It’s been about two months now since the design teams at Microsoft switched to working 100% remotely, and it’s certainly been an adjustment for folks who don’t regularly do so.
At its essence, remote work is less about tools and more about people. Instead of trying to micromanage or keep tabs on folks, we need to trust in each other and everyone’s personal processes. And it’s important to establish this trust through candid and direct communication. If something feels off, talk about it. Especially since working remotely is new for many, we need to tune into each other’s concerns and experiment with what works for the person and the team.
I’ve worked and managed design teams remotely for some time now and wanted to share a few learnings and insights I’ve acquired along the way. This article is the shorter version of a full piece, neither of which are complete guides to working from home. I originally wrote this to help my teammates and fellow managers at Microsoft, and I’m hoping this will be helpful to you, too.
There’s a lot of great resources on working remotely out there, including this one about inclusive remote working practices. I’ve also included a short list of recommended reading at the end of this article but let me know other if there’s something you’d recommend and I welcome your perspective in the comments.
Presence doesn’t always equal productivity
Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating worldwide. Now that those who can work from home are all simultaneously doing so, we can challenge and optimize our existing rhythm and way of working. When we’re back in the office, this new normal will hopefully help remote workers and globally distributed teams feel more united.
Synchronous presence (that is, time together) doesn’t always equal productivity. Teams can accomplish most work asynchronously (that is, through time apart). Optimize for that. Share your designs early and often in Microsoft Teams. Your teammates can give feedback and share inspiring ideas; it makes your work better and creates a sense of togetherness. You may not get immediate responses here, but trust that your teammates will respond.
Furthermore, when you have a global workforce, someone’s 8 AM is another’s 11 PM, so instead of following a standard 8 AM to 5 PM window, focus on ensuring people feel connected and present without relying on meetings.
Still not sure what this looks like? Experiment to find a rhythm that works for you and your team. Set work hours that make sense for you and communicate that to your family and colleagues. Just like we set “away” messages online, consider posting a sticky note where others in your home can see if you’re in a meeting or deep work.
Outside of meetings, I personally block three to four hours of my day for deep work. This is uninterrupted time to focus solely on what you need to. It’s the opposite of feeling busy. Deep work should feel like you’re in a really good flow, and you feel accomplished once you take a break.
As a team, we start the week with virtual stand-ups in our special “Stand-up” Teams channel . These posts are short, emoji-rich bullet points of what every person is working on that week. It keeps the whole team updated asynchronously without another meeting. 🤗 Throughout the week, we extensively use the “General” channel to discuss anything of interest to the whole team. On Fridays, the team gathers for an hour to talk through top-of-mind topics, share work, or discuss bigger product-related topics that we all chime in on.
Moving the creative along
When it comes to design, it can be difficult to digitally replicate the creative energy that often comes from in-person brainstorming. However, if you allow yourself to try new methods, you might be surprised how much you can do virtually. For design sprints, brainstorming, and share outs, try:
- Video conferencing: Get on a Teams call, set your agenda and goals, and make extensive use of sharing your screens. Real-time design tools can help if you want to simultaneously dabble in the same file. Don’t forget to record the meeting for those who can’t make it.
- Screen recording: If you’re feeling meeting fatigue, try a screen recording with you talking over your design, prototype, or slides, and share that with your teammates in a chat. This shows everyone your full thought processes, and listening to your voice can add a personal touch and connection.
- Chatting: Don’t underestimate a Teams chat! Throw your work in there so people can comment, share feedback, or give you a 👍🏽 to keep going with your awesome work. Ditto for documents, slides, or other artifacts you create. It can be scary at first, but trust your team. And, since you’re all doing it, it becomes normal and fun to help each other get better.
Design sprints are a little trickier to do remotely (at least if you want to follow the original GV method). Luckily, there are several ways to collaborate in real time, from whiteboarding over notes and documents to using specialized design tools. Decide which tool matches the intent of each day of the sprint. Try to make as much asynchronous progress per day as possible, but get everyone together in a morning kickoff call, have people meet over video in smaller groups, and end the day with a recap.
Sidenote: If you’re using Figma, Viktoriia Leontieva , a designer on the To-Do team, recently hosted a remote workshop about remote design sprints and is sharing her files.
To meet or not to meet
Before all else, ask yourself, “Does this really need to be a meeting?” Assess which meetings could be a chat, shared document, or simply an email. Use meetings to make decisions, brainstorm (careful with this one, it can feel like work but be unproductive), or simply hang out.
Then, write more and talk less. Optimize your team’s workflow for asynchronous collaboration by writing down thoughts, ideas, or proposals. It helps you clarify your thoughts and allows your teammates to catch up on their own time. Share decks, flows, or designs before meetings to use your meeting time most efficiently.
If you’ve decided to meet, clearly communicate the agenda and desired outcomes upfront. Try to turn your video on, be respectful, and give people a chance to chime in. If there are a lot of attendees, consider assigning a moderator to read through questions and comments in the chat or ensure people get to speak. You can use the meeting chat to document action items and notes or share files. If some people can’t join, record the meeting and share all notes and files after — in fact, consider making this the standard for your team.
Everyone has a new normal
At the end of the day, we’re not just working from home or working remotely — we’re working during a crisis. And while many of us are deeply grateful to be part of a group who can continue to work despite stay-at-home mandates, it’s something many of us haven’t done before. So try new things, make some mistakes, and remember to be kind to your teammates, your loved ones, and yourself. We’re all human, and we’re in this together. We got this!