MBWA is no more. How do you manage a remote team?
So we’ve had our first full quarter of COVID remote work; enough for the ‘hey let’s do remote work all the time’ chatter to die down, as isolation, loneliness, internet & VPN problems, miscommunications, and the tendency to silo are coming up.
The early optimism that COVID exposed the shortcomings of most of our systems (health care, public health, education, government, racism, transportation, employment, work-life, etc.) and now we finally get to fix them (through design thinking!) has moved on. Never underestimate the ability of Americans to slide back to status quo — we couldn’t wait.
Hopefully we can retire the open office layout. It didn’t work before and now can literally kill you. But it was cheap, and gave the illusion of productivity. We would lead customers and prospects through the rows of desks with headphone-d engineers and designers cranking out code/wireframes to prove their investment was justified. But I would frequently hear: “I need to take the afternoon to Work From Home so I can get some work done.” Focus, let alone flow, is rare in the open office. The workplaces that get away with it are those that create lots of nooks and hidey holes, team rooms (like our Q2 Design Studio) to get away.
One thing it was great for, however, was MBWA. Management By Walking Around, all the rage in the 80s — easy to comprehend since the instructions are in the title. You see how people are working together, what they are working on, ask them what they need, etc. See how fast they switch screens from the album they are mixing or resume they are updating…
OK it is kind of creepy nowadays for the boss to go wandering, peeping over shoulders. To be effective you need to add value, like helping to connect designers with someone who had the same problem previously, or someone working on a similar challenge. Not micro-manage but manage by connecting people and silos.
So how do you do that now? Communication is more important, ad hoc or scheduled. Things that work for our team (Zoom is what we use but insert your favorite or mandatory video-conferencing tool; MS Teams actually works well for 1:1):
- Morning ‘Howdy’ – not a standup per se, but 2x a week just open Zoom for 15 min — to replicate the coffee machine/kitchen conversation. Early on it was reports where toilet paper was in stock, wait times at local HEBs; now could be anything, even work…
- Biweekly team meetings – we alternate small UX team and full UX team meetings each week to discuss learnings, present design for critique, or workshop design challenges. Tools we have used: LucidChart, Miro, InVision Freehand (with Sketch).
- Design reviews/critiques through Abstract. We’ve been using this ‘Github for designers’ for a few years now and it helps to get ad hoc collaboration by tagging designers on a collection for review or help.
- Weekly 1:1s with each designer to understand pain points or blockers, and get a pulse on how we are all coping with the challenges.
- MS Teams channels and chat groups – don’t let blockers pile up, but ask for help and provide ‘today I learned’ tips like how to reset the DNS instead of rebooting for VPN errors.
- Talk with other managers — solicit feedback on their pain points and where your team needs to step up.
The key to remote management is the same as in-person: trust. Yes, hard to believe but just because you can’t walk out of your cube and watch someone typing on the keyboard doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.