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5 key ways to get your remote team in sync

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on May 23, 2017 6:00:00 AM
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When Suzanne Ferguson, a user experience designer at Nureva, wakes up each morning, her day begins in delightful solitude – with a cup of coffee, a few yoga poses and choosing a podcast for her walk to work. But before all that is done, she makes it a habit to check in online with her UX team. Collaborating with other designers is at the heart of her role.

“We have to collaborate – or we’re going to create a product with an arm attached to a knee and the foot coming out the ear,” says Suzanne. “And none of the pieces are going to look like they belong to the same body.”

But there’s another reason she checks in early. While Suzanne works in Nureva’s head office in Calgary, Canada, the rest of her team is in Ottawa, thousands of miles and two time zones away.

At the beginning, the team (consisting of Suzanne, the three other UX designers and team lead Mark Fletcher) made it their priority to keep connected and work collaboratively, regardless of distance. When they first began working as a dispersed team, it wasn’t easy. But in the past two years, they learned some lessons about what makes their remote team click.

Here are their top 5 tips for keeping a remote team in sync.

Making your remote processes work for everyone

1. Lay the groundwork for success

When a design team hires its first remote worker or makes the decision to be dispersed, it’s easy to jump right into the day-to-day work. But according to Mark, that’s a mistake.

“Making your processes work for everyone, including remote people, is something you can’t let slide,” he says. In managing his team, he’s made sure to take the time to set up expectations and get the right tools and processes in place so the team doesn’t suffer for it later.

In his very first meeting with Suzanne, Mark made time to talk about remote work. It’s a conversation that Suzanne remembers – not the details, but the assurance that the quality of the remote experience wasn’t just on her shoulders. “I knew it was something that Mark wanted to make work,” she says.

Keeping your remote design team connected

2. Make deposits into your team’s collaborative bank account

In the two years since that phone call, things haven’t always run perfectly. And that’s okay. “You’ll always have ebbs and flows in the amount of process work that you need to do in remote collaboration,” Mark says. “And then it will get back to smooth sailing.”

Mark isn’t afraid to stop and take stock of how things are going – and then devote time to make things better. “Sometimes the remote experience is the thing we work on. Sometimes it’s actually more important than the content or the feature or the design.”

One of his strategies is to make sure his team knows to tell him when issues spring up. “I have to be open to those discussions and not be defensive,” he says. Problems can be little – team members in other time zones booking a two-hour meeting right at lunch hour – or more concerning. But either way, taking the time to communicate instead of allowing it to fester is crucial.

And it’s not just Mark. When it comes to team collaboration, every member of the team needs to know how the small details count. “Interaction is so important among designers – making decisions and getting someone else to quickly review work,” says Suzanne. “It’s important to remember that you’re not working alone even though you’re the only one sitting in a particular physical location.”

So rather than becoming isolated or working on their design piece in a vacuum, they reach out to each other frequently – a quick message on Skype for Business™, a phone call or email. And when the budget allows, travel between the offices makes a difference. “I think that definitely builds up the team’s collaborative bank account,” Mark adds.

Better meetings with remote design teams

3. Beware the fly-on-the-wall meeting experience

In his career, Mark has been in many remote meetings, both good and bad ones. When he realized he’d be managing a UX team with a remote employee, he was determined to avoid what he thinks is one of the biggest pitfalls of the remote experience – the fly-on-the-wall meeting experience.

“What can happen is the in-room conversation is much more dynamic and people know when to cut in,” Mark says. “Eventually, the remote person feels like she’s a fly on the wall – just observing the meeting.”

After seeing this happen a few times with his team, Mark searched for a better way. Now, when the UX team meets, they skip the meeting room entirely and the whole team calls in from their desks.

“It levels the playing field and creates a scenario where Suzanne is on an equal footing with everybody else in the meeting,” Mark says. “It’s not always a perfect meeting, but whatever happens, we’re all experiencing it together.”

When people do need to meet in a room, the team does everything they can to maintain that equal footing. Having everyone turn on their video makes a big difference – as does finding an audio conferencing solution that can capture dynamic conversation.

“Being able to see and hear the team that is colocated is really important for the remote people who are by themselves,” says Mark. “It gives them a better sense of when it’s the right time to break into the conversation, without feeling like they’re interrupting.”

Tools for remote teams

4. Set up a shared digital space for collaboration

Just as every meeting needs to put everyone on a level playing field, so do the team’s creation tools. Nureva’s UX team relies on Span™ Workspace, our own digital collaboration solution, to trade ideas and gather feedback.

For Mark and Suzanne, there’s a crucial difference between Span Workspace and the screen sharing tools they previously used for remote collaboration.

“When you’re screen sharing, it’s one to many,” says Mark. “People don’t feel like they can contribute – they might feel like they’re interrupting. They stop participating or cocreating – instead, they just absorb. There’s a lost creativity factor.”

Using a shared digital canvas is different. “If I have a prototype up, other people from my team can just ink on it,” Suzanne says. “Or they can throw some sticky notes on. They can even quickly mock-up something and throw it up on the canvas. It’s like we’re working in physically the same place.”

Span Workspace lets the Nureva UX team collaborate on problems that need to be solved or build lists of requirements. It’s also Suzanne’s favorite way to make sense of the user testing she does.

“Initially, I organize based on the person giving the feedback. But then I’ll start to see themes and patterns emerging in the feedback. I’ll reorganize it in a different way, looking for those patterns, looking for the most important things that we need to act on.”

Make empathy a verb in remote teams

5. Make empathy a verb

Technology tools for remote collaboration are helpful, and so are strong collaborative design processes. But Mark and Suzanne both think there’s something that makes more of a difference – empathy.

For the team, empathy isn’t a vague feeling – it’s all the small actions each team member takes to ensure that physical location isn’t a factor in their team’s activities.

For example, when decisions are made, usually a team member takes the role of soliciting responses from the remote person. “If certain people are dominating the conversation, we might purposely break discussion off and give the remote person an opportunity to speak,” Mark says. “It’s a good habit to get into.”

The responsibility goes both ways. “If you’re not feeling up to speed, or you feel like you’ve missed part of a conversation about a design, you need to speak up,” says Suzanne. “You can’t always rely on other people to be watching out.”

Little by little, all these interactions add up to better communication and better designs. And by getting the best from everyone, regardless of location, the team can make sure that distance won’t hold anyone back.

Topics: Design Thinking Remote Work