to start and carry out these tasks.
An additional benefit? Once you start thinking and documenting your processes, you’ll start discovering more efficiencies.
12. Creative HR
An imaginative HR team is vital to a workforce that expands beyond the confines of an office or country.
There may be differences in health care plans, perks, or even currencies for remote employees, but a flexible structure for dealing with these differences now will help you expand later.
Solution: Employ least one HR staff member who’s worked remotely themselves or worked with remote workers with good results. They’re better equipped to know the kinds of qualities to screen for in interview and ways of team-building that are open to remote workers.
If your HR staff see being remote as too much of a hassle to work around, then they’re going to be a rate-limiting step. If it’s not IT being too cautious in traditional companies, it’s usually HR not knowing what forms the new hire needs.
People who have worked remotely themselves or with others successfully are more inclined to find solutions for new challenges or changes a remote team can bring.
Working remotely has its challenges for employees, management, IT and HR. But most of these challenges are due to a way of thinking and working that don’t even serve us well in terms of clarity, focus, output and creativity.
The solutions for working with remote coworkers result in better work and healthier communication with everyone. It gives your company a flexibility and adaptability that allows it to retain talent longer: if you can’t offer someone a raise? They can opt to work from home. Flexible working for new parents? Not a problem.
Remote works give smaller companies the advantages of having offices in other countries and regions without the big price tag. It helps you stay diverse and sensitive to other cultures.
Today, our market is global. Your team will need to be too, someday.
For more design culture and workflow advice, download The Definitive Guide to Integrating UX and Agile.
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