The Design Gym team on Zoom

Reducing Remote Collaboration Friction

Collaboration can be challenging in the best of circumstances, let alone when your team is remote. Based on our learnings over the years, we’ve compiled a list of best practices, tips, and tricks for reducing remote collaboration friction at the individual, team and organizational levels.

Change is never easy, but in times of uncertainty, adaptability is your best friend. Finding the right mix of methods and rituals depends on the team and the nature of the work, but we’ve found that experimenting with a recipe of the the methods and tactics below usually unlocks the ability for any team to collaborate effectively under any circumstances, whether it’s under one roof or around the world.

May the power of remote be with you!

INDIVIDUAL LEVEL

Find your personal remote rhythms.

There are now hundreds of articles with tips on how to stay sane and productive while working from home, so we won’t reiterate what you can google. But we will say this: figure out what works best for you. It may take you a couple weeks to find your rhythm – when you do exercise, eat, chores, and end work – and give yourself some freedom to experiment. This might be your chance to actually try taking that 20 minutes midday jog that’s supposed to be so great for your brain; or meditate for 15 minutes instead of an afternoon coffee. Communicate what experiments you’re trying, what works, and what doesn’t. You’ll be able to share tips with your team and learn from their trials and errors as well.

Make your work visible to others.

Share your work and where it’s at. Take screen shots, export to PDF or quantify how much of something has been completed. This will help increase work visibility and spread motivation among your team. Our Public Education Team sends out an end of week newsletter with updated stats, wins, questions, and requests of the team. It’s a great way to keep up with what they’re working on and it’s also fun to read!

TEAM LEVEL

Lean into “lowest common collaborator” technology and tools.

Sure, there are lots of new tools and apps you can play around with now that you can’t sit around a whiteboard with your team, write loads of stickies, and move ‘em around on the wall. If you’ve got a small team, these tools could certainly be tested and integrated into how you’re working. We like Miro and Mural if you’re looking for a solution to replicate stickies on a wall.

What we like more is simply using the tools and platforms your team is already using. This is especially important if you’re working on a project with collaborators from other teams. Ask yourself, how might I use my existing ‘tech stack’ to collaborate remotely? Our team loves Google Docs and Google Slides for real-time capturing, commenting, and sorting. Slack is great for convos and link sharing. We use Dropbox for file sharing.

We would be using these tools even if we didn’t work remotely. By using the tools that are already familiar to your team, you can focus more on the work at hand versus trying to learn and onboard people into a new tool (which can cause friction!).

Ruthlessly set priorities and communicate them.

Having clear goals is critical to any team working effectively, regardless of where and how the team works. But it becomes even more critical when your team is distributed and working from home without the ad hoc check-ins that happen naturally in an office. To foster alignment and prevent friction, start every week by communicating what must get done and the quantifiable results that prove completion. The Design Gym does this by having an all-hands OKR-based check-in every Monday, individual morning updates on Slack, and Weekly newsletters written using standard email text making it easy to create.

As a leader, you also want to cultivate an environment where people can ask questions if they are confused or unsure of the priorities. If necessary, open a direct line of communication between you and your reports so their questions can be answered swiftly. Make time at the end of a meeting to ask clarifying questions, verbalize your openness to questions, or a create shared Google doc for “ask me anything” questions. 

Create a Project Charter.

Being in close proximity to your team at the office can make you feel aligned on the goals and objectives, but if those aren’t documented, it doesn’t translate to operating well as a distributed team. It’s a good practice for IRL work, but even more important for distributed projects. Getting aligned and staying aligned reduces friction throughout the duration of your project. 

Create a Project Charter to document the challenge, approach, key stakeholders, key milestones, and perhaps most importantly, the roles and desires each team member has for the project. Outlining the hopes for the team in addition to the ‘design brief’ elements of a project, will align your team at the beginning and give you an artifact to refer back to in check-in meetings and in your Retrospectives.

Define project roles and set cadence.

Oftentimes the office environment default is everyone is invited to every meeting. Sometimes that’s helpful in aligning the team quickly, but more often than not it means people are in meetings when they don’t need to be. This is even more important when you’re working remotely. The more people you have in a remote meeting, the more challenging it is to engage everyone and keep it valuable. So, if possible, reduce the number of people in your meetings!

Use a Stakeholder Map for your project to identify who needs to be involved and at which points. Your core team at the center might meet daily, or even twice for short stand-ups. Others on the project can be more strategically leveraged when you’re ‘opening’ (generating options) or getting feedback. 

Work alone together.

