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MANAGING DISTRIBUTED DESIGN TEAMS & ADJUSTING TO COVID-19

Warren Hutchinson
Mar 23 · 12 min read

CREATING A CULTURE OF PRODUCTIVITY, AUTONOMY & COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

An empty ELSE studio
An empty ELSE studio

PREFACE — WHY I WROTE THIS

At the time of writing, the UK and much of the world is one or two weeks into forced isolation and remote working. I wrote this article in response to a conversation I had at a BIMA Online Roundtable, where we discussed how the digital industry might need to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Sustaining a creative and productive culture with a distributed team

OK, LET’S BEGIN…

The way we work changed this week as we have to improve where we work and how.

  • The second, to rethink how we manage and distribute work so that it gets done effectively.

WHAT HAS CHANGED?

Working in a distributed team doesn’t mean that teams do things the way we always have, but with the complication of being in separate locations, connected by video conference. It’s one thing to take the work home, but due to the change in context, it’s quite another to work well from home.

FROM WORKING ON TASKS TO WORKING ON GOALS

In a typical design consultancy environment, much of how we work is taken for granted. The very physical nature of the studio, the proximity of desks, the areas that encourage natural interaction (i.e. coffee machines, kitchens, sofas), mean that the space is responsible for driving many happy accidents. I’m assuming that you buy into the idea that these soft, unplanned exchanges that take place between people in a team are valuable, but to state the obvious, in a distributed team this vaporises. So you have to do other things to facilitate the ambient and non-task related exchange between people.

A SHIFT TO MORE ENGAGING AND PURPOSEFUL WORK

About 18 months ago at ELSE, we adopted a 4-day working week, which because of reduced hours requires individuals and teams to be both purposeful and effective in what they do and how they organise each day.

SO WHAT TO DO?

The best definition I’ve read on what purposeful means is ‘sustained attention with clear intention’. Put another way, attention resolves to focus, and intention resolves to hitting goals.

UNITING TWO THEORIES

In this section, I’m going to combine two theories of work, author Dan Pink’s concept of Motivation 3.0 and executive coach, Dave Crenshaw’s concept of Most Valuable Activities or MVAs.

MOTIVATION 3.0 — ORGANISING WORK

In his book Drive — The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink makes a case for a new model of workplace engagement which he calls ‘Motivation 3.0’ swapping the carrot and stick approach to motivation for ‘intrinsic motivation’. Here is a brilliant article (11minute read), that introduces you to those concepts but you should, of course, read the book.

MVAs — ACCOUNTABLE, PURPOSEFUL WORK

A cursory search of MVAs is likely to deliver you to posts on MTV’s Music Video Awards. Still, we’re talking about Most Valuable Activities, a concept introduced by productivity expert, David Crenshaw.

  • In doing so, I share my intention, my plan that I understand a clear finish line for my day — I know what a good day looks like
  • I’m committing to getting to a certain point
  • It increases team transparency and empathy
  • The rest of the team understand what I’m doing and I know what they are doing
  • The project manager is assured of progress across the team
  • Any synergies, dependencies or blockers can be picked up in the stand-up, but followed-up afterwards
  • At the end of the day we wrap-up with a 15-minute project ‘Checkout’, we state how far we got, and a sense of collective satisfaction is felt by all.

GOALS, OBJECTIVES & TASKS

To make use of the concepts discussed, we need to know the difference between goals and tasks, and again, this is a whole post in itself so let’s keep it simple.

  • improving my defence play and
  • improving my fitness.

IN SUMMARY

What I’ve written is verbose, I apologise, and yes it could be sharper and more straightforward, but I’m trying to help by drawing attention to an opportunity. And that is surviving this crisis goes beyond merely having teams function remotely. We need to think about how we distribute and manage work that’s so that it is more engaging, more empowering, and cultivate a culture of autonomy, purpose and collective responsibility.

TIPS FOR LEADERS

  • Organise work into goals — what gap do we wish to close in this phase?
  • Set-up the week so the goals are discussed by the team and broken down
  • Start and finish the day with short ceremonies, punctuate the end of the day and enable real rest
  • Also, look to create light-touch moments of connection between people, stand-ups and checkouts go so far but have a shared tea-break or lunchtime
  • Set-up Zoom channels that stay on all day, allowing people to ambiently share air time — not all comms should have a purpose.
  • Other face-to-face activities also change such as brainstorms, workshops, thinking time, and general collaboration. It’s far easier for ideas to be quashed when people are not together — and you never really know how people feel once a video call ends. Leaders should be conscious of this too.
  • Objective 2 — Complete the near-future user journeys 1 & 2
  • Objective 3 — Complete the future state user journey 3
  • Objective 4 — Develop the interaction design language and toolkit to apply to the above
  • Objective 5 — Dry run, capture changes, update.

TIPS FOR INDIVIDUALS

  • Focus on MVAs first
  • Cultivate deep work — i.e. use the Pomodoro Technique, and use focus soundtracks such as Binaural Beats (Gamma Waves are good for concentration) or other Music for Concentration playlists from Spotify
  • Note distracting thoughts. Write on a separate piece of paper those things that occur while working with focus. It happens.
  • Use an Eisenhower Matrix for decision making and prioritisation
  • Turn your own objectives into bite-sized tasks (and attack in Pomodoros)
  • Take regular breaks
  • Learn to say no
  • Don’t wait for inspiration, just get started because progress is motivating
  • Don’t multi-task — it’s a lie
  • Rest. And rest properly.
  • Sharpen your axe — which means master your tools, Abraham Lincoln famously said “If you gave me six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening my axe”
  • Learn what works and what doesn’t work for you.

SUGGESTED READING/WATCH LIST

  • Drive — The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
  • Shorter — How Working Less Will Revolutionise the Way Your Company Gets Things Done by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  • The Joy of Work — 30 Ways to Fix Your Work Culture and Fall in Love with Your Job Again by Bruce Daisley
  • Rest — Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  • Bounce — The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed
  • Grit — The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
  • Flow — The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • Switched-On by Matt Clarke (a brilliant TED Talk on purpose)
  • Most Valuable Activities by David Crenshaw
  • The Myth of Multi-tasking by David Crenshaw

ELSE

ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses…

Warren Hutchinson

Written by

Founder & Chief Experience Officer at ELSE - An experience design consultancy helping businesses to create products & services that change behaviour.

ELSE

ELSE

ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create transformative product and service opportunities. We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

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