Iterating and improving: The key to collaboration in a remote workplace

Earlier this year, The Zebra announced that the company would become a remote-first workplace, meaning it would open up hiring opportunities to candidates outside the Austin area and even allow for employees in Austin to stay fully remote.

With this shift in our workplace landscape, it became critical for our design team to adapt in how we collaborate. By starting with a strong team culture, implementing new tools and staying open to feedback, our team has adjusted to remote work through continued iteration and steady progress.

A strong foundation

I wrote an article last year about the importance of building a safe space for designers within an organization. Psychological safety — the ability to show one’s true self without fear of negative consequences — is a core principle for The Zebra’s design team and the foundation of our team culture. By building an open, transparent and supportive work environment, the entire team developed a growth mindset which enables us to feel empowered to make changes to our workflow.

Better tools

As we looked for ways to improve our workflow, we reassessed the tools we used for collaboration and made adjustments by integrating Miro throughout our design process and migrating from Sketch to Figma.

For years, we’ve been using Miro for brainstorming sessions and workshops, but have recently encouraged designers to start their lo-fi work in Miro as well. We’ve found that wireframing in Miro helps designers’ focus on the UX versus the low-level UI details when starting a new project.

As part of a larger team transition, we’ve also moved from Sketch to Figma for hi-fi designs and prototyping. Design management created a roll-out plan dedicated to giving designers the education and time to make the transition successful. We had each member of the design team attend webinars on how to use Figma and encouraged cross-functional partners in engineering, product and research to attend sessions on collaborating in the tool. We also hired a design system designer before the transition. Once hired, that person dedicated their time to migrating our design system over to Figma prior to individual contributors moving their files.

This was a huge undertaking for our team but the benefits were clear. Figma is quickly becoming the design industry standard for cross-functional collaboration. It allows multiple people to be in the same file at once, has version history so you can see who changed what and when and offers support for managing an enterprise design system in a single tool. Figma, therefore, is the better tool for maintaining strong collaboration practices and an open, supportive work environment.

Candid feedback

In addition to psychological safety, another principle our team values is radical candor — a management philosophy based on caring personally while challenging directly. As team leads, one way we practice this value is by continually asking our teams for feedback on our processes and team culture. At the beginning of the year, I conducted a team health monitor survey based off of Atlassian’s health monitor playbook. The survey asked each member to anonymously self-assess the design team against attributes common among high-performing teams and rate each as an area we are either strong, shaky or struggling at.

These results helped identify clear next steps. We wanted to retain our strong team culture while improving our workflow and cross-functional partnerships. Tactically, design management worked closely with department team leads to adjust our project sizing/timeline process to better represent design’s bandwidth and hold stakeholder’s accountable to the agreed upon roadmap. It also meant staffing up our team from 8 people at the time of the survey to 14 people in order to allow individual contributors to focus their efforts on one initiative at a time. We plan to conduct another team health monitor survey at the beginning of 2022, but, in the interim, we have begun holding quarterly retrospectives as touchpoints on our progress.

In addition to the team health monitor survey, we conducted another anonymous survey which gauged the team’s comfort level to meet in-person during a pandemic. As a baseline, The Zebra follows Austin Public Health’s risk-based guidelines on COVID which are broken down into 5 stages— stage 5 having the most precautionary measures and stage 1 the least. At the time we conducted the survey, Austin was beginning to move out of stage 5 and the design leadership team wanted to ensure that the time we spend together is done with everyone's health and safety in mind. The survey asked team members to rate their comfort level meeting in-person at an indoor establishment (a restaurant), an outdoor establishment (a restaurant with an outdoor patio) or an outdoor space (a park) for each stage listed by Austin Public Health. With the results from this survey and The Zebra’s new hiring guidelines that accepted fully remote workers, we struck a balance between meeting in-person when team members feel safe to do so and including team activities that all members can participate in. For stage 5, we determined that we would not meet in-person, for stage 4 we would open gatherings to include outdoor spaces and for stage 3 we would open gatherings to include indoor and outdoor establishments. We also alternate months for team outings between virtual and in-person.

Iterating and improving

In the same way that we use an iterative process in our design, our team’s approach to our workflow, tools, team culture and response to remote work has been iterative. In this way, design thinking can expand beyond a product and can influence the way we approach collaboration. We identify pain points, test solutions and take what we’ve learned in order to repeat the process again. We are responsive to our team’s needs and understand that those needs are always changing.