Instacart Design
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Instacart Design

Managing in a remote-hybrid world

By Sandhya Talwalker, Product Design Manager

Visual representation of collaboration through remote technology.
Team culture in a remote/hybrid world

As we slowly emerge from a global pandemic, it’s become increasingly clear that “going back to normal,” at least the way we knew it, is somewhat of a mirage. The way we work has changed, some of it permanently so, and more workplaces than ever are embracing fully or partially remote workplaces for the foreseeable future.

Throughout my career as a designer and then as a manager, I’ve built a number of frameworks and practices for different design teams. In doing so, I’ve realized that ultimately, the operational framework remains the same. It’s the pieces around them — environments, people, and circumstances — that change.

I’ve learned a lot about how to support and manage a team remotely as a Product Design Manager at Instacart. It’s been important not just to preserve my own time in order to be more productive, but also to figure out how to enable my team to work well remotely, while still maintaining a feeling of togetherness.

Here’s what I now know about managing a team effectively in a remote-hybrid world.

Rigidity will get you nowhere fast

I wear many hats in my role. On any given day, I could be focusing on scaling my team through hiring, up-levelling our design quality, focusing on strategic partnerships with cross-functional peers within the organization, or giving feedback to ICs (individual contributors) on the Product Design team.

Knowing that my own role can look quite different day-to-day has allowed me to be much more flexible in the way I manage and look at the working ways of my team. For this reason, I don’t like to talk about “process” as though there’s one rubric our team members should be following in order to get things done.

Instead, I like to think about work in terms of rhythms. Each team member has their own rhythm that works for them, and my job is to help each person thrive within those parameters. For example, a junior designer might crave more mentorship and support, while a more senior designer might need more freedom to explore new ideas that inspire them.

Every team — and every person within that team — is different, and goals and objectives change as the goals of the business evolve. Furthermore, the pandemic has only highlighted that each person is dealing with their own unique set of circumstances. Giving team members the flexibility to figure out what works best for them is important to me, and ultimately, it lets us operate better as a team.

Create transparency through communication

Communication has been one of the keys to leading my team effectively while remote. Whether it’s informal chats and a quick hello on Slack or passing on project details, being present and available with my team creates transparency and keeps people engaged.

When in doubt, I tend to steer towards overcommunication. I’d rather have my team members have to tell me “I already knew that” than be kept in the dark because I assumed they were in the loop on something that never got passed along. I make sure to be consistent about passing along updates at regular intervals so that nothing gets missed.

Also, just because we’re not in the same physical space doesn’t mean we can’t still problem solve together. I make sure to hold both team huddles and 1:1 working sessions, where people can bring in the work they’re doing and have a chance to collaborate, share, and discuss. We have cultural norms in place like turning off Slack during these sessions so that everyone has each other’s full attention.

Ramp up recognition

When working remotely, it’s easier to forget to recognize the hard work people are doing. I’ve really made an effort to bump this up while we’re working remotely. I want to make sure our team members get the kudos they deserve, whether it’s through Slack, team meetings, or All Hands meetings.

Team “crits” — or critiques — are an important tool within the Product Design team to share work and get the feedback and recognition that people need in order to grow. On our team, we have both small and large team crits.

Small team crits are a great way for designers to get intimate feedback on their work in a safe, collaborative space. They’re also an opportunity for designers to practice presenting, experimenting, iterating, and framing design problems and solutions within the immediate team and cohort.

Large team crits are less informal and are an opportunity for designers to share higher fidelity work across teams. These meetings are great for building engagement and participation, and setting the standard for what great design work looks like.

Large team crits are also a great opportunity to increase recognition for our designers to other teams within the organization. These meetings allow people on other teams to put a face to all the hard work that’s being done, and they create a place where questions and conversation can take place. Encouraging designers to present at large team crits also helps them build the confidence to present their work in larger settings.

Visual representation of teams interacting and collaborating in a remote setting.
Productivity in a remote environment

Find what works for productivity

As I mentioned earlier, everyone has their own rhythms that work for them. I try to encourage my team to try a number of things to see what works.

One thing we make use of on the Product Design team is productive blocks. Everyone has a time of day when they get their best work done, and I encourage my team members to block this time off their calendar completely. Being able to access the time you need for uninterrupted work with zero distractions is important to help people find the focus they need to achieve their goals.

I also encourage my team to find “mini blocks” throughout the day to get their most important work done. Even with the best intentions, people can get easily distracted and interrupted when they’re working from home. We all have kids, pets, and partners or roommates competing for attention throughout the day. Setting a block of 30–40 minutes to really focus is a great way to tackle work in a way that feels digestible.

When it comes to managing my own time, there are a few things that have helped me find the time and space I need to lead effectively:

  • Prioritize: Every day, I set two top priorities for myself. No matter what, those are the things I focus on for the day. Keeping it at two means that I can stay focused, and it also keeps me from getting overwhelmed by thinking about other things that aren’t as important or immediate.
  • Find time to decompress: It’s harder to set aside time to decompress when my work and home life are happening within the same four walls. It’s been so important for me to find small blocks during the day to exercise, walk, draw, or doodle — whatever it is that I need on any given day to feel refreshed.
  • Acknowledge your wins and opportunities: At the end of the week, I take some time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. It’s a good time for me to take myself out of the momentum of the week and regroup on what, if anything, I can change up for the week ahead.

Prioritize team building

Stepping aside from the “work” part of work for a moment, finding ways to connect as a team has been really important for us at Instacart. With everyone working from home, there’s a greater chance for emotional distance to creep in if you don’t take the time to get the team together outside of regular check-ins and updates.

Our team uses the “donut” Slackbot to meet up for virtual coffees and chats, but we’ve also added a number of other virtual team building activities over the last few months. Whether it’s painting and art-based activities, ordering takeout and eating lunch together, or having our monthly games meetup, we’ve found a surprising number of ways to get creative with the way we connect over Zoom.

We also try to create face-to-face meetup opportunities where we can. Some of us live in the same area, so organizing meetups (that follow health and safety guidelines, of course) has helped to strengthen and build on relationships in a way you can’t easily do through a screen.

As a leader, I try to pepper in team-building moments wherever I can, even if it’s something as small as starting meetings with an ice breaker or fun questions. This can go a long way in helping people to feel more connected and primed for collaboration.

My most valuable piece of advice? Be human

Visual representation of remote video meetings with kids and pets in the background.
Keeping with the real human elements

Above all else, I think the most important thing for remote leaders to remember is that you’re a human being.

We’re all doing the best we can while juggling life, family, kids, pets, and more. The best you can do is allow for those human moments to be seen, heard, and shared.

My favorite moments have been those where you get to see your colleagues’ kids, pets, or partners walking around in the background or popping in to say ‘hi’ in a meeting. Those are the moments when I realize how far we’ve all come, not just normalizing remote work but also making it fun and real.

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Stories and ideas from the Instacart Design team

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