We’re big fans of Working Alone Together; we set aside anywhere from 90m to 3h for mini-sprints. We often work on the same project, but different elements. Other times we each have our own project but use the time for accountability and feedback. We check-in at the beginning to align on what needs to be done or share what our focus is, then go heads down alone but with our videos on (microphones muted– gotta blast your own focus tunes), and then reconvene at the end of our allotted time to share progress and feedback. This way of working gives us shared structure (nothing like a little peer pressure to get shit done) and a sense of connection when we’d otherwise just be attempting to keep ourselves motivated individually. 

Consider a silent meeting.

We use this ritual less often, but it’s a good one to know about. The Silent Meeting takes elements of working alone together, but in meeting format. There’s still a facilitator, agenda, and outcomes, but people participate digitally – and silently – over talking out loud. It’s great for small or large groups and is an excellent way to get everyone to participate in a neutral way. Here are two resources we keep bookmarked on Silent Meetings: The Silent Meeting Manifesto by David Gasca and The Rise of the Silent Meeting by Lila MacLellan.

ORGANIZATIONAL LEVEL

Practice good meeting hygiene.

All of the best practices around leading and planning effective meetings that are widely published and applied to IRL meetings should still be observed. We’ve got 11 pro tips on our blog, but as a quick reminder, here are a few musts when it comes to remote meetings:

  • Every meeting needs a purpose, agenda and facilitator. If it doesn’t have those, then you’re not meeting. Don’t have those? Don’t meet!
  • Only invite people whose participation is necessary – this not only reduces friction in the meeting, but frustration in people who might not need to be there. Share updates after the meeting to a broader audience if needed.
  • Video cameras on!
  • Create a Decision Log as a shared document and capture every decision your team makes in a meeting. Share it afterwards with folks who weren’t there.
  • Send agendas, documents, artifacts, prompts, etc., before the meeting so people can read in advance and be more prepared to do work in the meeting vs. just reading.

Create psychological safety. 

Designing a culture where people feel can respectfully speak their minds, ask questions, and take risks isn’t easy when you’re meeting face-to-face, and it’s even more difficult to create and maintain remotely. But it’s doable!

Block out time in team meetings or schedule a time just to ask how people are doing.  It’s important to have time to share and listen to highlights, lowlights, curiosities, and to allow time for some of those random connections that keep personal connection and morale high.

If you’re leading a large team, setting up an anonymous question box can be a good way to source what’s keeping people up at night, what opportunities they see, and what organization-wide questions people are having. Schedule a “fireside chat” or “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” meeting to answer those questions.

When it comes to projects, especially innovation or new design projects, it’s critical that teams have the freedom to experiment and try things. Try not to use the F word (failure), especially during early stages. Encourage the L word (learn) to promote a culture of rapid experimentation, gathering insights, and making iterations based on smart, data informed decisions. Doing so remotely means lots of communication around what’s being tested, the approach, and the feedback. Capture what’s learned in a way that isn’t single serving, but rather is documented in a way that supports organizational knowledge building.

Give shout-outs and celebrate often.

When teams feel good about the work they’re doing, the successes of the organization, and the impact their work is having, they’re more energized, aligned, and motivated–all factors that reduce collaborative friction. Set aside five minutes in a weekly meeting for Shout-outs to recognize awesome work and reinforce the right team behaviors. Or, keep a Slack channel for great press, quotes, and feedback. It’s fun to keep track of wins and serves as a reminder of all the good, especially during times of change or difficulty. 

Use check-in and check-out activities.

IRL meetings naturally allow for a few minutes of chatting before the meeting gets going. It’s not always productive, but the small talk maintains relationships. In remote meetings, plan for 5-10 minutes of time to do a check-in round. We like to use that time to ask people about their headspace, which can include both work and personal items.These responses help us build empathy with our colleagues and collaborators and maintain connection when we’re not in the same room. 

At the end of a meeting, leave 3-5 minutes to capture a one-word check-out or have everyone drop a closing thought in the group chat. This punctuates the end of the meeting and again serves as a micro-moment of connection. 

Don’t forget to reflect and respond. 

The mindset of ‘agile’ has picked up in product teams, but it’s equally valuable for how you approach your own ways of working as a team. Whether it’s needing to respond quickly to external factors (like a sudden WFH policy), or something smaller scale (the timing of our stand-ups is interrupting other work), embrace the ability to be responsive to the ever-changing ways you and your teams are working. Set up monthly Retrospectives so there is scheduled time to address what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to shift. But don’t wait for the monthly meeting time if something really isn’t working– communicate what you’re seeing, friction you’re experiencing, or a new idea you want to try. By being fully remote, your team might have more rapid cycles of change and that’s good! 

The Design Gym
[email protected]

The Design Gym is a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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