How might we create a hybrid office environment where designers thrive?

Dissecting hybrid

A hybrid office is a working environment where team members work from the office or home, synchronously or asynchronously. Most companies were forced into hybrid collaboration because of the pandemic, but remote work has been in the works for years.

Nevertheless, the benefits of remote work have had a proven net-positive impact on productivity and employee morale. A survey by Channel News Asia found that just 24% of people planned to return to a 9-to-5 routine. So, whilst shifting to a hybrid model will be uncomfortable, a flexible and constructive office environment is key to attracting and keeping top talent.

When it comes to the design industry, a significant challenge for hybrid teams is that critical phases of the design process are incredibly difficult to do remotely- hence this article. 

But beyond sharing specific tools or platforms, we’re going to break down what hybrid collaboration is missing, how it affects your team, and what you can do in response to these issues.

Gartner’s Four Modes of Collaboration

Illustration of Gartner's Four Modes of Intentional Collaboration. The four modes are "Working Together, Together", "Working Alone, Together", "Working Together, Apart", and "Working Alone, Apart".
Credit Image: Gartner

Beyond location, true hybrid work will also take into account whether work is synchronous or asynchronous. These factors influence not only the style and pace of work but also the interactions between team members.

This model from Gartner is particularly useful for design teams because the four modes of work can be applied to different stages of several design methodologies like design thinking, agile, lean startup, and SCRUM

For example, colocated synchronous work (“Working Together, Together”) would probably be the best fit for a prototyping workshop, and distributed asynchronous work (“Working Alone, Apart”) could work well for things like desk research or development sprints. 

Overall, Gartner’s research strongly indicates that using a functional hybrid approach with intentional collaboration leads organisations to be more flexible, more innovative, and happier.

Working from different places

Using Gartner’s model, we identified three main roadblocks faced by design teams in hybrid offices and different methods to address these issues.

The collaborative nature of design

Photograph from a Hubspot Design Thinking Workshop. There are 9 people in a small room, 5 are sticking sticky notes on a whiteboard, and the others are standing or sitting around a small circular table.
Credit Image: HubSpot

One of the key challenges in adapting design methodologies to hybrid collaboration is recreating the energy of in-person activities in hybrid environments.

Simple activities like giving and receiving feedback suddenly become complex when team members are scattered across different software. Not to mention when non-verbal communication like body language is unavailable.

In this case, team leaders should choose the tools that make it easier for everyone to give and receive feedback. Of course, this could mean different things for different teams.

However, digital toolkits can easily become bloated if your team looks for new software every time they encounter a problem. Many HR managers have also noted that knowledge workers who handle more software are more likely to burn out. As such, it’s important to avoid taking on too many apps.

Another frequent roadblock hybrid design teams face is designers instinctively retreating into “isolation caves” to perfect work. If we follow the Pareto Principle, which stipulates that “for many outcomes, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”, designers perfecting work in isolation should be avoided. 

A common example of this is a designer spending weeks iterating on an “add to cart button” even though it was already functional after the first two days of work. Clearly, this would not be the most efficient use of time.

For team leaders, handling this is a matter of creating a team culture of progress over perfection. Valuing progress over perfection encourages team members to prototype early and often, and check in frequently even with unfinished or messy work. Put this into action by making activities like giving feedback, ideating together, and having retrospectives weekly or biweekly team rituals.

Building trust

Another frequent roadblock faced by remote and hybrid teams across industries is a lack of trust. Trust among team members is an essential cog for both creativity and productivity. Especially in small design teams where there is little overlap between the work of different team members, lack of trust can spiral into a debilitating issue if left unaddressed. 

Nurturing relationships in a hybrid environment can be difficult because there are fewer opportunities for spontaneous conversations to build rapport. So as team leaders, it’s imperative to create these opportunities for your team

For example, block “watercooler chats” in your virtual meetings for a few minutes of informal conversation before jumping into work. You can also offer other team-building activities like mentorship calls, virtual happy hours, and online team-building workshops.

Screenshot from a virtual dungeons and dragons game held on Zoom.
Credit Image: War of the Wizards

Another way to build rapport is to simply spend time with one another. For example, platforms like Study Together cropped up during the pandemic as students started experimenting with ongoing video calls to mimic the feeling of a library.

Some organisations have experimented with the same concept for their employees. Team members can drop in and out whenever they feel like they need some company while working synchronously. This not only helps build rapport but also simulates the in-office environment (at least partly).

Furthermore, as a team leader, it’s important to model the behaviour you’d like to see from your team. So, if you’d like to see your team members trust one another, you should demonstrate this trust yourself. Actions speak louder than words here. To demonstrate trust, give team members the autonomy to make day-to-day decisions independently. In doing so, you’re also investing in the individual development of your team, who are the foundation of your project.

Lastly, as your team makes progress, whether it’s towards the team culture you’re nurturing, or towards the project at hand, you shouldn’t skip on celebrating small wins. Psychological research indicates that celebrating small wins builds self-esteem and motivation for the future, thereby combating detachment and burnout. 

This doesn’t mean taking a week off when your team gets to the end of the to-do list (although we admit that would be quite nice). Celebrating small wins can be as simple as recognising yourself, the work you’ve done, and how it feels to perform well. Whilst this study was about individual self-reflection, this could be done during team retrospectives to emphasise that you’re celebrating the team’s success.

Staying on the same page

Even in “regular” offices, keeping everyone aligned and in sync can be difficult. In hybrid environments, practical mishaps like using different fonts and type scales, to more sensitive issues like big differences in the quality of delivered work, are much more difficult to monitor and address. 

One way to keep designers consistent is to create a “single source of truth” like branding guidelines or design systems. Doing so helps your team work efficiently and avoid conflicts over subjective preferences.

When it comes to project objectives, team roles, and the quality of work, you can set your team up for success by defining these things clearly and objectively before the kick-off. For example, constructing a team charter would allow your team to participate in the definition of these parameters. This ensures equal stake and a sense of responsibility from the get-go.

Screenshot of a sample team charter from MURAL.
Credit Image: MURAL

Furthermore, zooming out and thinking of a “north star vision” (as this Design Director from Adobe calls it) can unite your team under a collective long-term goal. This will also help build trust, as your team can be assured that they’re all working towards the same thing. 

Last but not least, another frequent pothole is miscommunication between team members and stakeholders during handoff. When passing work to someone else, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they know just as much about it as you do. Especially when delivering work to clients, it’s critical to make sure that you outline exactly what you’re sending and what you expect them to do with it.

Do you need help getting your project off the ground?

Sometimes projects sputter to a halt. 

Here at Pixel Tie, we have eight years of experience in the thick of the design industry. We go beyond “building apps”, and help you create digital experiences that resonate with your customers and create conversions for your business.

If you’d like to see how we can help you breathe life into your digital touchpoints, contact us and we’ll get back to you shortly!

Further Reading


Founder & Creative Director at Pixel Tie. Rémy has a particular enthusiasm for all things digital and interactive. He is also a Serial Bread & Cheese Eater, Mountain Biker & Proud Philatelist.

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