Distributed by design
What we’ve learned over 5 years as a distributed team
Working as a distributed team isn’t always easy, but if carefully considered, it holds a lot of benefits. For Mohr Design and our clients, it works well. We attribute this to a large amount of exploration, experimentation and refinement — rinse and repeat.
Of course the same could be said for any working model; all creative processes have to adapt, change, and grow. Since so many of us in our industry are working from home lately, we thought we’d share five lessons we’ve learned as a distributed design studio.
1. Working across time zones doesn’t mean always working.
“I may work from home most days, but I still ‘commute’ in the mornings by walking my daughter to school — or, these days, by getting her started with her schoolwork. It helps my mind transition into the workday.” — André
As so many in our industry are experiencing right now, it can be difficult to keep work and home separate when your office is just downstairs (or is the kitchen table!). But we think these boundaries are absolutely necessary for maintaining a healthy balance.
Just like we would in a traditional studio environment, we’ve had to set personal limits, communicate them clearly, and set designated uninterrupted offline time. After all, just because we have access to our computers and phones at all hours doesn’t mean we should always be expected to be “on.”
2. To avoid burnout, make time for thinking — and for yourself.
“Sometimes the brain works best when you’re stimulated in ways other than looking at a computer screen. I might need to work through a problem in my head, then sit down to get it done. In a more traditional setting, you have to do it all from your chair; working distributedly, I can think in the ways that work for me.” — Cort
As a busy distributed team, we don’t have the luxury of being inefficient. Instead, we have to be self-reliant to be able to move from task to task on our own terms.
If not careful, this context-switching can lead to serious burnout. A team member can feel like they have no time to do the kind of thinking that leads to good design work. Or work can leave them without energy and vitality.
This is why it’s so important to find time for creative thinking — time for problem-solving, and time for yourself. Periodically, our team members find an hour to two to go offline, go on a hike or a run, call a friend, or do a household task. These moments can work wonders to help us think in the ways we need to — and to re-energize us.
3. Show your work. (It helps.)
“The more experience I have on this team, the more I believe that the best way to pressure-test an idea is to try to explain it to someone else — and then to prototype and test it.” — Maggie
In the studio settings where we began our careers, big design decisions could be made over water-cooler discussions, over lunch, or on a walk to get coffee. Being distributed means we have to make time and space for this sort of serendipitous ideation using our digital channels.
At first we worried that this might make our work less creative. But we’ve found that it actually helps us. We have to articulate our ideas, rather than simply assuming we’re all on the same page. We show our work and prototype as we go, we have learned the value of sharing early and often allowing us to closely collaborate with our clients.
This doesn’t always need to be in the form of a super-refined artifact. It might be notes in Slack, digital sketches, or a shared Google Doc. The point, though, is that everything is on the record and can easily be accessed by us or our clients.
4. Manage to outcomes, not hours at the desk.
“In a traditional office, it can be easy to fade into the background. On a small, distributed team — where our work is measured not by whether our butts are in our seats but by the outcomes we achieve — there’s no skating by. Everybody’s accountable.” — Haley
From the beginning, we’ve known that we didn’t want to micromanage one another. We’re all experienced professionals, and we respect one another’s diverse work-styles and trust one another to work independently.
But as we’ve learned over time, we’ve found that it’s even more important than we expected to make it clear to one another that what we expect is outcomes — good ideas, polished deliverables, strong team and client relationships, client success — rather than hours. In fact, we don’t really care how anybody gets their work done, so long as that “how” is good for them; we just care that it gets done right.
Sometimes this means being extra explicit about our expectations of one another. Sometimes it means taking a beat and making sure not to judge someone else for working in a way that’s different from what works for us. Regardless, it’s made all of us feel empowered and motivated.
5. No team member is an island.
“I feel like I’m best friends with everyone I work with.” — Alisha
It can be easy to feel lonely when working from home, or otherwise disconnected from the rest of society — especially when you’re straight into work calls without having left the house. Our team has learned over time how to reach out to each other, to ask for help on a design challenge, or simply to tell a joke that can shake us out of a fog. In this way, we are reminded that we are in this together, no matter how far apart we are.
During the recent Covid-19 crisis, we’ve found more ways to combat feelings of isolation by partnering up on small passion projects like our Make Mohr drawing tool, culturally relevant illustrations or developing augmented reality skills. We gather for a weekly digital Happy Hour for some stress-free design chatter. Some team members meet up to play digital games occasionally. It’s helpful to find connections and shared interests and build from there. At Mohr Design we have created a friends and family atmosphere despite our distributed model.
Take a glance back at our previous articles to read our principles for distributed design and explore our approach to designing a distributed team. Or get in touch to learn more about how we can help your business design quality products and services that people love.
Mohr Design is a design agency that works with a wide range of clients, from big, established companies to startups looking to define their offering. We deliver experiences that users love and that people need.