Illustration by Avalon Hu

Design is a team sport, but the arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic has made it a whole new ball game. Modern design leaders have always been tasked with making sure their designers have the collaboration tools and frameworks they need to get the job done, together; But how do you effectively collaborate when team members and project stakeholders are suddenly working from home, in different time zones. How can you make teamwork seamless and efficient for teams that aren’t physically adjacent to one another? What workflows do designers use to help support their big ideas and maintain positive collaboration experiences?

To answer these questions and more, Adobe hosted a conversation with three design leaders in London who shared remote collaboration best practices, processes, and pitfalls. The conversation took place shortly after most businesses, in the UK and elsewhere, had to close with teams moving to work-from-home. Here are some of their key pieces of advice for better design collaboration across remote teams.

Avatars for Anita-Mai Goulding, Rebecca Ferguson, Matt Sanders, and Konstantinos Dimakos overlaid on a home-office illustration.
An interview hosted by Anita-Mai Goulding (Adobe) with Rebecca Ferguson (ThoughtWorks), Matt Sanders (McCann), and Konstantinos Dimakos (EY Seren). Image credit: Rebecca Ferguson.

Virtual vs in-person collaboration

There’s a big difference between collaborating with someone in person – for example at a client’s office or in your own space – and working remotely.

“When you sit together and can see what everybody is up to, it’s very easy to comment,” says Rebecca Ferguson, experience design lead at global software consultancy ThoughtWorks. “You naturally collaborate because you’re creating the same products and have the same end goal. As a designer I could sketch something and then start chatting and brainstorming an idea with a developer who’s sitting next to me.”

When working remotely, Rebecca points out that it’s important to make the effort in keeping such connections open.

“Collaboration is key in sharing a vision,” she explains. “There’s only so far you can go with an idea on your own, so you really need to be open about it. Luckily, we have the tech available to help us do that, like virtual whiteboards.”

Rebecca Ferguson, hard at work from her home office.
Rebecca Ferguson, hard at work from her home office.

Seemingly small things, such as recreating water cooler chats, matter to keep spirits high, feel refreshed, and not burn out from back-to-back video meetings. Rebecca finds people often also think they need to go straight into a video call without the small talk.

“You need to try and replace the spontaneous chats that you’d otherwise have across the desks,” she advises. “And if you’re building new relationships with clients, have a virtual coffee and talk about how they’re doing and something that’s not part of the project.”

Matt Sanders, lead digital designer at ad agency McCann agrees and suggests starting a meeting slowly. “Intros soften the mood and break the ice,” he says. “Have a chat before you get into the work. It really helps.”

Best practices for effective virtual collaboration

COVID-19 has forced companies to optimize and adapt their processes. McCann, for example, ensured all team members had the right equipment and software training wherever necessary.

“In the first few weeks we were just finding our feet and getting used to the novelty of working from home,” Matt remembers. “Some people had never worked from home before, so we just needed to keep the communication going and find the right balance – which is especially hard with the whole family on lockdown.”

It’s important to establish a culture and communicate carefully with team members.

“Really immerse yourself in the team and be inclusive,” recommends Konstantinos Dimakos, senior product designer at strategic design and innovation consultancy EY Seren. “Some people are introverts and don’t want to be seen on cam. Understand where they’re coming from and use it as the foundation for the kind of collaboration you choose. Tools are just a vehicle to get you from A to B. Trust and inclusivity are the fundamentals you need to nurture in a team. It’s like a currency – the more you invest, the better it gets.”

Matt, meanwhile, has found that working from home has made it easier to involve quieter team members that don’t always get asked for help. Remote communication has enabled them to find their own voice. The way you give feedback, however, is critical.

“Creatives are very sociable people,” he points out. “It’s important we can share and comment. But we also need to think about how we are coming across in email or chat as it can be misconstrued.”

“The micromanager tone is a collaboration killer.”

“The micromanager tone is a collaboration killer,” Rebecca adds. “Remote working isn’t as transparent as we wish it could be, and some comments – especially when time is tight and you’re chasing someone – can come across as daunting. Talk about it and be open. Small little check-ins can make all the difference.”

Managing a team remotely can be more challenging, especially as you’re not able to tell from someone’s body language if they’re not their usual selves.

“We have to communicate and drop in on people to make sure they’re okay,” Matt recommends. “Even on video calls you can’t read the body language as much as you would in person, like when their camera is off or they’re on mute. At McCann we try to have creative catch ups in the morning with the cameras on. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s just so we can all see each other and check in.”

“Being able to see someone and connect visually with them is very important,” Konstantinos agrees. “You have to get a sense of what your team wants and how they feel. Then follow the mood pattern.”

Konstantinos Dimakos, senior product designer, collaborating on a storyboard with a team member.
Konstantinos Dimakos, senior product designer, works with his team at strategic design and innovation consultancy EY Seren.

Matt also points out that organizational change commonly results in five types of loss: loss of control, pride, familiarity and expertise, narrative, and time. You can help your team move through their losses faster by addressing them. Talk about their experience openly and make it easier for them to better transition into the new way of working.

Fostering a collaborative culture by being human, empathic, and flexible

The current situation, even though it was forced on us, has proven that a different way of working is possible. Clients understand that designers don’t have to be on site, reducing the need for a lot of travelling. Projects now often kick off via video conferencing tools, while previously an agency would have arranged workshop days. And companies are more open to allowing staff to work remotely, which means they can hire talent from around the world.

“It’s going to open the doors for so much more,” Rebecca believes. “There are a lot of businesses who in the past have denied hiring people based on their disability. Because their offices weren’t accessible, they couldn’t offer someone the job, but now there’s no reason to not allow people to work remotely to fill a role.”

Remote working can have a positive impact on the work/life balance. It’s all about being flexible and having empathy for everyone’s needs and priorities. McCann, for example, has a flexible working system to accommodate childcare, and employees can change their hours to best fit their family life.

Matt Sanders looks over at a McCann colleague from behind his monitor.
Matt Sanders from McCann.

“We have become a lot more understanding with our teams and clients,” Matt points out. “Everyone having kids run past video calls shows we are human. It’s given us more empathy for life balances and challenges in and out of work.”

A future way of working

Collaboration is a skill. Rather than looking into formal research and following trends, you need to learn and adapt quickly. Talk to people, be open to feedback, and let the collaboration evolve naturally based on your needs.

“It’s okay to not be an expert at doing your job remotely,” Rebecca encourages. “Just go easy on yourself, take your time to find what works for you, and be human about it.”

Every team is different, and effective collaboration depends on the makeup of your team, including where everyone is based. Location leads at ThoughtWorks, for example, have been sharing summaries of their experiences via email, so that everyone can learn from their mistakes.

“What we learn from this situation is almost an intuitive process,” Konstantinos concludes. “We’re trialing things to figure out what does and doesn’t work. It’s a really avant-garde exploration. People are being so creative with the ways they’re getting things done. It shows that teams working together remotely is definitely better than just a few people working by themselves. It’s all about the dynamics and how well you’re connected to your team at the start. I do believe that when we come out of this, we will have some solid research to start a new generation of remote working.”