Collaboration tips for a remote work world

Here are a few things that I have picked up that help keep the design process moving when you can’t be in the same room putting post-its on a whiteboard together.

Set expectations with an agenda. Before you send out a meeting invite for any Design Thinking session, draft an agenda that FULLY explains the process, the expectations for the session. One of the expectations? It’s OK to make mistakes, to go off on odd ideas, to explore new spaces—say it up front.

Assign a facilitator and a scribe in advance. When someone is running the meeting, that’s a job into itself. It si difficult for them to also be a facilitator and an be effective contributor. This can be tricky, but it makes for a much better meeting. Same with the scribe—assign someone to take notes and

Over-communicate in both channel and timeframe. The meeting invitation is a communication channel for the agenda, the expectations, and the process. So is email. So is slack. So is the meeting itself. Embrace the strengths and weaknesses of remote work by reiterating the schedule for the session and the value of the session in different channels so your participants can capture that information on their own time.

Break up the activity of the agenda between group collaboration and individual work. Research has shown that creative brainstorming or divergent thinking is best done alone. But research has also shown (featured in one of our readings this week) that 5 people can end a meeting with 5 different interpretations of a problem. Build on these findings early in the Design Thinking process.

  • Have participants write their understanding of the problem in advance of the meeting
  • Come together as a group to share these problem statements and come to alignment with a How Might We statement
  • Then, for the initial act of divergent brainstorming, have everyone go off camera and mute for 15 minutes, draft their own ideas
  • Come back together to share ideas (break into groups of 5 or less if needed)

Alternating between collaborative and solo work will be more productive and can be done very effectively through remote tools, rather than having everyone move from collaborative spaces to solo spaces.

Help ward off the vulnerability of collaboration with warm ups and humor: When participating in divergent thinking, most people feel vulnerable. sketching, brainstorming, divergent thinking—these aren’t always everyone’s strong suit and it can be uncomfortable. This sense of vulnerability can, for some, be worse remotely where there is a sense of being ‘alone’ augmenting the working environment. I usually kick off with a warm up exercise to get everyone going like discussing a favorite local restaurant and what makes it great. When sharing remotely, I sometimes use sound effects (applause, fanfare, ‘ooos and ahhhs’) to help add some levity to the circumstances.

Use Collaborative Documents as Creative “Spaces” in ways that you can’t in real life. While BU recommends MS Whiteboard, I can’t speak to this tool personally as I have never used it. I can, however speak to Miro, Mural, and Figjam as options for team collaboration. Some of these have features that you can’t take advantage of if you were doing the session face to face. For instance, when using Miro, you can make a list of ideas in a separate text document, then copy and paste that list into your Miro document and the text will automatically be instantly converted to sticky notes that you can use in your collaboration exercises. All these platforms also let you attach links to your notes, so you can include contextual references and documents. All of that would be hard IRL

… and these are not remote-specific, but they will help you conduct your sessions smoothly (depending on your company culture)

An important rule: No job titles. for the duration of any collaboration session, divergent or convergent thinking, I have seen benefits in abolishing job titles and hierarchy for the duration of the session. Good leaders are usually amenable to me saying something like “Tom, I know you’re the boss, but not for the next 90 minutes. You can go back to being the boss after lunch.”

Take a minute to praise ‘outsiders’ in your cross-functional participants. If you have the good fortune of bringing someone into a session that you don’t usually get to work with, then call it out; thank them in front of everyone. For instance, at one firm where I worked, it was very difficult to get customer service representatives to participate in these sessions due to some organizational constraints. If I did get one or more of them involved, I always called it out and thanked them for their time and their expertise.

Set up incentives for productive behavior and disincentives for unproductive behavior. Have you ever used a “swear jar” where anyone who swears has to put $1 in the jar? I am facilitating a session in a few weeks and I am considering a “No jar” for anyone who says No to an idea during the convergent session has to venmo me $5 (which I will donate to a charity of the team’s choosing at the end of the session)