Design was and will always be something I love to do.

However, since The Phuse has grown from a one-man shop into a team of six people spread across the globe, my job here has also changed.

I’m not just a designer anymore. In addition to the creative direction and business matters, my job is to create an environment that every member of our team is happy to work in.

How our team was made

I decided early on to value skills and work ethic over proximity, because I know there is a benefit to hiring good workers regardless of their geography. Good people do good work consistently and have the attitude to kick it, and they don’t need an office to do the awesome things they do.

So then, how the hell do I give my team a healthy environment to work in without the brick and mortar office that local teams benefit from? More specifically, how do I take their passion and love for design (or development, or writing), and stretch it across 5 different timezones so that we maintain consistency and everyone is excited to get out of bed every morning to get to “work” (e.g. the desk a few feet away from their beds)?

No, seriously. I’m asking you because I’m not sure.

What I do know is that there are a few things we do that help give our team the structure we need to work together, to stay on the same page, and to be happy working where we want, when we want. I didn’t take these ideas from books or some course I took in college, they were collaborated on with my team and people I’m privileged to call my friends (seriously, it’s Facebook-official).

1. Find structure

Despite our not having walls or “hours of operation” (I’m up at nearly 2AM writing this because that’s when I felt like writing it), having structure in certain places is important. For example, with deadlines and communication with clients. Within The Phuse we use a set of apps and tools to get things done and make sure everyone is on track.

We use Basecamp for interacting with clients, Flow for keeping up with personal tasks, Harvest for time tracking, HipChat for staying in touch with one another throughout the day, and Dropbox/GitHub for collaborating and backing up files. This might seem like a lot to grasp (especially all at once), but this invaluable set of tools ensures that there is order and method to the madness that is creative services.

2. Be transparent and open to differences

I’m very open with the team as to project budget, and the team has as much access to client documents to see how much is being made on the project as I do. How can you expect your team to understand how important it is to stay within budget for a project if they don’t know what the budget is?

Last year we tried using Campfire as a tool for us to stay in touch with one another  because Skype lacks well-searchable transcripts. What we found was that half of the team wanted to joke around with the bot we’d set up for it, while the other half needed questions answered about their projects.

It was clear after the first week that it wasn’t going to work out how we’d hoped, and when I asked the team what they thought, it was obvious that the solution we were looking for wasn’t in Campfire. One of our team members suggested we try out HipChat, which allows us to have private chats, easily open different “Rooms”, and more.

This wasn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened with items in our workflow, and I know it won’t be the last. While it’s good to say “alright, we’re using Basecamp for this, Harvest for this, and Dropbox for this”, be ready for others to come to the team having done things other ways and have better suggestions with how things could be done.

3. We’re a team

I always refer to people who work with The Phuse as our team. They’re not “employees”, or “people who work for me”, because I’m not a “CEO”. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any order to what we do, or leadership and management, but the more labels you apply to people that make them feel less than someone else (e.g. “junior” designer), the less they’ll feel interested in working.

I’m not excited to be working with a client, we’re excited to be working with them – if you’re a team, act like it. Team morale will follow, and your clients will appreciate the unity.

4. Make sure your team feels appreciated

Photo of 4/6 of the team at our 2011 Team Christmas Party!

The two biggest comments I get from new hires about what they didn’t like about their old jobs are that their talents were underutilized, and they didn’t feel appreciated. It’s not that they want to be given huge awards or have statues made in their honour, but they want to know when they’re doing a good job.

I’ve been known to overuse the words “awesome”, “you’re the best”, and “<3” in messages to team members. As well, I’m a chronic “thank you” person, and I’m not afraid to use more than one exclamation point. When I’m commenting on the work of a team member, I more than often start with something positive, move on to constructive criticism (e.g. things that could be tweaked), and then move back to positives.

By padding the constructive criticism, which can sometimes be misconstrued as being a douche boss, the team member knows that I see the value of the work they put forward, and have actionable items they can tweak to take it to that next level.

We also try to send out swag to our team every couple of months albeit in the form of presents like shirts or books, or business cards so they remember who loves them. This past Christmas before a good chunk of the team went on break, we had an online potluck of sorts that celebrated 2011 where everyone jumped on video chat to talk shop, eat whatever they bought (or cooked), and play a pretty intense game of Scrabble.

It was a weird experiment that spurred from my jealousy of local teams’ ability to have Christmas parties. I think it worked pretty well, and we’ll definitely do it again.

5. Have kickoffs instead of reviews

A month or two ago we were conducting individual week-in-review meetings with team members to assess progress through the week and to figure out what would be getting done the following week. What I found is that either things would be forgotten over the weekend, or people were a little more tired at these meetings, and their mind was on the weekend ahead instead of the work at hand.

Knowing that weekends are sometimes tough to bounce out of (who likes Mondays, really?), we decided to change our week-in-review meetings to kickoff meetings for the week. This way, right off the bat of the week, expectations were set and everyone was excited to work. But we took things to the next level a bit, and decided to opt-out of our general “keep meetings away from us with a 20ft pole”-attitude (although this meeting is 100% opt-in), and made it a team meeting.

Now team members were not only making their responsibilities accountable to themselves and the client, but to the entire team. Also, the team got to hear what exciting projects others were helping on, hear about problems others might be facing, and find solutions to their problems.

Right away I noticed a big improvement in productivity after the meeting. Talking about their work and hearing what others were doing made them excited to be a part of it.

6. Give people responsibility

If you feel like your job is to babysit your team, you’re hiring the wrong people. The reason you’re likely hiring is because you want to reduce your workload. You’re bringing on people who are better versions of yourself so you can rest easier. For us, that’s interacting with the client to schedule and take calls, assigning your own schedule, and making sure you keep to that schedule.

Sure, projects will have milestones you’ll want them to reach and you’ll have been transparent with major goals of the project, but after you’ve set down the blueprint and framework, let them do what they do best. Let them decide when they work and when the design will be ready for review from the client. Often times I pull a Benjamin Linus and will suggest (read: brainwash) alternate milestones if the ones suggested aren’t feasible or don’t work in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t believe in having a middle-man delivering things to clients for feedback. They’re useful to help encourage feedback by adding their own, but the explanation of a design is better explained by no one than the designer who created it. It’s important to explain to clients why the designer made the decisions he or she made, otherwise the client might not notice the extra detail they put into the element and the experience they’ve carefully crafted for the user.

Walls are overrated

Despite our distance, The Phuse has managed to create a healthy workspace without walls.

It took a lot of experimentation, but I think our team has finally reached a place where we are all happy with the environment we work in. Sometimes two or three different approaches were tested before we found the right one. That happens. If something doesn’t work, trash it and move on!

Never become complacent, either. I have no illusions, I know I’m still not 100% satisfied with our workflow. There is always room for improvement.

How does your team work together? Do you have any other tips to keep people in different locations on the same page? How do you create morale for team members that might never meet each other in person? We’d love it if you shared your thoughts with us below!

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