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Rebuild your design team’s culture with the 3 Cs

Susie Hall
Feb 17 · 5 min read

The culture of a design team is its heartbeat. In the best groups, it’s reliable, palpable, and energizing. In troubled ones, it’s inconsistent, weak, and debilitating. This pandemic has challenged even the heartiest of workplace cultures, with the demands of remote collaboration taking their toll. Now that all the effort spent recreating organic social connections through incessant happy hours has slowed, many leaders find themselves wondering what to do next to keep teams connected.

But there’s hope! The fearless leaders in our InsideOut Design Leader Community gathered to explore ways to breathe new life into their work environments and press the reset button on stalled culture initiatives. Following are tips for revisiting customs that connect your team and its partners and finding what works for your unique band of creatives.

COLLECT

Before setting off on a “fix-it” spree, take time to review your current state, uncover the gaps and opportunities, and make sure you have the support you need to drive change.

People. First figure out who on your direct and indirect teams really needs to understand each other, deliver on shared goals, and collaborate well on a regular basis. Trying to bring everyone together for update meetings, social gatherings, and knowledge sharing will only compound the current video meeting fatigue and potentially waste time. While reviewing the staff, identify which employees already naturally bring people together or show interest in building culture — you’ll need them later.

Information. Once you know who your audience is, launch a listening tour to uncover what they want and where they feel the gaps are in the current work environment and culture. Are there too many gatherings already? Do they constantly have to revise work because they were left out of critical discussions? Would they value free time to work more than fun time with teammates? Make sure you’re solving problems they feel are worth it. Plus, when your ideas come from the staff (bottom up!), you’ll have a lot more engagement when you roll them out.

Funding. Many budgets don’t include discretionary spend for team-building and culture-related activities, especially not for costs that cross P&L lines. While you could wait until you have an amazing idea and hope someone’s willing to chip in to pay for it, you’ll save time and frustration by gathering budget commitment from all involved teams in advance. With no skin in the game, leaders of other groups will deprioritize (or derail) your plans, so get their buy-in up front.

CONNECT

So you’ve got your audience, your insights, and your funding. Now what? It’s time to start connecting the right people at the right time on the right topics.

The Right Meetings. Make sure every meeting has a purpose and a tight agenda, with only attendees who will benefit from or add to the conversation. One option is to gather leaders who need to walk in step but don’t already have a forum to do so. Keep that meeting lean and high level, use a timer, and set the expectation that its intent is to uncover, not solve, problems. Another suggestion is to find your areas of highest friction. Do the front- and back-end teams avoid one another, though their work is inextricably linked? Get them in a room together and build bridges. The work of connecting the right people will pay off.

Culture Clubs. Remember those folks you identified earlier who are already good at bringing people together? It’s time to engage them in a “Culture Club.” Their mission is to work across the staff to gather ideas and create structured events that build and reinforce your team’s culture. Give them responsibility (and that budget you secured!), along with the time needed to get the work done. Also, offering events during the day sends a message to all that culture is as important as the work itself, so don’t just rely on after-hours connections.

Resilience. Culture is the accumulation of the interactions of your team; it changes over time and begins the day they join. So once you’ve nailed down your audience and your ongoing activities that bring culture to life, make sure those rituals get hardwired into your process, starting on Day One. Onboarding new hires is an incredible time to give your existing staff an opportunity to pass along their knowledge and to set the stage for newbies.

CLARIFY

As a final step, refine and simplify. Proactively review your workflow to shore up areas where confusion slows the progress to achieving your goals.

Roles. A simple lack of clarity on who does what leads to fear and territorial behavior, which will counteract any effort to maintain a positive and cohesive work environment. Start with your own team: Does everyone have clear job responsibilities? Does each member understand how they fit into the overall team and where the team itself fits into the entire process? Tracking back from business goals to individual contributions illuminates the importance of all roles and removes any fears of redundancy.

Priorities. Having a clear and agreed-upon process for prioritization is mission critical. When anyone, at any time, can point to criteria that guides decision-making, your team can spend less time quibbling over what’s most important and more time solving customer problems. If you’re in a highly measured organization and committed to culture, make it an OKR! Rising engagement and employee satisfaction scores will confirm your success.

Candor. To overcome the inevitable misunderstandings quickly, be sure any culture you’re building fosters a safe space where candor is encouraged. Being able to openly discuss challenges and provide feedback constructively boosts morale and supports individual staff development. Radical Candor remains the gold standard for how to bring an entire team along on the journey to honest and genuine critique that drives results.

All this may sound like a lot of work, and it is. But it’s absolutely worth it. A great work environment improves results, draws the best talent to your team, and retains them through all the changes to come. Make no mistake, as the economy rebounds, companies who have left culture unattended will struggle as their key players depart for awesome team environments where they can thrive. So even if it’s not in your job description, don’t wait for someone else to fix it. Use the 3 Cs to Collect, Connect, and Clarify for your team today. The success story you will write by spearheading positive change will go with you to your next job.

If you’re a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let’s talk. Our InsideOut Community hosts virtual roundtables to support the learning, growth, and sanity of our members, and I’m honored to get to facilitate those discussions.

What are YOU doing to rebuild the work environment for your team in this new and changing world? Please share in the comments. Stay safe out there. Let’s keep learning together!

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