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Remote World Illustration

Leading in a remote world is a human challenge.


LAST UPDATED: November 1, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Leading virtual design teams requires a blend of management skills and humanity.
  • Adapting teams to the new world of work involves teaching new skills and building flexible teams.
  • Rebuilding processes involves making them a priority, simplifying them, and making them human-centred.

One of the most popular topics in our InsideOut community is the challenge of leading remote teams. While many are still figuring out what works best for their business, leaders in our InsideOut community are finding creative solutions.

Our biggest learning? Leading a virtual design team today requires an exceptional blend of management skills and humanity to get it right. While technology was an initial hurdle, the real opportunity is keeping teams (humans) connected and focused to deliver on rapidly changing business goals. The following are ideas from design leaders who are doing just that:

Provide space

Whether your staff is filled with caregivers, independent singles, or any situation in between, finding space is a real challenge. Successful leaders are embracing human situations and helping their teams create that space.

Make boundaries visible

Transparent online calendars that include event titles like “kid time” or “taking a break” help team members learn to value and respect boundaries. Many leaders even block “productive time” on their own calendars to protect their time and help teams know when they are most accessible.

Create outlets 

Dedicated Slack or Microsoft Teams channels like a #parent channel, a #positive channel, and an #ask-me-anything channel allow employees to connect and share healthy ways to stay sane.

Balance social connections and deadlines

Recreating social connections that build relationships in a virtual environment is important. For companies trying to pivot their business model to connect with customers through new avenues, create new revenue streams, and launch timely products and services, social activities could easily slow down the actual work.

Here's how leaders are fostering social connections their people need that don't involve huge time commitments:

  • Jackbox Games: Using shared screens and mobile phones, staff can engage in a variety of simple games that provide a much-needed break but don't zap much time.
  • QuizbreakerTo support bonding, this online game gathers interests from individual team members, then has the rest of the team guess who said what.
  • Pecha Kucha or PowerPoint Party: Built for fast sharing, these frameworks keep connections brief but help team members learn and get to know one another.
  • Social Squad: Not everyone is interested in social events; in fact, those created by leaders could miss the mark or feel mandatory. One leader created a Social Squad for eager staff members to build activities and engage peers in optional experiences.

Adapt teams to the new world of work

Now's the time to get creative about the skills of your team. Your ability to help them craft a role that is relevant and essential to the work of today may not only keep your team engaged, but it could also help you keep them employed.

Teach new skills 

One creative design leader has taken a 16-person experiential design team that has awesome live, in-person event skills and is helping them retool their skills for the virtual world.

Build flex teams 

Constantly shifting priorities pulls teams in lots of directions and reduces productivity. One crafty design leader set up a tiger team with specialized skills and the singular focus of handling incoming one-off projects during times of crisis to keep core teams focused.

Connect teams to purpose and vision

Fear of losing employment is a real concern and can be detrimental to keeping the business moving forward (the very thing that protects employment). Staff want to feel connected to what's going on, making visibility, access, and authenticity remarkably important.

Share and share again 

Schedule standing “office hours” where staff can show up and ask any questions they might have. Not enough time? Try a weekly email to share insights, ideas, and plans, making sure to remain authentic and in tune with how teams are feeling.

Go high 

Involve the most senior leaders possible to help teams feel connected to what's really happening in the organization and provide guidance on how they can help. For example, one team hosts “Tea Time with the ECD,” another has weekly meetings with the CMO, and a third bakes 15-minute executive team briefings into their new hire onboarding process.

Rebuild processes

Even the most process-oriented teams may have to rework existing processes to accommodate an unpredictable workflow change. Having a seamless way to get work done is important to the bottom line and your employee experience.

Make process a priority 

Industrious senior design leaders are hosting process meetings twice a week to dig in and shore up gaps in their current workflow and other systems. That's commitment.

Make it simple

For teams that are hiring, onboarding is an urgent challenge. How do you quickly help a new person know who to contact for what and how to reach them? Simplifying processes can make the difference between success and failure for a new hire—and others.

Make it human

Helping fulfill basic human needs is now integrated into a leader's role. One brilliant UX leader built a digital space where staff could share information.

As a leader, it's not an easy task to keep the human element front and centre while working hard to achieve business goals. On the bright side, design leaders are uniquely positioned to thrive in a chaotic environment. Problem-solvers by nature, their creativity, human-centred focus, and desire to be a business partner make them an asset to any brand.