Distributed Design Operations Management

Jilanna Wilson
Director of Design and Research Operations, Zendesk

From the DesignOps Summit website:
Long distance relationships are hard – and managing Design Operations for a global team is no exception. Even with the best collaboration tools (and occasional late night phone calls), teams can struggle with isolation and lack of motivation. But there is a way to avoid bad break ups and international team malaise, and Jilanna Wilson knows how. She keeps the love light burning for a team that is spread across 5 continents and 8 time zones. In this session you will hear practical suggestions for topics that are challenging many DesignOps leaders, such as how to manage your team’s critical meetings, maintain consistent onboarding and documentation practices, select effective collaboration tools, and achieve a healthy team culture in a distributed environment.

Your team is remote. Now what?

She leads Design Operations at Zendesk. They are in ten different offices, with functions including product design, researchers, writers, video.

They have some really big challenges, and she wants to share a bit about what she has learned. They haven’t aced it – it’s an iteration.

Ten years ago, support software was shitty and expensive. It was hard to change because of the investment involved. Three guys from Copenhagen sought to redesign the experience to – ultimately – improve customer experience. The company is now playing a leading role in defining the industry.

Their three principles are empathy, focus on relationships, and humblident. The latter is humble and confident at the same time.

She has been there at four years. Design was 30 people, it’s grown to 100 now. She leads Design Operations, in the beginning it was an Ops team of one, but there are nine of them now. Leadership has seen that operations effectively enables designers to focus on design.

They focus on equipping and enabling their design team. But how to create a shared vision, set them up for success, and have a healthy and happy team?

From this recent Owl Labs survey it’s clear this is an issue facing many organizations and team. 52% of employees work from home at least one day a week. In the past ten years, the number of Americans working remotely has increased by 115%; 45% of US employees work outside of the office.

There are some disadvantages – based on a survey of their employees:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Isolation and lonlineess
  • Technological challenges
  • Ideas don’t matter
  • Lack of trust
  • Missed opportunities

How do we help address these issues? As leaders we have to pivot from our old habits and question whether we’re working in the most effective way.

Some of their best practices:

Communication – it is vital for any organization. If it’s not happening in person, people need non-verbal signals as well. You can’t hear a tone, even with emojis (though they help). We need check-ins and critiques – especially for more junior team members. Establish communication etiquette (no more than three bullets, move it to Google otherwise). Always have cameras on, and stick to agendas to respect people’s time. Share timezones (rotate). Prioritize your 1:1s – don’t ever cancel with them. Deliver the most critical messages in person.

Community – They have a role focused on community for their design team, and also outward facing. Human connection is at the center of it all. The basic human – we want to be known, cared for. Work relationships are build on the rhythm of work, normative practices. It’s much harder to do those things for people who are remote – send a little care package, for example. Instagram is a great way to get to know the whole person (beyond the work setting).

Collaboration – nothing builds collaboration like being physically present. So, we have to get creative by using tools like Mural or Miro for collaboration, for example.

Continuous onboarding – better to drink water throughout the day, rather than a gallon in the morning. It’s important to have a balance of weekly, monthly, and quarterly activities – including their annual All Hands. Informal opportunities to learn the cultural norms are limited. A mentoring or buddy system can help.

As DesignOps leaders, we’re in the business of building relationships, and ensuring our employees can thrive no matter where they are located.

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