How to keep distributed teams connected and inspired

Written by
Lizzie Garrett
A designer’s story of how coliving with eleven people inspired new ideas for remote collaboration and engagement.

Given housing costs in the Bay Area, I found myself frequently daydreaming of packing up my 1-bedroom urban apartment and moving to a small town. I could buy a little house with a yard and invest in a community that feels less temporary. But as a designer, I came here for a reason and that same reason makes it hard to leave. This is where the action is! And everyone knows that we do our best collaborative, creative work when we can roll up our sleeves together, all in the same place. Right? 

Instead of escaping the Bay Area, I joined a coliving community in Oakland called Radish. Founded by a behavioral scientist and her partner, Radish is built on one core principle: living with people you admire helps you be the best version of yourself. This struck home for me, because it was the exact same mindset that drew me to Daylight: working alongside people you admire makes you a better designer.

Distributed co-working inspired by intentional coliving

As COVID descended upon the Bay Area, I suddenly found myself in the middle of two social experiments: co-quarantining with eleven other humans while also being part of a design studio that had to transition overnight into a 100% distributed organization. 

I was surrounded–both at home and at work–by “extreme users”: the people we seek out for design research because these early adopters often employ interesting workarounds, and their amplified experiences help us develop universal insights. 

This situation presented an interesting learning opportunity. How might we take advantage of this unique time in history to amplify the way we work together all the time? Can we stay truly engaged, inspired, and supported while working remotely? Is it possible for designers like me to have our cake and eat it too: do fulfilling, creative, collaborative work from anywhere, structuring it to best fit into our lives instead of the other way around?

At Radish, we live in a “do-ocracy”–if you see something that needs to be done, do it! So I decided to try to answer these questions myself by talking to my Daylight colleagues, seeding ideas and experiments, and iterating relentlessly until we found something promising. Here are some of the things I discovered:

1. Appoint a cruise director.

In the office, people naturally stay connected and engaged; they can see what others are up to and easily join in. But on a distributed team, people tend to feel isolated yet still remain in their own bubbles.

Living at Radish, I witness first hand how a self-appointed “cruise director” holds us together during quarantine. She curates a daily schedule of housemate-led activities, nudging (but never requiring) us to come together and support one another for morning exercise, writing club, or TED-esque “RAD Talks.” At Daylight, I play this role by facilitating weekly gatherings, inviting individuals to lead skillshares, and encouraging team members to turn their ideas into action through various internal initiatives. 

While a design studio or company isn't a camp, a point-person who provides some structure and makes sure that everyone feels informed and included can provide invaluable glue during distributed times. 

2. Create space for spontaneity. 

Regardless of your feelings about open offices (or communes), there are some clear benefits to seeing and being seen. Visibility breeds productivity, there is energy in the collective, and spontaneous engagement feeds us creatively. Irrespective of living situation, distributed team members often have trouble staying focused and feeling inspired. 

At Daylight, we’re exploring what we call Virtual Studio. Using a simple, free website called Gather, we created a 2D studio environment where we “go” while we do our work. There, we collectively utilize the Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes of heads-down time followed by a 5-minute break over video. During the break, we might show our screen for quick feedback, share something interesting we learned, or take a few minutes to stretch together. 

Virtual Studio works because it encourages productivity and provides opportunities for quick conversation and spontaneous inspiration. The point is, it’s worth exploring alternate ways to connect–using video, phone, or other media–to support each other’s work in a more organic way. 

3. Lean into asynchronous yet human communication. 

In order to truly empower distributed teams, we must embrace asynchronous collaboration. This enables us to work whenever it makes sense (late at night, before the kids wake up, or from anywhere in the world), and gives people time to think things through on their own. However, it’s easy to get bogged down writing long handoff emails, and nuances can get lost in translation.

