Daylight has three studios around the world, in San Francisco, Munich, and Seoul. We often form teams from across these studios to work on a client project.
Before COVID, members would fly over to the location considered home base. We formed project teams flexibly across locations, and the flexibility afforded us designers the opportunity to get immersed in projects and get to know the culture of the other locations.
When we ruled out flying in 2020, we adjusted by working remotely across time zones, cultures, and homes. We sometimes treaded into new projects not knowing how hard it was going to get with this new arrangement. We learned a lot through experience. We’d like to share our learnings and tips so that future teams don’t have to feel as much growing pain as we did.
What we share here is our direct experience at Daylight. Depending on the scale of your own company and type of work, you may find that a different set of choices works better for you.
Human-centered design is a methodology that invites ambiguity
Daylight specializes in end-to-end projects that require research and strategy up-front and buildable solutions towards the end. We adopt the human-centered design process, which invites us to start with open-ended questions and be inspired by the people we are designing for.
The double diamond that the Design Council defined over a decade ago accurately captures the divergent and convergent nature of human-centered design. The work overall is not pre-defined. It does not come with concrete turn-by-turn instructions, so instead we embrace ambiguity and design our way forward to clarity.
The first few projects we did remotely and in isolation from one another were tough.
Our teammates were feeling drained by the end of each week.
Group video calls wandered and dragged on for 3 or more hours.
We were creating so much design content, and yet it felt like we were not moving forward in the project.
The work day got longer as we tried to hand off and sync at the beginning or end of our days with the overseas team.
Why was working remotely in isolation so hard? Why couldn’t we just cut meetings short and call it a day? Why couldn’t we just do our part and work in a relay style, handing over the ball back-and-forth with teammates?
Ever heard of the Chinese adage, “Same bed, Different dreams (同床異夢, 동상이몽)?”
It’s used to describe a situation in which two people appear to be on the same page but have fundamentally different ideas in their heads. We found that Same bed, different dreams is what could happen when people in a team design in isolation and forego sufficient alignment with one another.
In collaborating remotely, opportunities to align among collaborators were reduced to a minimum and it turned out to be detrimental to pushing designs forward. When we used to work in the same space, we’d align on direction and process by tossing back and forth impromptu ideas and questions. These moments didn’t require planning, and were crucial to helping us agree and get on the same page about what needed to be done.
As designers we had an intuitive understanding that alignment was needed to converge, but hadn’t exactly analyzed to what degree and frequency we needed to chat or discuss to be effective. For example, we hadn’t previously needed to know that for a co-designing team of two, about two syncs over Zoom each day helps us get on the same page, or that a mix of differentiated types of virtual meetings — 1:1 calls, group calls, status calls, and design reviews — can help form the conversations needed to move a project forward.
It was when we were stripped of the ability to bandy thoughts back and forth, we noticed the importance of aligning between teammates, and learned how to intentionally set up our process to help teammates align.
Time zone differences created a need for hand-off and documentation for the other team. Teams also had to meet through video calls to discuss the hand-off and documentation. If the receiver had any questions, even trivial ones, they had to wait several hours to get an answer. Given these time delays, the people preparing hand-offs felt like they needed to complete a significant milestone to make it easier for the next person to be able to build on top of it. Given that after my day, the other person’s day would start, there was no room to skip a beat. The pressure to be consistently productive each day on one’s own tired out members of our team.
Sometimes design terminology to describe our process differed between our own studio locations, making it hard to communicate ideas precisely.
The client’s asks were sometimes hard to communicate abroad not only because of a language barrier, but because of a cultural one.
For example, whenever our global team presented to our corporate Korean client, we found them to be not as responsive as we had expected. It turned out that the corporation preferred top-down communication presentation styles and preferred not to give feedback on the spot as they needed to sync internally across their levels of hierarchy before circling back to us.
It took a bit of digging to find out how to engage our Korean client effectively, and while this was happening, the overseas team felt out of the loop.
Our tools moved online, and we begin to use multiple platforms, each optimized for a distinct activity: Miro for online post-it synthesis, Dropbox and Google Drive for storage, Figma for design, and Slack or email for updates. “I don’t know where to find this or that discussion or file!” was already a problem before remote working situation, but the remote setup increased our reliance on documentation and digital communication, amplifying the difficulty.
When we reflected on the difficulties, we were able to adapt. These are some things we started to do differently so that we could enjoy our work more and be more effective.
1) Prioritize co-locating the team for the most ambiguous phases of the project
2) If distributed, then design your process for alignment
3) Measure and take note of how the arrangement is working
1) Delegate open-ended problems to pairs or at max, groups of 3
2) Wrap up the day with video screen recordings
3) Distinguish meeting types in order to run them predictably
Working remotely across time zones and cultures has changed our team dynamic. We lost some ability to organically align in real-time, but gained the understanding needed to adapt. As a result, now we’re able to plan projects and teams specifically for a local, remote, or hybrid project team setup.
Our advice for future teams is to design an intentional strategy and process to facilitate team alignment.
We hope that many of us get even more skilled at, and therefore less stressed out from collaborating remotely in 2021.
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.
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.
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.