Designing the team experience: Building an open and supportive team culture through design

Back in 2018, I wrote a talk called "Designing the team experience: Building culture through onboarding". The focus was using onboarding to build and foster a strong team culture. 

One of the key tenets I hold about design leadership — or really any leadership — is: "Your team is an element of your project that needs to be designed."
I was recently on Chicago Camps' Tent Talks where I explored some other ways that leaders can design their teams and foster well-being in the workplace. You can check out the entire recording: Beyond UX Theatre: Real Impact in AI, Mental Health, and Leadership

Here are my six recommendations for leaders:
  1. Your team member experience is something you should design.
    • Ask team members how they like to receive feedback and praise. I send out a personal recognition worksheet so that everyone can let me know how they like to be recognized. As an introvert, I hate public acknowledgement and I need this kind of reminder that not everyone is like me.
    • Create a balance of introvert and extrovert experiences for team members. Consider how individual team members like to receive new information, work together, collaborate, develop ideas, socialize. Remote or in person, you can adapt your communication style to suit the variety information processing styles among your team members.
    • Create a plain and simple team Code of Conduct to help the team work toward shared goals. Take the time to develop principles and approaches to how you will work together: what do meetings and collaborative sessions look like? How long are they? How often do people want to work together? How should everyone use email and chat? Is there a way for people to communicate their energy level or mood to the rest of the team on any given day? Developing team norms and revisiting them occasionally will create the space for people to participate authentically and respectfully in the workplace.
    • Give your team fixed times of the week or day to access you and each other. For my teams, that includes daily open office hours, weekly peer co-op sessions, regular critiques, etc. I also encourage the team to keep their calendars up to date, including blocking focus time, and one of our norms is that anyone can book any free time in your calendar.

  2. Set clear boundaries for the team and maintain them.
    • Are we accountable for solving or delivering that? I ask this A LOT. Is that our problem to solve? Design teams have enough to work on without taking on everyone else's problems, but this can be so hard given our penchant for listening and empathy. Definding team boundaries (and energy!) is an important leadership role.
    • If we're not accountable, what is our role in solving or delivering that? If we don't own the issue, should we be involved in helping to devise a solution? If so, how involved should we be? How can we best contribute within the scope of our mandate?
    • How much effort should we allocate? How much time should we spend on this? How much time and resources should we provide to solving this issue?
    • Where does this fit within the existing priorities? If we put effort into solving this, do we need to re-allocate people? Should we time-box the work to be done on this to make sure we aren't getting distracted from other priorities? Is this our new priority?
    • Focus on results/ No permission required: We only seek approval when we actually need approval (usually, when money is involved) — this one opens team members and especially remote workers to get things done, rather than wait for permission and approval for how they work. Some of this involves me, as the leader, getting blanket approvals or communicating upwards so that the team can be left to do the work in peace.

  3. Model true collaboration.
    • No update meetings. Status can be provided in writing. Instead we focus on bringing the team together for working sessions (i.e. where we work on a thing) or some other collaborative session with a clear goal and agendas have to be provided. My team is empowered to decline meetings that have no agendas.
    • No one attends in person if one person is off-site. This one prevents the remote person(s) from feeling like an audience. I encourage everyone to dial into a call where at least one person is remove to ensure everyone has the same level of tech challenges. There's nothing worse than feeling like you are watching a tv show of the in-person meeting you can't attend. (Note: this one doesn't happen often, but it can be really powerful and effective means of fostering inclusive team interactions).
    • Focus on screen-sharing to demo work to one another and walk through questions and issues, as if we were sitting together. We talk a lot about packaging: what kinds of artefacts best communicate information to the intended audience. I would prefer that people share raw data, research video snippets, works in progress, and other artefacts than slick presentations to communicate work in progress. Especially if it means getting input sooner and being able to iterate faster. This also applies to strategically not showing high fidelity artefacts to decision-makers, so as not to imply the done-ness of the work too early in the process.
    • Share everything. Everyone's working docs are available to the entire team, we share raw materials, and we maintain repositories of templates and artefacts for re-use. And we're not precious with our work; everything is subject to input, comment and iteration.

  4. Respect time.
    • Stop when the work is done. During a working session, if we get to our goal early, we end the session rather than waste everyone's time with filler.

  5. Foster social interactions.
    • Hold skills-related team building activities. These could include group training, workshops to build team skills, design jams, group chats for events everyone is attending, conference debriefs, show-off showcases (where people show cool work hacks), Fun Fests (where we usually play games together). 
    • Find creative ways to collaborate or work together. I also encourage body doubling in the form of a silent remote work call where 2 or more people keep each other company and accountable to get some focused work done.

  6. Leader-less channels are encouraged.
    • I expect my team to have a chat that doesn’t include me, and I tell them that. People need the space — and more importantly the permission — to vent. Assuming that they aren't doing it is naive, and trying to prevent it can be toxic. Instead, I tell them right away that I expect that chat exists and if not, I encourage them to set it up.
Designing how your team works together can create a trust-based open environment and foster relationships among team members. When people feel seen as individuals and valued as part of a greater whole, work becomes a safe place to contribute as their authentic selves. I refer to it as "the care and feeding of the humans" and after a long career as an independent contributor, I have come to believe that it is the most important part of leading a team. 

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