With the current pandemic greatly affecting the way teams operate, it’s more important than ever for leaders to encourage connectivity and boost morale on a remote basis.
I was delighted to be joined by a host of industry leaders last week for the latest in our Design Leadership Forum series, “Staying Connected”. Led by Daniel Corder, Head of UX & Design at Gumtree, the virtual event brought forward a range of ideas and experiences around supporting the mental wellbeing of their teams in these unusual circumstances, and using tools to maintain productivity and collaboration.
Here are a few key takeaways from the event:
The significant shift in business practices that has emerged as a result of COVID has already begun to have an impact on design teams. Particularly among cross-functional design ‘squads’, there is a growing tendency for teams to be siloed, a concern which has been compounded by the lack of a central office. The absence of physical face time is not just affecting creativity, as teams have no shared space to collaborate on new ideas, but many designers have also struggled to get their thoughts across as intended over message-based platforms: phrasing can easily be misconstrued, resulting in less efficient communication of ideas.
Aside from the business impact, design leaders are also concerned about the effect of remote working on their teams’ personal wellbeing. With most interactions taking place in a meeting format, there is a distinct lack of the banal, water cooler chat where inspiration often springs from. Without this ‘real human interaction’ to break up the day, many employees
are suffering from burnout and a lack of energy towards their work. Similarly, working from home and the lack of an office schedule has left many feeling isolated and at times overworked, finding it difficult to switch off at the end of the day.
Although it can be argued that connectivity has been made easier through the removal of booking in face-to-face meetings in favour of impromptu video calls and group chats, the above concerns indicate that there are still issues that need to be resolved.
For any design leader, success starts with facilitating effective connectivity within teams. Most managers are using a mixture of tools to achieve this, usually comprised of a chat-based platform like Slack or Teams, a video-based app such as Zoom or Hangouts (Teams also covers this function), and a range of collaborative design platforms such as Miro and Figma.
As the world begins to open up again, some leaders are beginning to facilitate informal in-person meetings, but for now the general consensus is that even just making time for informal chats and regular individual and team catch-ups is conducive to maintaining a positive attitude.
The wider business
In order to combat teams being siloed, many businesses are looking to better connect their designers with the wider business, through initiatives such as involving people from different
departments in initial discussions for maximum buy-in, and buddying employees up with teammates from different offices to share working practices and ideas between locations.
For some companies, adapting their services to deliver remotely is a challenge, sometimes requiring an entire company strategy shift or pivoting into alternative verticals and products to suit the current climate. When it comes to engaging with users, however, COVID has provided a range of new opportunities. For example, remote testing is now a much more widespread means of gathering feedback from users; as people’s familiarity with digital communication increases, tools such as Validately, Lookback and Dscout are already becoming increasingly valuable to design leaders. Remote communication also allows a deeper level of accessibility, be it for connecting with users in other regions, increasing diversity and reach, or even for engaging stakeholders without having to book in-person meetings around busy travel schedules.
The unique challenges created by COVID have prompted many businesses to pay more attention to the wellbeing of their employees, and this is especially true for line managers. As facilitator Dan noted:
‘Happiness shines through our product. It helps keep us in our workplace, helps to focus us, and allows our brains to be more creative, solve problems, and identify opportunities.’
In many cases, promoting happiness within teams is focused around trying to break up the monotony of back-to-back meetings and be a little more flexible with expectations. Some of our design leaders have introduced schemes such as flexible working and productivity outlooks, blackout hours where employees cannot be scheduled into meetings, and even wellbeing days to focus on their personal health. Similarly, lots of people have implemented changes to the meeting structure, whether it be starting early for an informal chat, cutting meetings by five minutes to encourage breaks, ending meetings early where appropriate, or even urging participants to take their meetings outside when they do not need to be actively present on camera.
Many team leaders are also arranging optional fun activities outside of work time to make up for a lack of social bonding time. Although there are some challenges regarding maintaining engagement during non-mandatory calls, managers are finding the sweet spot with a mix of quizzes, virtual team drinks, themed social calls, and ‘brown bag sessions’ where team members present on a hobby, interest, or topic of their choice to colleagues.
Although businesses have no doubt faced many challenges over the past few months, it has also yielded some unexpected benefits. Despite concerns that hours gained from the lack of a commute have been replaced by some choosing to work extended hours, it is undeniable that being at home has had a positive effect on the work-life balance of many employees – people are able to spend more time with their families and are not stuck in the office until late in the evening.
This balance is also useful to consider when engaging in research and testing – many design leaders have found that users are currently more relaxed and willing to chat. Increased
confidence with online tools has also made it easier to reach international users, which in turn makes opening business up to new regions a very achievable goal.
In a time where concerns around communication and efficiency are at the back of every manager’s mind, design leaders have stepped up, using digital proficiency as a chance to bring
their craft to the forefront of conversation and set the groundwork for a more connected, happy future for their teams and wider organisations.