Even though we all live together at Radish, there is a very active WhatsApp–including lots of voice messages and videos–to ensure that no one misses out on key information. It’s much easier (and more interesting) to talk than to type out a detailed description of how we reorganized the kitchen. At Daylight, teams are currently experimenting with 10-minute handoff videos. One teammate records a screen share explaining what they created that day and why, as well as starting points for how to push the work forward.

The idea is to ensure that teams stay aligned without a heavy lift, empowering individuals to confidently move quickly with less reliance on meetings. Video and voice are powerful tools to capture nuance and tone. But the most important thing is to systematize documentation to be fast and easy, ensuring that it actually gets done. 

4. Prioritize 1:1 connections. 

At the office, we’re frequently supporting each other through sidebar conversations or walks around the block. In normal times, Daylight also holds a yearly global retreat, fostering personal relationships that strengthen our work throughout the year. But with group Zooms as the new default, it’s hard to connect on an individual level and quieter voices are often not heard. 

Radish dinners are always entertaining, but it’s the 1:1 dinner dates where we truly get to know and support one another on a deeper level. At Daylight, we recently launched a global coffee-date program utilizing a service called Donut. Daylighters from different offices are randomly paired each week for 30-minute calls, with suggested conversation starters from the No Small Talk card deck (science-backed cards for deepening conversation, designed by a Radish resident). This quickly became one of the favorite experiments we’ve run thus far, with Daylighters posting screenshots and facts learned about each other to a shared Slack channel. 

Even in times not marked by a global pandemic, work can be stressful and being distributed can feel lonely. It’s important to create opportunities for colleagues to individually connect and support one another beyond work-focused conversations.

5. Bring visibility to individual contributions.

In the office, when someone cleans up after a brainstorm or works long hours to meet a deadline, we all see it. But on a distributed team, we don’t have visibility into the small things that people do to keep the ship afloat. 

Even when we live together, many contributions go unseen. For this reason, Radish has a Slack channel called #i-did-a-thing: if you upgrade the WiFi or water the plants, post it in the channel! Others might respond with an emoji of appreciation, realize how much happens behind the scenes, and find motivation to also contribute in small yet valuable ways. The person who posts also feels motivated: who wouldn’t feel good about a dancing tomato emoji in their honor? 

At Daylight, we started our own #i-did-a-thing Slack channel, where we’ve posted our own contributions (“I organized the team Dropbox!”) as well as teammate shout-outs. Whether you set up a system for self-reporting or find a way to automate it, the important thing is to bring visibility to small contributions such that others can easily recognize and motivate each other. 

6. Invite everyone to play. 

For both Daylight and Radish, an important shared value is humor and play. We’ve leaned into this during quarantine at Radish, mixing things up with silly activities and monthly themes (Camp Rad was my personal favorite, complete with friendship bracelets and a scavenger hunt). 

At Daylight, we’re pushing our collaborative tools to unlock new types of participation and combat Zoom fatigue. One tool we love for bringing easy, non-linear interaction to video meetings is the online whiteboard Miro. At our weekly virtual studio lunch, it allows people to storytell with photos in an emergent way and playfully build on each other’s ideas. At project kickoff meetings, it’s an engaging way to facilitate alignment activities, while also teaching clients a simple technology that will enliven our ongoing collaborations. 

We are in the age of free, collaborative, web-based tools that require minimal (if any) specialized skills. This gives us the chance to think beyond Zoom to create meeting experiences that encourage active engagement from all participants, instead of always defaulting to the model of one person driving at a time. 

Moving Forward

Like any collective of creatives, Daylight continues to crave in-person collaboration. But a global pandemic has also shown design-driven organizations how much we can achieve from afar. With more tools in our distributed toolkits, maybe some organizations move toward a three-day office week, or others double down on a few co-located weeks a year. Perhaps many of us decide that we can be stimulated and inspired without living in compact cities after all, and recruiting can expand far beyond coastal hubs. Regardless, I do believe that it is possible to do fulfilling, creative, collaborative work from anywhere, and fit it into whatever type of life we imagine for ourselves.

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