Remote work is on the rise. Here at MetaLab, if you're not working from our Canadian headquarters, you're dialing in remotely from anywhere in the world. Remote culture has always been part of our DNA, and we’re not the only ones (we see you, Trello, Buffer, Dribbble, and We Work Remotely!). In our series, "Making Remote Work Work," we're taking a closer look at what remote work means to us and why it’s the most challenging arrangement we could never live without. You can read the first post of the series here.
How to build digital products with a remote team
Hey there! My name is James Hobbs, and I’m a Design Director at MetaLab.
Our first post on remote work focused on the employee experience and in this piece, I'm sharing how we translate process, collaboration and successful design implementation to projects with distributed teams.
In December 2018, VICE asked us to help them envision the future of their mobile experience. As part of the project’s scope, we needed to design an inspiring way to bring together all of their brand’s unique entities in time to showcase at CES.
With a clear target ahead of us and no time to waste, our team was excited to dig in.
Setting ourselves up for distributed success
At the start of any project, there is no one-size-fits-all roadmap to success. There’s a living blueprint of best practices and learnings that we draw upon and refer to, but it’s important to set expectations with our clients that bobbing and weaving is part of what makes the work—and the team—strong.
Our remote work culture is one where the need to adapt is constant, the importance of trust is paramount, and creative collaboration is critical. When we define expectations, discuss working styles, and, above all, agree that mutual trust, respect, and communication are non-negotiables—our best work happens.
As fans of human-centered design, we believe there’s no technical substitute for quality face time with stakeholders. But we also recognize that in an increasingly digital age, it’s our responsibility to build products without relying on old-school forms of working together.
With VICE in New York and our team scattered across four time zones, we got to work finding creative ways to bring an in-person dynamic to our distributed arrangement. Of course, in-person kickoffs are always preferred if budgets and timelines allow, but on VICE, we collectively determined it would be best to hit the ground running remotely.
**The need to adapt is constant, the importance of trust is paramount, and creative collaboration is critical.
That said, we didn’t let a little distance get in the way of a strong start with the VICE team; on a video conference with both teams present, we had a chance to better understand the brief and their recent brand refresh, and exchange some early ideas about how to bring their vision to life.
Whether projects begin remotely or face-to-face, setting a casual tone with the client (read: GIFs and a good sense of humor) always sets the positive momentum in motion and fosters a sense of connection right away.
Once our team had the necessary information and context to form a project plan of attack, we carried that familiarity through with a regular sprint cadence and an open invitation for both teams to chat on Slack. That way, feedback was consistent and no one ever felt out of touch on either side.
With the weekly sprint reviews and overall schedule set, we turned our attention inwards to take stock of how our objectives and working styles would map against our varied geographic locations.
I had briefly met everyone in person at our company offsite last year but hadn’t yet worked with any of them directly. In the weeks leading up to kickoff, I set aside time to jump on Zoom calls with each individual team member and get to know them a little better.
I made sure to ask about their daily routines and how they liked to work— everybody is different, and as a manager, I needed to know how I could best support them, not just for the sake of the project, but for our team’s collective wellbeing as well.
Although VICE had provided a brief, the ask was quite open-ended. For a designer, the allure of a blank slate is simultaneously freeing and daunting. It presents us not only with the opportunity to discover and explore but also with the challenge to come together and find alignment.
Everybody's different, and as a manager, I needed to know how to best support them.**
Thus, the early stages of an open-ended project like this one typically rely less on a clear structure or process, and more on the organic, conversational exchange of ideas.
On VICE, this is where experimentation and adaptability became crucial. We couldn't share a whiteboard in real time, so we had to figure out how to replicate the shared energy and environment of shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration in new ways.
In my experience, it’s far too easy to forget that a lot of great ideas are born from side conversations and impromptu jam sessions.
That’s why we try our best to level the playing field by keeping all communication (including and especially small talk) in Slack, using collaborative tools like Miro to facilitate virtual ideation, and taking video calls from individual machines, even if people are working next to each other in the office, so that remote folks don’t feel like the odd ones out onscreen.
