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WFH Is Now SOP. Design Leaders Share Creative Ideas to Make It Work.

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With the renewed and heightened anxiety caused by a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, remote workers enter a new — and possibly worse — phase of working from home. Already facing burnout caused by isolation or the overwhelming responsibility of caring for kids and loved ones, the uncertainty of this next wave seems unfathomable.

Leaders of design teams face the challenge of reassuring staff, while simultaneously keeping them engaged amid predictions of more economic pressures on the way. The prospect of more homeschooling ahead adds yet another layer of complexity.

Notoriously collaborative problem-solvers, design leaders are coming together to find solutions. In July, our InsideOut Design Leader Community gathered to tackle this very real challenge. Below are some tips we hope will help meet these new leadership demands with insights from senior leaders at high-profile brands.

Start by Assessing What’s Happening

There’s a lot of focus on the downsides of this pandemic, and there are many. From endless video calls to the creation of silos that stall progress to the sheer monotony of these endless days, it’s easy to get lost in the negatives. And if these are the roadblocks that prevent the team from hitting goals, they’re certainly worth addressing. But first, leaders have to dig in to determine which issues will have the greatest impact on success.

Several leaders suggest hosting an open discussion with teams, allowing them to both identify the highest priority problems to solve and engaging them in uncovering solutions. One leader shared the experience of discovering that a mission critical part of their hiring process was crippled — in-person coding exercises just aren’t feasible right now. By determining the real benefits of being in the room with candidates, they were able to reimagine their system to not only reap the positives but also broaden their recruiting options and reduce hiring costs in the long term!

On the bright side of this global health crisis, change can be accelerated, providing a springboard for previously unbelievable progress. Companies are adopting new technologies for communication and transparency in record time, which will yield improvements for years to come. In addition, many leaders are reporting that decision-making processes that took weeks to complete can now be moved into production within days, as time pressures remove unnecessary layers and steps. Leaders who haven’t yet reviewed their own communication and decision-making systems should take the time to do so.
Bottom line, bringing together design teams and stakeholders to identify hurdles, opportunities, and innovations should be the first step in moving forward.

Develop New Team Norms

Once you’ve assessed the top opportunities for improvement and developed a plan to move forward (the WHAT), it’s time to address the HOW. The first two iterations of figuring out how to work from home addressed functional and productivity needs. So most design leaders spent a lot of one-on-one time helping with the personal needs of their employees.

Individual meetings provided the privacy required for sensitive topics, but communicating those customized solutions across the entire team is tricky, and sometimes even discouraged or downright inappropriate. That said, accommodations for one staff member can raise questions of fairness or even demotivate those who feel they’re being asked to work even harder to compensate. So what can you do?

In one of our InsideOut roundtables, leaders suggested that it’s important to communicate to the entire team that it’s OK to take the space they need (every situation is unique), but also to create clear guidelines that apply to everyone. For example, have simple rules like 1) communicate with your manager, 2) get backup to make sure work gets done, and 3) don’t leave a “bag of poo” on your way out. That last one may sound silly, but it certainly paints a clear picture of acceptable behavior. The goal is to get everyone on the same page.

One leader is using the DiSC assessment developed by William Marston to help her team uncover and adjust to various communication styles. With distinct behavioral profiles that don’t assign judgment, tools like DiSC help teams utilize language to connect and understand. While leaders can’t ensure a perfect system for accommodation, smart ones both continue to offer personalized support and build a team communication structure that keeps individuals with diverse needs feeling heard and valued.

Make Checking In a Ritual

As every leader has learned over the past four months (sometimes the hard way), checking in isn’t a one-and-done activity. Even those who believed that constant change was already the new normal agree that this amount of change is unprecedented.

To stay on top of changing feelings, priorities, and issues of their staff, design leaders are baking check-ins into standard operating procedures. One leader is leveraging pulse surveys on a set frequency to stay in touch with sentiment and get ahead of emerging obstacles. Another leader hosts biweekly video calls that are intentionally not about work to help teams bond and get a better idea of how they’re holding up.

One-on-one meetings remain the most powerful way to connect with staff, and several leaders recommend structuring a purposeful check-in at the beginning of each one.

Many employees still fear being seen as disengaged or distracted, so assuming they will speak up if something’s going wrong is a misstep.

By carving out time to stay in touch with staff, leaders can figure out what needs to stay the same (or change!) to keep the whole team productive, happy and collaborative through evolving business needs.

Build the Case for What’s Next

Though many large organizations are publicly acknowledging a flexible and safe approach to any plans to return to the office, most leaders encourage not waiting to see what happens. One leader pointed out that after promoting so much flexibility, it seems impossible that firms could pull off a 180-degree turn and become intractable. But in today’s unstable climate, anything’s possible.

To prepare for the possibility of managing the expectations of an eager executive team, forward-thinking leaders are stockpiling and organizing all the benefits of their current remote working situation. One senior leader is tracking productivity gains using hard data, including budget tracking, delivery time, reduced review cycles, and overall utilization to prepare a solid case for their high-performance remote team.

Another leader is helping her team shift their mindset from “this is temporary” to “this could be permanent” in an effort to build best practices that stick and have long-term benefits. Yet other leaders are gathering anecdotal wins in key areas like self-assessed improved mental health, greater employee satisfaction, and increased engagement. One leader shared that her team has taken a COVID pledge to be mindful of personal space and respectful of others, as their organization considers reopening facilities.

Proactively anticipating a range of feasible scenarios helps leaders when it’s time to advocate for a clear plan with a solid case for their position.

Remember to Harden Off

There’s probably a lot leaders can learn from gardeners. One of our brilliant InsideOut leaders shared this vivid analogy: Moving seedlings from a greenhouse to a garden requires a transition period called “hardening off,” which introduces them to new elements bit-by-bit, reducing the chance they will go through shock and die. While that may seem extreme, the death of team culture, team trust, or team cohesion has a radical impact on outcomes.

Instead of trying to implement changes and adjust to new inputs in real time, remember that every phase of this pandemic has introduced its own unique hurdles to overcome. No matter how resilient your team may seem, we’re all just human, so as much as possible leaders should use a phased approach to change, with ample check-ins along the way. Moving forward with the best current information and engaging teams in solutions will help you retain and support design teams through this period and beyond.

Regardless of where you or your team is now, one thing is certain: Change Will Continue. The best overall advice from our roundtables is to focus on building resilience and a culture of open collaboration, with a clear communication plan.

RESOURCES

Some leaders are faced with managing concerns of a possible return to the office, while others are focused on continuing to make WFH work. In preparation for our July InsideOut roundtables, we shared some articles that cover a range of situations that may help:

If you’re a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let’s talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual roundtables to support the learning, growth and sanity of our members, and I’m honored to get to facilitate those discussions.

Have tips of your own to improve the next wave of WFH? Please share in the comments. Stay safe out there. Let’s keep learning together!

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