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How to lead a 100% remote design team

Remote leadership requires good tools, good communication, good documentation, and plenty of empathy.
How to lead a 100% remote design team

As more and more workers around the world are being sent home to work amidst a global pandemic, some design leaders are struggling to navigate uncharted territory: leading a 100% remote design team. 

If you’ve never led a remote team before, you’re likely trying to figure out:

  • How do I give my team the tools they need to keep work moving forward?
  • How can I stay in the loop about everything impacting my team?
  • How do I continue to promote my team’s work to stakeholders and leadership?

As a remote-first company building a tool for distributed design teams, we know a thing or two about working from home.

“The tenets of good leadership extend into the digital world. And are, at times, magnified,” Abstract Product Design Manager Sarah McIlwain reflects on leading a remote design team. “What’s stood out to me most in all this is that managing a team remotely isn’t so different from managing in a non-remote environment. It requires good tools, good communication, good documentation, and empathy for each other and for your customers.” 

Leading your design team remotely during the COVID-19 crisis is, in fact, one of those times where your leadership skills are magnified. Today, we want to share the tools you’ll need in your leadership toolkit to not only survive this chaotic transition, but come out more resilient on the other side.

Keeping track of your team’s work from your home office

Finding yourself working remotely all of a sudden can be jarring: You can’t physically look over anyone’s shoulder. You can’t overhear casual conversations about design decisions. In fact, most leaders find themselves unable to access anything their team doesn’t explicitly and directly share with them. Ways of working that (kind of) function in a co-located environment break down quickly when your team isn’t in the same room to make up for unscalable workplace practices with shoulder taps and hallway catch-ups. Working remotely, you quickly learn that Slacking everyone for status updates or sending teamwide emails hunting down design files is tedious and morale-breaking.

So, how do you get visibility into what your team is doing, without driving everyone crazy? 

The tenets of good leadership extend into the digital world. And are, at times, magnified.

At Abstract, our mission is to build a platform that brings visibility, accountability, measurability, and predictability to design. For any team — remote or distributed — consolidating files in one centralized and trustworthy hub that everyone has access to is critical to building a design function that makes business impact. Core to this transition is moving away from a mental model of my files to our files.

Some teams describe Abstract as a “visual browser” for your team’s design files. Inside Abstract, you not only have the latest version of all your team’s design files, you can also see every change that’s ever been made to those files, and why. 

As a remote leader, when you’re trying to figure out what everyone’s doing, look at your team’s Activity Feed. Click through some branches. Check out your team’s collections. Every single design decision that your team makes is documented in a commit or merge.

Remote collaboration doesn’t have to be a mess

Collaboration can be hard even when everything is going right. When you’re in the middle of a global pandemic, it can feel downright impossible. We’ve made a quick list outlining how your team might have collaborated before COVID-19 (and Abstract) and how you can collaborate now.

How to give feedback from home

Before: You find an open spot in everyone’s calendar for a design review. You gather in the same room, and pin the printed designs on the wall. Everyone takes turns writing their thoughts on Post-its that may or may not make it back to your desk.

Now: Design critiques can (and must) happen online. Present your collection during a Zoom call and share the collection link in Zoom chat. Everyone can jump in and leave their comments live, on the spot. Everyone’s thoughts are documented on the Artboard in perpetuity, for the whole team to reference.

How to collaborate cross-functionally from home

Before: Communication between engineering, PMs, and design has been fragmented in its best moments. Decisions and clarifying questions are buried in JIRA comments and Slack threads. Moving work forward is start-and-stop for all involved.

Now: When design and eng need to work together, there’s no confusion about where to ask questions — ask directly on the Artboard. Every conversation and decision among design, PMs, and engineers is captured in Abstract’s comments and annotations. Never ask, “How did we get here?” again.

How to approve designs from home

Before: Once again, you gather in a conference room. This week's designer walks the team through the deck they spent the last two days tidying up for this presentation. Everyone nods and murmurs. You all go back to your desks, where the thought creeps in, "Wait, are we moving forward with those designs?"

After: Request a review from key stakeholders, including designated project reviewers. When everyone gives you the thumbs up, you can merge your branch. Once your branch is merged to Main, everyone knows it’s the latest.

“Designing the design function” during COVID-19

We recently interviewed design leaders on how they design the design function at their companies to provide the most value to designers and business leaders alike. During the COVID-19 crisis, design leaders have the opportunity to take what Alen Faljic calls “designing the design function” to the next level. A lot of people are posting Band-aid solutions to “get through” this unfortunate working-from-home situation. In reality, we may be here for awhile. And, we have the opportunity to lean on each other’s wisdom about remote work to collectively transform the design function.

Times like this will forever change how your team works together, even when (or if) you go back to an office.

Times like this will forever change how your team works together, even when (or if) you go back to an office. Let's work together to emerge more resilient, more collaborative on the other side.

Webinar: How to lead a 100% remote design team

Watch a live Q&A between Abstract's Design Manager Sarah McIlwain and Design Advocate Manager Scott Welliver. They share lessons they’ve learned leading a remote-first product design team.