Running an effective remote design team

Around this time last year, I got an interesting call on Slack.

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Automattic had recently organized its mobile teams into a new division called Hogwarts, and our new division lead Cate Huston had embraced her new identity. I was coming off of several weeks of time off after surgery to repair a nerve in my hand that I severed during a cooking accident. Feeling down and sorry for myself, I was having a hard time getting back into the rhythm of work. But I was jolted out of my inertia by the reason for Cate’s call: to talk about forming a mobile design team within Hogwarts, with me as its lead.

I love mobile design, and with a second product designer set to join Hogwarts, I knew it was the right time to start a design team. Despite having never really felt like much of a leader, I thought it made sense for me to do it. And so, the Ministry of Magic was formed. I was nervous at first, and made plenty of mistakes. But through a process of constant iteration not unlike how we make products at Automattic, I’ve gone from being a reluctant leader to an enthusiastic one. I’m far from an expert on this topic, but Hogwarts, once an organization where design was often an afterthought, has become one that has an effective design team at its center. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned in my first year as a lead.

Work across disciplines.

There’s only three designers on our team (for now!) but the group of people we interact with daily is many times that number. That’s because each of us work in project squads, where we’re the person in charge of leading that project’s design. Every day, we’re getting feedback from engineers and support specialists dedicated to our products, as well as data scientists, copy editors, marketing experts, and more, depending on the project. When we present design work for critique, we don’t limit the audience to our design team; we open it up to mobile engineers, designers from other teams, and anyone else who’s interested enough to follow our team’s P2. Design is never siloed away from development or support, but working together regularly to ensure that we’re capturing as diverse a set of viewpoints as possible in our work.

Build a personal connection.

As a lead, your team needs to know that you care about them personally, and that your job is to help them succeed. If you embrace this, it will show through in all your interactions, but I’ve found that the most important is the weekly one-on-one. I wasn’t sure what to do with these at first, but at a leadership training workshop for team leads that was sponsored by Automattic, I learned more about how I can use these weekly check-ins not just to learn about what my teammate’s been up to, but also how they’re feeling, and what they need from me. What they’re worried about, what’s stressing them out, what they need feedback on. Asking these kinds of questions every week is useful on multiple levels: it gives my teammate a chance to tell me about things they might not immediately remember, or problems they might not want to proactively bring up. And it reminds them that I care about their success, and that I’m here to help them achieve it.

Communicate, maybe more than is comfortable.

In a remote team, communication is oxygen. You don’t benefit from the same non-verbal signals that your colleagues are present, or that they’re trying to concentrate, or that they’re having a hard time. So you have to proactively create opportunities to communicate. Writing a daily standup in our Slack channel allows us to start our day with intention, and signal to each other that we’re present and available. Weekly or bi-weekly one-on-ones build the personal connection I mentioned before. I stay in close contact with the engineering lead on my project, and the leads on my teammates’ projects, to make sure that design is serving the wider division as it should. I try to surface news that affects our product, or things that can provide inspiration, or provoke discussions about our product or our process. Far from the stereotype of remote work as an isolating experience, I’ve found that working remotely requires communicating far more often, and in more detail, than I did when I worked in an office.

It’s dangerous to go alone!

You’ll need a mentor or a coach in this process. You will eventually have frustrations, worries, and downright scary situations to navigate. If you’re like me, no amount of management literature or training will make you feel completely sure of your footing, so having a mentor was invaluable for me. I’m lucky in that my boss is an amazing leader who was willing to give feedback and support every time I needed it. You might also get this from a coach or a friend who’s had similar experience. Automattic recommends (and pays for) outside coaches for any team leads who want them; that’s something I plan to make use of eventually as well.

Never stop learning.

When those frustrating or scary situations arise, you may second-guess your decision to become a leader. But in hindsight, those situations are the ones that motivated me the most to improve. In the hardest times I’ve faced as a lead, I’ve worked with my lead and my other colleagues to extract all of the valuable perspective from those situations, and to figure out what we should do differently in the future. Through this process, we’ve gotten a lot better at things we weren’t the best at in the beginning, like onboarding new designers to the team. And while I’m proud to say that we’ve become an effective team, I know we’ll keep trying things, making mistakes, and learning as we grow — all along the way, asking ourselves how we can make products that serve our customers better than they do today.

As always: if you’re a talented product designer who loves remote work, we’re hiring.

Originally published on A8C Design.

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