Designing Your Remote “Office”

“So, where do your designers sit?”

I was at a lunch table during a design leadership conference late last year, chatting with other leaders in the industry. This question left me…confused.

I finally realized what we were talking about and laughed. I’ve spent the vast majority of my career working remotely. Figuring out where designers should physically “sit” in an office had never occurred to me as a potential challenge in leading design teams.

Seating arrangements aside, remote teams encounter most of the same challenges you’d find in co-located teams. They just tend to be amplified.

The Elements of Great Creative Environments

As with any leadership position, leading a remote team isn’t about you. Your job isn’t to solve all the problems. That’s your team’s job. It’s what they are great at.

Your job is to create the best environment for them to do great work.

But what does the best environment mean for a remote team? Ultimately, the most important aspects aren’t related to the physical space. Here are a few things that have stood out for me in my two years of leading design teams at Automattic:

Psychological safety first.
Imposter syndrome can run rampant in remote companies. While working, often through text communication, you’re missing the body language, social cues, and hallway chatter of a physical office. It’s amazing how much we pick up from these seemingly minor interactions. In the absence of the information we gain from these, our brains try to fill in the blanks (and often assuming the worst-case scenario).

Doing great work requires taking risks…and sometimes failing. Teams need to know they have the space to take those risks, knowing that they will sometimes be wrong. This requires actively fostering a culture of learning over blaming. What did you learn this week? How will that change what you do next week?

Practice retrospectives and make feedback a normal part of the work. Improvement requires vulnerability — it’s an admission that there is room to improve in the first place. Also, as a leader, make it okay to be vulnerable by being vulnerable first. What could you have done better? What are you working on improving?

The entire team will become stronger through these candid conversations if you make it safe to have them.

Always be creating clarity.
Leaders live in ambiguity, it comes with the territory. But part of the job in leadership is eliminating that ambiguity for your team. This isn’t about telling people how to do things. As noted above, it’s not your job to solve all the problems. Your job is to build alignment and a shared understanding of what you are trying to accomplish.

What is our strategy for this work? What are our priorities? How do they relate to the bigger-picture business goals? Why does it matter to the world? How will we know when we got it right?

Be on the lookout for issues with any of these. Shield your team from distractions and remove ambiguity so they can focus on what matters.

Building relationships is key, but it’s a long game.
The relationships you build with the people you work with are an amplifier of your own impact — whether that’s between designer and developer, marketing and product person, or lead and team member.

As a lead, treat one-on-ones as sacred time. Don’t use them as status updates. They are about building trust over the long run and getting to know people beyond the work. And one-and-ones aren’t only for lead and team member. They can also be good for connecting peers, and reaching out to across silos.

These are part of your remote watercooler.

Make room for team rituals.
Yes, your team is remote. No, you don’t have a shared office space. You don’t have traffic and commutes to complain about. You don’t have a snack room where you stop to chat. You don’t have drinks at a nearby bar after a big launch.

Being remote doesn’t mean you are all work, all the time. Maybe you have a special emoji to applaud someone in Slack. Maybe you post a new cover of Despacito every Friday.* Maybe you bring your drink-of-choice to celebrate a win on your team hangout.

It doesn’t matter what it is, only that you make room for it and encourage it.

There’s nothing here that’s unique to remote teams. The medium changes, and the dynamics may be a little different. As a leader of a remote team, you might have to work just a bit harder or pay more attention to the details. In the end, intentionally designing your remote environment will lay the foundation that great teams need to succeed.

*Well, maybe not every Friday. 🙂 

Photo Credit: Matteo Vistocco