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.
It was two weeks before graduation when I received the news – ”Daylight would love for you to join our San Francisco studio!” Thrilled to have this opportunity coming out of design school and anxious about my foray into “adulthood,” I was nervous to ask for a delayed start date due to existing personal plans.
My family and I were slated to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro in late July. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip I didn’t want to miss, but I was willing to give it up to have the opportunity to work at Daylight. Upon mustering the courage to ask for my ideal start date, the studio lead gave me the thumbs up:
“Starting in August is no problem at all; let’s just make sure you are here by the week of September 10th,” he said. “Everyone at Daylight will be gathering in Munich then for our annual offsite. It’s an inspirational bonding experience that you wouldn’t want to miss.”
Munich? Annual offsite? Inspirational bonding experience?
As a kid who definitely peaked as a camp counselor, baiting me with the words “inspirational bonding experience” in a faraway metropolis caught me hook, line, and sinker.
Three months later I was in the Daylight SF office for the first time. Three weeks after that, I was on a flight to Germany to unite with my colleagues from across the world.
Describing our global gatherings as “annual company offsites,” while technically accurate, is wildly inadequate. The prevailing mental model for an event of this sort is that of a badly-lit hotel conference room and a marathon of powerpoint, punctuated by half-baked trust exercises.
Our one-week gatherings in the Bay Area, Bavaria, or South Korea - homes to our three Daylight offices - are less like corporate convenings and more like big family reunions or road trips with good friends. There are late night stories over weissbier, cross-cultural cooking mashups in the kitchen, and caravans of cars heading for adventures. While we typically dedicate a day or two to sharing our best work with one another, talking through the challenges and successes of the past year, and envisioning upcoming projects, the majority of our time together is pure fun: cooking grand feasts, exploring new streets, and relishing in the company of our company. We wander in ancient Korean villages, listen to trumpeters play over Lake Konigssee, hike the Alps and the Sierras, and form and rekindle friendships in an honest, jubilant way. For all of that I am eternally grateful.
Living in the Bay Area, I am hyper-aware of the world of tech giants that ooze “perks.” Gym memberships, gourmet meals, bean bags, kombucha on tap…you name it, they’ll give it. As a small design agency committed to social impact, Daylight can’t shower team members with such luxuries. And yet, many of the people I know who take part in Big Tech are also the first to admit that my offsite experiences make them green with envy.
The value of the Daylight global gathering runs counter to the average corporate perk because it isn’t motivated by a top-down need for artificial camaraderie or a subversive attempt at employee retention. For many years Daylight has recruited top talent while staying small and familial by choice, and the effusiveness of our offsite is a testament to that approach. We genuinely enjoy traveling the world together and learning new skills from one another. We eagerly await seeing familiar faces year after year and welcoming new Daylighters with open arms. Our global gathering allows us to connect beyond the Slack channel or the Figma artboard, and it serves as a glowing example of how effective designers can be when designing for themselves. Each office gets a turn at planning the offsite in their home country every third year, and the energy and unity we consistently muster is unique to our Daylight community.
As consultants, so much of what we do is in the service of others. We work tirelessly to create apps that help low-income families in the Bay Area retain their Section 8 housing eligibility or tinker late into the evening on digital platforms that encourage new parents to talk to their children from birth.
And in truth, this work can be exhausting at times. While PTO can fulfill one’s personal needs for separation of work and life, few organizations offer an opportunity that truly replenishes the energy of the collective, that rejuvenates the soul of the organization, that reminds you why you are here and why you matter. The Daylight global offsite emerged not merely as an antidote to the demands of our work, but also as an opportunity to propel us through the coming year with newfound energy and enthusiasm. When we come together, we reinvigorate ourselves and our workmanship. We rekindle international relationships and friendships that can fuel our collaborative efforts on upcoming projects. We mindmeld on ideas or challenges we’ve had in the past year and envision new support systems for ourselves and for our teams.
In times where organizations increasingly work in remote or distributed ways, connecting intentionally feels more important than ever. For Daylight, dropping everything for a week, traveling the globe, and bonding as people is something that feeds us.
We come together in a way that feels authentic and productive because it is, above all else, human.
If you are part of a distributed team, what might you explore in the future to foster such human connections? And if you’re a designer interested in Daylight, do you have your passport ready?
Illustrations by Johanna Gieseler