10 things to try when leading a remote design and creative team

April 2nd, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe has forced many businesses into a remote work environment, whether they had the infrastructure built or not. Certain departments are more impacted than others; a remote design and creative team being one of those. With design and creative work being so highly visual and collaborative, adapting can be difficult. 

FFW was built upon the need to effectively collaborate across the globe and thrive in a remote environment. We’ve learned over the years how to make this work to our advantage, like using it to provide clients with 24 hours design and development cycles.

Here are some of the best practices we’ve learned about making a design and creative team work in a global, remote setting.

Leading a remote design and creative team comes with unique challenges

Adapting to a solely remote environment after an in-person office experience is no easy feat. This may be especially true for remote design teams, where the work is highly visual, creative, and requires frequent collaboration.

Remote work adds another layer to peer review and feedback. It requires deep levels of patience and persistence. And it tacks on steps to everyday workflows.

Sharing ideas is no longer as easy as swiveling your chair around to a nearby team member and presenting a rough sketch. Team bonding and engagement are diluted by the barriers of screens. New hires need to be acclimated to new systems that replace typical in-person activities. Meetings can’t take place in the spur of the moment. 

Everything requires forethought and planning.

Each of these challenges, however, can be met with a promising solution. Here are some best practices for leading a remote design and creative team in a way that increases productivity, team happiness, engagement, and quality of work.

#1) Leverage digital whiteboards and cloud based tools

Peer review and feedback are necessities with design work, and having a “physical” way to conceptualize ideas takes a lot of the guesswork out of it.  Sticky notes and whiteboards are a great way to accomplish this on-site, but these can be replaced with digital tools when in a remote space.

Miro, Google's Jamboard, and Mural are powerful and easy tools to collaborate virtually. They're even better if you have hardware like www.vibe.us digital whiteboard. Seriously, sticky notes save a lot of endless debates, and you want to keep your skills in white boarding sharp to prepare for any on-site meetings.

Using cloud based tools to share notes, documents, and assets will help keep everything accessible across the team so important items aren’t getting lost in someone’s personal files.

#2) Set time limits and time for reflection

Setting a time limit for a designated task creates a constraint that allows deeper, richer focus. Encouraging team members to time their efforts or try to complete the task within a limited time will help counteract the distractions that come with working remotely.

Another way for employees to heighten focus is to have two separate chairs for different activities. For example, one chair in their space dedicated to working and the other for reading and learning. This helps break up the activities and prompts their brain to realize what the focus needs to be at that moment.

#3) Turn cameras on for virtual meetings

This holds you accountable for being engaged and creates a better experience for the person on the other end. No one wants to talk to a name or initials on a screen. It’s also recommended to mute Slack and close emails if possible. Multitasking is too easily forgivable in a remote environment.

#4) Encourage team to send progress daily

Sending a note on slack with a few links to what you're working on gets people engaged in ways you'd never expect. A program manager might have valuable insights on a deliverable before it’s sent out, and you might come across hidden talents within your team.

#5) Make your calendar as transparent as possible

We've all worked at organizations that have a sea of "busy" blocked off schedules -- it’s frustrating. Managing a team of designers makes this even more imperative. If they need to schedule a project check-in or get support, it’s important they know you can make the time to be there for them.

#6) Schedule everything

Remote work requires preemptive planning and incessant scheduling to be effective. Calendaring reminders, check-ins, and future projects help ensure work doesn’t get dropped. Even reaching out to employees will require a bit of forethought in a remote environment.

#7) Hold workshops instead of meetings

What do you think when you hear “workshop”? Interactive. Engaging. Hands-on. Activities. Learning.

Now, what do you think when you hear “meeting”? 

Workshops fuel an atmosphere of camaraderie, team work, and education. They’re broken up by activities with a desired purpose and outcome, and are far more engaging than the typical humdrum meeting structure. Crafting an effective workshop can take more time and effort than a regular meeting, but in a design team where the stakes for creativity and innovation are high, this structure is worth it.

#8) Never underestimate group activities

Group activities can help transport your team outside their roles and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. They also create a landscape for people to build closer relationships with their fellow team members and generate new ideas that can be leveraged on other projects.

One popular activity with our team is to have each member design a Super Bowl commercial and share it with the group. The team enjoys the break from work while also getting to use their imaginations in fresh, new ways.

Having a team Spotify playlist boosts morale and brings people together without creating a distraction from work. Everyone loves to share what they’re listening to and hear what others are jamming to while working. 

#9) Focus on the employee

Team building is important; but equally important is focusing on your team at the individual level. Behind every email and message is a human being with a complete life outside of work, full of dreams and aspirations. It’s important to not lose sight of these even though you’re not face to face with them on a daily basis. 

You can focus on your employee by getting all the work conversations out of the way, then meet them at a human level. Get to know what their passions are outside of work. Are there ways those can be utilized in their position? 

Build trust by always giving them credit for their work, and making sure they know their work is valued and important -- because it is! Believe in the work they do. Trust is a two-way street, so it’s important to show you trust them by not micromanaging their projects. 

#10) Be adaptable

Now here’s the hard truth. No one tutorial is going to give the secret formula for managing a remote design team better. It’s up to you to massage out the kinks in your processes and experiment until you find the right approach.

But as long as you view things through the lens of your team, practice empathy, and provide them the tools to grow, it’s going to be a much better experience for everyone.

You’re going to interact with a wide range of personalities and skill sets within your team. Someone doing content audits is going to be an entirely different personality than someone designing a logo. The most important thing is adapting to every new person and situation.

The results from a remote design team can be even better than in-office

Leading a team that thrives in creative, collaborative, and visual settings can be extra challenging in a remote environment. But that doesn’t mean the quality of work will suffer. When done correctly, at home work spaces can provide a level of freedom and flexibility that in person offices cannot. Your team’s output doesn’t need to suffer because of distance.

FFW is here to help you navigate any uncertain territory

FFW was built to exist and thrive in a remote, global environment. The ability to coexist and function as one core team across cultural differences and millions of miles is part of our company’s core DNA. If you find yourself needing help adapting to a remote or digital environment, give us a call. We’re happy to help in any way we can.

Insights by Ben Allgood

Ben leads the experience design team at FFW, which is composed of a handful of UX and UI designers with a vast and diverse array of talents, personalities, and homes across the world. Ben himself has worked remotely his entire career, acquiring comprehensive experience on how to effectively manage and contribute within a remote design team.