Remote Work for Design Teams

Design in a remote world

How design can thrive despite distance

by Ben Goldman

Creativity and collaboration have long been colored by iconic images evoking a high degree of physicality—the team huddled together in a messy studio space, collaborating with expressive gestures and visual props, like sticky notes or whiteboards. The air is electric, the ideas fly, and the flow unstoppable. It’s a deeply appealing image, even aspirational, touching on core aspects of the human condition—the desire to connect and create.

For designers, the pull of this image can make the transition to remote work jarring at first. Much of the user experience we associate with creativity and collaboration are now different in a distributed environment, from the physical space of work to the routines leading up to it.

The good news is that neither creativity nor collaboration are weakened by distance—merely altered. And the conditions that make them possible remain the same.

Successful collaboration still depends on trust, psychological safety, and the open exchange of diverse ideas, perspectives, and expertise. Similarly, the creative process doesn’t recognize the boundaries of a studio space or office building. It still involves the same age-old cycle of research, ideation, prototyping, testing, and iteration. The difference is that it requires new tools to replicate certain activities in a digital environment.

But while remote work doesn’t change the fundamental nature of creativity or collaboration, it does more quickly amplify flaws in culture, process, or leadership that already exist. “The physicality of us being together in the same space can be a cheat sheet,” says Stephen Gates, head design evangelist at InVision. “What remote work does is show a lot of your organizational sins if you haven’t been doing the right thing.”

Emily Campbell, Director of Experience Strategy at InVision, on how to build trust in a remote environment.

Teams that lack trust or psychological safety will need to be more deliberate about building relationships and creating safe space for collaboration. Silos that may have been softened by co-location will concretize in a remote environment unless teams are proactive about being inclusive. And teams that previously navigated the product creation lifecycle by happenstance will discover the need to define and advocate for a shared creative process more explicitly.

In this sense, the transition to remote work isn’t just a challenge to be solved—it’s an opportunity to improve. Remote work can help strip away the cover and camouflage of problems that were previously concealed in an office environment.

The teams that take the time and energy to address these problems will emerge all the better for it, and discover a host of additional benefits besides.

This is something we’ve learned firsthand at InVision.

Since our founding in 2011, InVision has grown into one of the largest fully distributed companies, with more than 700 employees around the world and zero offices anywhere. Despite the remote nature of our company, our teams have done some of the best and most rewarding work of their careers in this environment. And over years of scaling a remote company, we’ve learned that for every challenge to be solved there is an equally compelling upside to be celebrated.

The ability to look beyond the boundaries of a major metro area to hire talent from anywhere has enriched the character of our teams with a global perspective. It’s also provided us with the opportunity to work with design teams around the world, from Seattle to Singapore. The improved work-life integration has enabled many of us to be more engaged in both work and family life, rather than having to choose between one or the other. And the intimacy afforded by being beamed into the homes of colleagues has resulted in some of the deepest working relationships of our careers.

It’s for these and other reasons that InVision has come to believe in remote work as an important advancement in the way people work. While that doesn’t mean that it will be right for all teams at all times, investing the time and resources to develop the capability to work remotely is worthwhile for any team or business.

Of course, as we now know, the ability to work remotely is not only a worthwhile investment— it’s also a necessary one.

The turning point for remote

At the time of this writing, much of the world is grappling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses and governments everywhere are closing down offices and moving to remote work as a social distancing measure, to “flatten the curve” of the infection rate. This serves as the backdrop for what is emerging as a historic moment in remote work history—an exodus of workers from the traditional office to a home office on a scale that’s never been seen before.

The challenges of suddenly and unexpectedly transitioning a workforce to a remote work scenario are highly complex and unprecedented. In this environment, teams don’t have the luxury to develop a remote culture gradually over the span of years. Some may not even have the basic tools for remote collaboration in place. There may be strict regulatory requirements and the security of hundreds or thousands of employees to consider.

Every company will have unique challenges depending on their individual context, and solving these challenges will require solutions that come from within.

But there are some lessons we’ve learned about remote work that would be valuable to any team. These lessons primarily relate to a specific topic: How to foster collaboration and creativity in teams when working remotely. Many of these lessons were gleaned from our years of experience scaling a remote company and building digital collaboration software. Others come from our firsthand experience working with remarkable design teams around the world.

