Working remotely across time zones is hard, but it doesn’t have to suck

Written by
Minjeong Kim

We share some lessons into why it’s hard and how design teams can plan and run projects effectively when people are apart.

Background

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
A clear image of a hill and trees jutting out form a blanket of fog
Human-Centered Design guides us to find clarity from ambiguity | Photo by Jan Schulz # Webdesigner Stuttgart on Unsplash

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 challenges of working remotely, and across different time zones
A person looking like they’re about to cry, holding their hand to their head, sitting in front of their bed
Agonizing from home | Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

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.

Four reasons for the challenges of working remotely across time zones

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?

1/4 Opportunities for alignment lost
Two seagulls flying in circles in the air. One of them in the foreground, and the other is blurry in the background.
“Hey there, what do you think about where we’re headed?” | Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

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.

2/4 The pressure to hand over work before midnight each day, every day
Five clocks hanging on a wall, pointing at different time zones.
Photo by Luis Cortes on Unsplash

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.

3/4 Time zone differences can also mean cultural gaps
A cat and a chicken in a home, staring at a toy shaped like the tiny robot BB-8 from Star Wars.
Speaking different languages | Photo by Daniel Tuttle on Unsplash

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.

4/4 Losing track of digital breadcrumbs
A sign in a train or bus station showing 8 different directions
Getting lost in information | Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

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.

Remedies

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.

Tips for Project Setup and Staffing

1) Prioritize co-locating the team for the most ambiguous phases of the project

  • Having learned from projects in 2020, we became both confident about how to set remote teams up for success but also more cautious in signing up a global team without concrete plans for dealing with the challenges.
  • Because working remotely does add friction to alignment, we think it’s useful to co-locate, at least for parts of the project that are high in ambiguity. Co-locating raises efficiency in the creative process by taking away time delays in communication and creating more overlaps for people to mind-meld. When the team physically works together in the same space and time zone, they are also able to coordinate work hours around sleep and meal times.
  • For example, can you staff the most ambiguous phases of the project with a local team? Could you take care of foundational research, synthesis, and concept definition locally? Once the project and design direction are defined, you can then bring in people from other locations and get the work done in a relay-style format where people toss their work back and forth.

2) If distributed, then design your process for alignment

  • First, think about how to minimize the difficulty in alignment.
  • For example you could define distinct areas of ownership so that every member has a clear idea of what they can pursue independently without coordinating heavily with other members. For example, one member or sub-team could work on user flows and wireframes while another defines and builds a design system and visual design language. It may be better for one location to own client communication and be empowered to make decisions about how to respond to requests.
  • Take note of the hours of overlap in working hours between the locations, making the most of it, but also adjusting work hours if the overlap needs to be bigger. Between San Francisco and Seoul, Seoul decided to start their day earlier than usual at 8AM and San Francisco often adjusted by working until 7 or 8PM to create an overlap of at least 3 hours. Trying out the adjusted schedule is crucial as it may or may not be sustainable. Be honest to your own physical energy levels and suggest adjustments to the team.

3) Measure and take note of how the arrangement is working

  • Take note of the additional time and effort that is being put into coordinating remote collaboration. For example, we estimate that it would take about 1.5 times the number of days to do user research and synthesis as a remote team.
  • Logging time on alignment calls, catchup calls, end-of-day summaries, will give you a good idea of how much to factor this in in future project plans.
  • Realize that sometimes it’s the “in-between” tasks that snowball in time. These are tasks that are about communicating information, such as summarizing takeaways from a client presentation and sharing next steps with the remote part of the team.

Tips for Daily operations, Meetings

1) Delegate open-ended problems to pairs or at max, groups of 3

  • This is probably a good idea anyway when working through Zoom. Open-ended discussion in groups larger than 3 felt difficult as conversation dynamics are different when online. There’s a slight time delay when people speak, and when two or more people speak at the same time, they tend to mute each out out. The awkwardness seems to have led most people to stay silent while one or two people dominated the conversation. If it’s a type of meeting that can be moderated, do so. If it must be a working session, then delegate topic areas small groups.

2) Wrap up the day with video screen recordings

  • We found end-of-day summaries to be useful context to send to the other team. We recommend doing this in a format that the team considers intuitive. Many teammates found it intuitive to receive a narrated screen recording of their coworker’s progress rather than a bulleted text list as the combination of voice and screen sharing made nuances easier to understand.

3) Distinguish meeting types in order to run them predictably

  • Is the meeting a working session, design review, or a status update? Distinguishing between these types helps invite just the people who need to be there. It also becomes possible to define rules of the conversation more clearly. For example, when we adopted a status update meeting, we made it a rule to never open up design files on the spot since doing so would often derail the conversation into an impromptu working session.
  • 1:1 meetings and occasional lunch conversations useful to air out thoughts that weren’t directly related to productivity or project progress. These are when people felt most comfortable and safe to express concerns about the project or share feelings.

Useful Tools
  • Miro was a great alternative to post-it boards. We used it to debrief user interviews, to gather thoughts during project retrospectives.
  • Loom helped us screen-cast and narrate something we’re working on.
  • Figma was our design tool of choice.
  • Slack for sharing updates and arranging schedules.
  • Dropbox and Google Drive for file storage.
  • We kept a main document that listed all key file locations.
  • We’re still looking for ways to keep conversations and files trackable.

Summary

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.

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