When I joined Zendesk in 2017, my biggest challenge was adjusting to working in a distributed team. Yes, the product set was complex, but wasn’t dissimilar to the complexity I’ve dealt with before. Yes, the tools were different, but they’re tools that you can master in days or weeks.
Working in a distributed team was challenging for three reasons.
First, there is the tyranny of timezones. Spoiler alert: I don’t have a solution for defeating time differences across US, Europe, Asia, and Australia. When your team spans four continents, there will be some pain if you want to speak in real time. This is unavoidable, but you can minimise how much it impacts your day. More on that later.
The second reason is that it’s hard to form relationships with people you haven’t met in person. I’m sociable by nature and tend to develop friendships with people I work with. I still catch up with people I worked with at my last two workplaces.
The third reason relates to the second. There is more to design than coming up with solutions to problems. You have to sell those solutions to others. You have to convince them the solution you’re proposing is superior to the five you’ve discarded. To be successful at selling your work, others have to trust you. Being trustworthy is hard if you haven’t developed the right relationships.
Throughout human evolution, we’ve been building relationships through face to face communication. Digital communication is a very recent development — an insignificant blip on the evolutionary scale of time. So it is only natural that we’re not as adept at building relationships digitally. So much of the human nuance gets lost in digital channels. At Zendesk, we’re lucky to work at a company that truly understand this and invests in building relationships internally. After all, our old brand messaging revolved around the notion that relationships are, in fact, complicated.
Despite the complications of working in a distributed team, I looked forward to the challenge. Distributed and remote teams are the way of the future and I want to be a part of that future.
We’re starting to realise that open plan offices aren’t conducive to working on problems requiring deep concentration. If you disagree, read some of the work by David Heinemeier Hansson. Or, you could count the number of people in your office who are using noise canceling headphones.
Remote work, or work from home, is gaining recognition as an antidote to the distractions of open plan offices. Seen as a perk five years ago, remote work is now seen as an effective way to get things done. It has become commonplace for people to work from home one or two days a week.
Finally, talent pools in many cities are stretched, forcing tech companies to look further. This is the case in Australia, Asia, and Europe as much as it is in Silicon Valley. In 2012, Atlassian took a bus around major European cities to recruit 15 software developers in 15 days and lure them to Sydney. Fast forward six years and the tech and design talent pools are getting even more stretched. Being involved in the hiring process of designers at Zendesk, I’m well aware of this. Instead of driving buses around Europe, companies are now recruiting for remote teams. Individuals in those teams can live in Europe, or wherever they wish to live. This includes Atlassian who recently announced their first fully remote team. Today, there are many companies with a 100% remote workforce. Examples include InVision, Bohemian Coding (Sketch) and Fog Creek (creators of Trello).
Tips for building meaningful connections in a distributed design team
These are my tips for making the most of working in a distributed and/or remote team. They’re based on the processes and behaviours I’ve experienced first hand at Zendesk.
Meet in person at least once a year
OK, I know this is a strange tip to start with. It goes against the whole distributed/remote work mantra, but it is important.
Can you build solid relationships from scratch without ever meeting in person? Yes, but it takes longer. Getting to know each other’s quirks, interests, and personalities builds mutual understanding. It makes future collaboration easier.
To be clear, I am not only talking about getting together to work. Even though in-person workshops can increase productivity, there is value in getting together for informal activities.
Our entire design team gets together once a year for a series of workshops and presentations. Outside of the formal meetings we socialise and get to know each other. Some of us have extended the travel to spend a few extra days together with people we usually only see via video.
Don’t skip your regular syncs, even if there is nothing to talk about
I work with a group of designers in six countries across four continents. Most of our collaboration is asynchronous, and we like it that way. However, we do have a regular video sync every two weeks. We use this time to critique each other’s work, ask for advice, and share progress.
There are times we have nothing work related to talk about. That’s ok. We still go ahead with our video syncs. We use them to have an informal chat about anything. These don’t go for the full hour but allow us to stay in touch. If we skip two of these syncs, we go more than a month without talking to each other. The social glue that keeps teams together starts to dry up and future meetings are not as productive.
For a moment, think about some of the people you work well with within your office. The chances are that you interact many times a week outside of actual work meetings. This could be at lunch, over coffee, or during incidental encounters around the office. For a distributed team, these syncs serve the same purpose.
Invest in remote meeting tech
“Can you hear me?” – remember when every conference call used to start like that?
I can’t overstate how refreshing it is to have video conferencing tech that works well. We use Zoom and it works the first time (almost) every time. If you’re about to set up your remote work practice do your research. There are many good tools out there — find one that works well for you and don’t settle for what’s free.
Everyone dials in with their own camera, even if in the same room
We often have multiple people dialling in from the same office. We’ve recently started dialling in on our MacBooks, rather than using the meeting room video setup. Being able to see everyone’s smiley face up close makes the meetings more personal. As a bonus, we get to pretend we’re in The Brady Bunch.
Adapt your work day
Part of the attraction of remote work is the flexibility. This is especially true for a distributed team. To deal with meetings across time zones, I start early and finish early, or start late and finish late on one or two days a week. This allows me to have face time with my colleagues. More importantly, it allows me to spend more quality time with the kids before or after school.
There are many things you can do to get the best out of remote and distributed work. What works for one team, may not work for the next. I hope that some of the advice above resonates and would love to hear your perspective and learn what works and doesn’t work for your team.
Personally, I’m excited about the future of this mode of working and can’t wait to see how it evolves.
Check out design.zendesk.com for more thought leadership, design process, and other creative musings.