We’ve written this book to help share some of those lessons, and alleviate some of the uncertainty about remote work.

But we also hope this book excites and energizes designers about the possibility of being of service to their teams during this trying time. With their unique specialization in driving cross-functional collaboration, designers can serve an invaluable role in keeping their teams and businesses connected, creative, and collaborative—despite the physical distance between them.

As Tim Brown wrote in his seminal book Change by Design, “Only gradually did I come to see the power of design not as a link in a chain but as the hub of a wheel.”

Designers are connectors, collaborators, and facilitators. They can bridge the gaps between disciplines, empower diverse voices, and break down silos. They accomplish this using age-old tools of the creative process: research, empathy, problem immersion, brainstorming, ideation, prototyping, testing, and other best practices. These practices are powerful tools and not dependent on co-location. If anything, learning to do these activities remotely strengthens creativity and collaboration by enabling the inclusion of more diverse viewpoints, not just those in the same room.

So even as the world moves apart, design has an unprecedented opportunity to bring people together.

About the Authors

Ben Goldman
Director of InVision Films

Ben Goldman is a full stack creative who began his career as a producer at MTV before transitioning to hi-tech by co-founding the local news startup Blockfeed. He later joined InVision as a content strategist, and now works as the Director of InVision Films, writing and producing original documentaries at the intersection of design, technology and business. In addition to his professional work, Goldman is also a social justice entrepreneur and co-founder of the organization Superheroes Anonymous which inspires communities around the world to engage in creative community service. Combined, his work has been featured in dozens of top news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, TechCrunch, MSNBC, Wired, and others.

Currently listening to: Mystic Familiar by Dan Deacon; The Epic by Kamasi Washington; DSVII by MS83; Koyaanisqatsi (Original Soundtrack) by Philip Glass; Shea EP by Daniel Koestner

Currently inspired by: My local city councilman Justin Brannan who’s stepped up in a time of need to organize donations and disseminate truth in my local community. 

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: Revisiting the 2019 game Death Stranding, by Hideo Kojima, whose bizarre world of self-isolating humans connected only by delivery workers now seems all too close-to-home.

Greg Storey
Senior Enterprise Experience Director

Greg Storey is a design leader with many hats. He has earned a unique perspective of design services and leadership, having started a studio that made the Inc 5000, led a hundred designers through IBM Design’s onboarding incubator program, and assisted in the development of the USAA’s Chief Design Office. He recently joined InVision for a range of roles. Greg lives in the Pacific Northwest with his amazing wife and occasionally writes at his site Airbag Industries.

Currently listening to: Amon Tobin, Beck, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Hælos, Massive Attack, Portishead, Röyksopp, Sneaker Pimps, Tame Impala, Unkle, Wild Nothing, Wolf Alice, and Yes.

Currently inspired by: I am inspired by the men, women, they who are working tirelessly to save lives around the world. Also inspired by the folks who are keeping our core services online. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: I enjoy hearing stories of parents spending more time with their children right now along with the mass home-schooling! I hope this turns into broader support for our education system in the future.

Abby Sinnott
Managing editor, InVision

Abby Sinnott is a managing editor at InVision, where she tells the stories of exceptional design teams collaborating around the world. She has worked remotely as a writer and editor contributing to numerous publications for over a decade, and considers the freedom remote offers a true creative and lifestyle advantage. A fiction writer at heart, she’s hard at work on her second novel in her spare time. A New York native, Abby has lived in California, Spain and London, England, where she currently resides with her two daughters.

Currently listening to: I’ve recently started a new ritual of immersing myself in one poem at the end of each day, read by Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama on the Poetry Unbound podcast.

Currently inspired by: The round-the-clock dedication of the people who work for the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) and are risking their own lives every day, every minute to save the lives of others.

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: This might be cheating, but as a way to “elevate” my Netflix binge watching, I’ve limited the movies and programs I watch to those produced in different languages, such as the highly recommended Swedish-Syrian Netflix TV series Caliphate. It’s a great way to transport myself to another world while confined to my own small house in London!