How Design Teams Can Stay Connected While Working Remotely

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Design is a collaborative process of shaping ideas and solving problems. It involves gaining a common understanding, then quickly diverging and converging on ideas. The best work happens when feedback is gathered and designs are iterated on. This might conjure up an image of a group of creatives in a studio with sticky notes plastered to the walls, hand-drawn sketches, and ideas flying. This is certainly one way of working and staying connected as a team, but is it the only way?

Here at PubNub, our design team is spread across the globe and the majority of our work is done remotely. Since the pandemic, we’ve found that you don’t need to be in the same room to do great design and having a fully distributed team can develop a company culture just as strong as an in-person team. 

In this blog, we’ll talk about how we’ve adapted our creative process and share tips for staying connected as a remote design team.

Design team challenges with hybrid and remote work

Some of the world’s top design teams are remote workers (e.g. Invision, GitLab, Doist, Zapier) and have worked remotely for a long time. However, according to research, receiving feedback, replicating informal conversations, and maintaining a clear direction on projects has been a big challenge for remote employees.

Our tips for remote teams

As a remote design team ourselves, we believe it’s important to build trust and bring energy and collaboration to our design work. At its core, our process remains the same: a cycle of research, ideation, prototyping, testing and refinement. But the communication tools and work environment that these activities take place in are different. 

This is how we are able to collaborate successfully in a remote environment: 

Build communication habits 

Our team has a private Slack channel which is a small and safe space for any designers to reach out for some quick feedback or inspiration. It’s our version of spinning our chair around to ask if someone has a few minutes to take a look at something and it replaces the impromptu chats you have naturally in-person. We use this same channel to share work-related design articles, updates about our favorite tools, and the occasional bit of design humor.

Having a remote video conferencing tool to replace face-to-face meetings is also essential. We utilize Zoom for virtual meetings and will often start a Zoom call directly from Slack to streamline our communication. 

Calendar transparency

It’s easier to schedule a check-in and get support if you can see what a colleague has on their calendar. We make sure to put in our focus time so others know to only interrupt if necessary. This also allows us to see whether there’s external user testing or interviews happening.

Be prepared to work asynchronously

Since we are a distributed team, our team members work in different time zones. To ensure that remote collaboration and project management is successful, we schedule team meetings and workshops in the overlap during work days. The limited hours in common have meant that we leverage additional communication methods such as sharing updates and handovers using videos and commenting in docs. This is also helpful when annual leave overlaps and allows us to keep a record of feedback and decisions made.

Collaborate in small groups

We find that unless it’s a highly structured workshop, collaboration is most productive and engaging in smaller groups. We do this by having two or three members of our design team jump into Mural or Figma to brainstorm ideas or make edits.

Additionally, we hold design reviews to share best practices and to learn and recognize overlaps in work. These work best when the expectations are clear. For instance, allowing five minutes for a visual introduction and setting boundaries for feedback is really important, especially when stakeholders are involved and may steer towards certain types of feedback (e.g. remarking on visuals and copy when we are more focused on getting an overall flow and concept that makes sense). 

We’ve also found that pairing up with engineers and working live to solve problems or make small improvements in real time can increase productivity. It’s not uncommon for us to jump on a video call and work in this way to support smaller styling tweaks.

Hold workshops, not meetings

We hold online workshops that follow the same format as in-person meetings, where structure is essential. To do this, we use virtual whiteboard tools with templates set up beforehand and time boxed activities to move a group of colleagues through phases of understanding, ideation, and feedback. 

When we’re collaborating or getting feedback on work we try to avoid screen sharing. We find that having your video on one screen and a remote product design tool on the other to be the most efficient. The main tools we use allow for the following of cursors, which means you can see what a team member is looking at but you’re also free to add comments and interact with the canvas yourself at the same time. We leverage Mural for remote design workshops and collaboration with others, especially outside the design team as it is accessible and guests can be invited easily.

Make work visible

When working remotely, you lose the ability to stick your work on a physical wall in the office for everyone to see. Virtual equivalents can work even better than this, allowing your work and historical decisions to be available to anyone in the company, anywhere at any time. This can be a helpful record for new starters or if you just need to go back and review the direction or justify decisions. 

We use Confluence Wikis as a workspace to document design projects in progress and leave a trail. This means there’s a single source of truth to refer to and one place to access all historical work and most up to date designs. And because the work we do is often visual in nature, Figma is another collaboration tool that lets us map out the design process by using frames, sharing prototypes/designs, and receiving comments from team members and other stakeholders asynchronously. 

Plan in-person gatherings

It’s no secret that successful remote teams are ones who have spent a little time together at some point in the same physical space. Our team aims to meet in-person once a quarter and when we do this, we make sure the times aren’t just us doing “business as usual” sitting behind computer screens but next to each other in the same room. 

We use these opportunities for long-term planning, team building, and sometimes just having fun. During these meetups, we share meals together, get introduced to the local culture, and previously we’ve also had team members take part in volunteering activities together.

By building trust among your team, you gain the ability to give and receive honest feedback when you’re back to remote design work.

Build relationships and trust

Building relationships and trust within a team is arguably one of the most important aspects of hybrid and remote work. At the beginning of team meetings, we make the time to talk about what’s going on in our personal lives, share photos, and discuss what we’re looking forward to. As a company, we also use affinity channels in Slack to allow people to connect on topics of interest outside work. Remote settings are a great way to let us rethink how we facilitate teamwork and create meaningful connections.

If you’re a developer building apps that enable virtual interactions and collaboration, take a product tour to learn more about how you can get started with PubNub.