Our Tips for Managing Design Teams Remotely (During a Crisis)

At Rocket we’ve always had a distributed way of working. We have team members that like to work a pretty typical schedule out of one of our offices everyday, but just as many team members that work from home or work odd hours. But now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic thanks to COVID-19, we are forced (like most teams) to work at home exclusively. For the time being, this is a new normal, so it’s more important than ever to be thoughtful about how to manage your design team effectively.

Here are some tips (seven to be exact) that we’ve learned over the years and have tried to adapt to the current situation:

Tip 1: Acknowledge the Situation

Most importantly, acknowledge the extraordinary situation we’re in. These are not normal times by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a nice thought to try to work and act normally because we are used to working remotely and it helps us feel better, but now is not normal! We are not working from home, we’re working at home. The difference is that we are trying to do work while also managing our families and home life at the same time. So acknowledge that times are chaotic right now and expectations aren’t to be normal, but try to make it through this extraordinary time as best we can. Everyone is trying their best to just get by and talking about that is important.

Tip 2: Keep the Trust

A critical part of managing design teams remotely is to build trust with each team member to the point where they can feel that you trust them. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve seen a few work particularly well.

First, respect your design team’s time. The worst thing is if a designer feels like they don’t have enough time to complete their work. To do meaningful design work, designers (and developers for that matter) need plenty of maker time: long, uninterrupted periods of time where they can dive deep into a problem. At Rocket, we believe that getting into a flow state is critical to doing great work. To help achieve this, we don’t pay attention to online status to make sure people are around. Really, we don’t. Obviously, if there is a scheduled reason to be around, that’s important. But otherwise, trust designers to do the work.

Second, acknowledge that there are  different ways of working. When people work remotely they are dealing with whatever is going on in their household (especially during a pandemic!). So some designers won’t be able to work 9-5 but will work whatever hours suit them best, whether it’s early morning or late at night. And yes, some will work feverishly at times while others work steadily. That’s OK! Don’t require a certain way of working. Acknowledge and embrace that designers highly value the ability to work in their own custom way.

Third, emphasize clear communication. The success or failure of working remotely depends in large part on how clearly a team communicates. It does not depend on how often they communicate, or what method, but rather how directly and succinctly they say what they have to say. And this goes for all media. We are not huge believers in one communication medium over another...but we are religious about clarity. So as a manager it’s your job to emphasize clear communication by speaking or writing succinctly and consistently yourself, and by valuing clear communication in your design team. Clear communication breeds trust as people know they can rely on what you’ve said.  

Tip 3: Be More Available

As a manager, you will likely want to be more available than you would in an office. The usual, casual interactions that happen at the office aren’t going to happen now, so jump into common chat rooms and check in on folks when you see them active. We have started a lot of impromptu but important discussions that way. It is easy to assume that people are always busy and don’t want to be interrupted so showing you’re around and available as a manager is helpful for those times when people do want or need to talk.

Tip 4: Maintain your 1:1s

Good managers know how important it is to keep 1:1s as a sacred time together with your teammates. It’s crucial that people feel like they have time to talk to their manager and can rely on that time week over week. It helps keep people sane. Remotely, it is even more important to keep your 1:1s because people feel even less connected than usual. If you do need to push a 1:1 for any reason, immediately reschedule to ensure there is always a time on the calendar to talk.

Tip 5: Create Opportunities for Team Interaction

It is easy for someone working remotely to feel isolated. It's important to find meaningful ways to keep the team connected that don't detract from their work or feel like a burden itself.

We recommend creating some optional, non-work ways to connect. We have found that having an online happy hour once a week or a scheduled meetup after work are all still things that people will take advantage of when it makes sense for them. Several of our design team members have also started a weekly game time to just have fun together. Don’t make it required or expect everyone to make it every time, but trust that  just having them creates a sense of culture and possibility for interaction that wouldn’t normally exist right now.

Tip 6: Connect with a Peer

Everyone working remotely means we are all missing out on serendipitous interactions like we are familiar with in office life. There is no running into someone at the water cooler, on the way to lunch, in the elevator, etc. The number of unintentional interactions drops to almost zero! To that end, at Rocket we give each designer a dedicated colleague to talk to and we switch this up every quarter or two.

It is important that this person is a peer and not their manager. This gives them someone who knows what they’re working on, knows the details of what is happening on their projects, and acts as a first line of defense if they need advice or counsel. Our designers really appreciate this program as they not only get to know someone new but they also get to learn how people deploy soft skills in all of those grey areas across projects and organizations. This is a great way for designers to talk through nuances of the job that they otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to remotely.

Tip 7: Use Communication Tools Thoughtfully

This may sound anti-anti-establishment, but I think people who say Slack is terrible are just wrong. It’s like saying any piece of technology is terrible simply because it can be used terribly. Here’s the secret: treat people as adults and they tend to use tools thoughtfully. So, treat your design team like the adults they are. Don’t require they have an online status. Don’t require them to respond immediately. Let them use the tool how they want to.

I can tell you that I know roughly how each of my team members uses Slack, and I’ve adjusted to their habits over time and they’ve adjusted to my habits as well. It’s the same as having a conversation. You have to be flexible. Don’t shoot the tool, shoot the bad habits.

With a tool like Slack, some tactics are helpful as well. I recommend having a dedicated Slack channel for your design team as a whole as well as a channel for each project or product team. This helps create the context for communication, and it’s so much better than email because it creates a sense of place that people can reliably return to. Email is good for some contexts and Slack is good for others.

In closing, working remotely has always had its challenges. But these are extraordinary times, even for those of us accustomed to being remote. It’s important we all do our best to maintain real connections with our teammates, work alongside each other, share in our failures and successes and make sure we continue to do great work for our clients.