Creating a community, not a team

Hi, I’m TJ, and until recently I was design lead at Home Office Digital, part of the UK Government (herein HOD).

HOD have a team of 10(ish) designers and are part of a wider government community of 100+ designers, working across the UK in various ministerial departments.

Creating a Government-wide community for design is a task already being tackled, but with the growth of the HOD team we had to think of some nifty ways to keep the design community together within the Home Office.

First of all, let me explain why it’s a community, not a team. A team, at least to me, is an assembled group of people with a leader and probably some sort of hierarchy, a boss or something. A community, on the other hand, is an opt-in, self assembling group with a flat structure and a lot of peer to peer respect. A community might have a leader, but it’s not a parochial micro-organisation with a dictatorial regime.

HOD have seen a lot of benefit from co-locating digital geniuses within project teams. Small, cross-functional teams with representation from design, research, development, delivery and the business is working really well. This is an amazing way to ensure great digital services, but it can be a little isolating for those team members, especially if you’re miles away from the main London office in one of the digital hubs (Fleet St, Croydon, and the beautiful Sheffield).

We adopted a number of methods to keep designers from burning out in isolation.

Buddies. HOD often pair designers who can help each other. Whether that is a new designer to the community being paired with a veteran, or 2 designers being paired for their symbiotic skill-sets, we’ve seen it work.

Meet-ups. Awesome mini-conferences. We have cross government meet-ups where there’s a nice chance for the heads of design to try and impress each other with projects which will change the way people interact with government, and 2 eager designers get the chance to deep-dive in to their current work. After that we get an external speaker in to break up the gov’ stuff a bit. We also have HOD meet-ups fortnightly which follow a similar format, but with fewer people. The designers from the Croydon, Sheffield, and Fleet St offices come to Marsham Street HQ and we all get to see each other, often finishing with…

Lunch. We all have lunch, right? If you’re one of those people who doesn’t, start. You need a break in the middle of the day! Since we’re now agreed stopping for a while mid-day is good, why not all go together? It gives you a chance to get out of the office scenery and have a chat with your estranged colleagues from the next floor down.

Slack chat. With gifs. We use slack in the design team. It’s not secure so it isn’t a panacea for internal comms, but it does a mighty good job of sending gifs of kittens falling asleep whilst walking with the poignant caption of “#monday”. Kitten gifs aside, having a sort of ‘common room’ where you can have those conversations teachers kept to the staff room has been great for morale in HOD.

Field trips. Just admit it, designers, you’re design geeks aren’t you? There are some amazing exhibitions in various cities around the UK which will probably appeal to several team members. Great chance to see each other in a different setting and <cringe>bond a bit</cringe>.

You know when viking armies would lock shields and make an almost impenetrable wall of heavy wood? Well a design community is like that, but with macbooks (cliché, I know)

Having the backing of a community gives our profession a certain amount of gravitas with other parts of the organisation who might not have worked with designers before. It also allows us to collectively peer-review each others work in an ego-less friendly way, or reach out to each other when we need subject matter expertise with something new to us.

From experience, creating a community around you, rather than a team beneath you, can result in a much happier and more productive design capability. I’m biased, but I think HOD are a great case-study for the benefits of ego-less, flat structured design teams. Sure there’s a ‘design lead’ but that’s just a person to act as a single point of contact for the community, it could be anybody.



RegTech Product guy. Currently NSW Government. Prev: UK Gov, Jaguar Land Rover, Apple & more stuff. Been around the block. Ex digi lecturer. Designers can code!

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TJ Harrop

RegTech Product guy. Currently NSW Government. Prev: UK Gov, Jaguar Land Rover, Apple & more stuff. Been around the block. Ex digi lecturer. Designers can code!