One team, many time zones
After we’d completed general concepting and aligned on visual directions for VICE, it became easier for our team to fall into asynchronous lockstep with one another throughout the refinement and execution phases of the project.
Time zone differences have inspired me to adapt both my schedule and my feedback style, and the work has benefited greatly as a result. Instead of my usual ad-hoc, verbal approach, I’ve grown accustomed to having (and taking) the time to provide more structured, more organized, and more thoughtful written feedback.
Our flexible schedules played a big role in carrying us to the finish line.
With our lead designer in South Africa, our animator in Paris, and myself in Portland, we quickly learned how to work in a way that complemented each other’s schedules; Shaun and Adrian would design while I slept, and I’d wake up excited to see their progress. As their days wound down, I’d compile notes and send them over for them to be able to dig into in the morning.
After an intense five weeks of sprints, we delivered a product vision reel and mobile prototype in time for VICE’s presentation at CES. Last minute design tweaks and content changes—combined with the pressure of a very public deliverable debut —meant that our flexible schedules played a big role in carrying us to the finish line.
As always, we’re grateful to work with clients like VICE who take leaps of faith and let us do our thing. We also owe a lot to ourselves, as remote work consistently pushes us to trust ourselves and each other on a whole different level.
In a traditional office, you have visibility into the work that you simply can’t reproduce over the Internet. But what you lose in control and oversight you gain in new perspectives, new work hacks, new collaboration strategies, and the sheer magic of an around-the-clock flow.
Not to mention getting to work with some of the most talented people on the planet.
Finding process is a process
Trust, alignment, and accountability lay the foundation for a successful remote work environment, but it takes more than reliable WiFi to keep it going. At MetaLab, it’s the investment from leadership, the flexibility from everyone, and the ever-evolving suite of tools that allow us to do the work we want, our way.
If you’re interested in how to make remote work work for you and your team, here’s a list of the qualities, guidelines, and tools that we always come back to.
Client & Team Management
- Trust: Have we mentioned trust? Seriously, attempting anything without it is a non-starter, especially for remote work, where trial and error is an inevitable part of the process.
- Alignment: There’s a fair amount of autonomy with remote design, so it’s imperative that internal and client teams stay on the same page around goals and expectations.
- Accountability: Whether it be a daily standup in the morning or an end-of-day share-out, it’s a good idea to add a bit of shared rhythm and structure for reassurance and visibility.
- Level the field. Make an effort to emphasize inclusion and access to minimize isolation and maximize engagement from your whole team.
- Keep sideline convos in plain sight. Have conversations—both work and non-work related—on a shared platform, such as Slack. Not only is this more efficient, but it reinforces feelings of trust and camaraderie among the team.
- Seize the micro-moments. Be present and available for one another. From reaching out on Slack to see how their day is going, or jumping on an impromptu video brainstorm, those seemingly small points of connection can make a world of difference.
- Celebrate milestones. Whether personal or collective, wins are wins and should be celebrated early and often. From a team morale standpoint, tools like Bonusly make this easy.
- Plan for face time. If possible, build face-to-face time into the schedule and budget at least once during a project, whether it be during kickoff or a retrospective. We like working remotely, but we like each other even more.
Tools for Collaboration
- Slack: Most internal and client communication happens via Slack; not only is it where ideas are generated, work is shared, and feedback is given, but it’s also the beating heart of company culture and community.
- Zoom: Until we hack time-travel, this video conferencing tool is our team’s lifeblood when it comes to quality face time. Its seamless integrations and reliable quality make it an indispensable facilitator of both scheduled client meetings and impromptu one-on-one chats.
- Miro (formerly RealtimeBoard): This tool allows us to simulate a virtual whiteboard and collaborate in real-time, and made a huge difference in alleviating some of the initial roadblocks of trying to ideate remotely.
- InVision: Almost all of our work is uploaded to InVision as prototypes. This allows the internal team to give feedback on in-progress work, the end user to validate the prototypes, and the client to gain access to the work.
- Frame: This tool was a new addition to my repertoire, and allowed me to provide specific, contextual feedback on animations.