Design team

Leading Distributed Design Teams: 3 Biggest Challenges and How to Solve Them


min to read

12 Oct



Table of contents

Let’s face it, leading a distributed design team with no possibility to quickly look over your employees’ shoulders to check whether their designs are fine is challenging, if not hard.

Thanks to the big remote shift due to the world pandemic, many businesses adjusted and went to work fully online, but for many companies, hidden problems remain. We can group typical challenges for remote teams into three categories: broken communication in the teams, a silos mindset, and weak ties. 

In Eleken UX design company, we believe in a collaborative approach to design. Our design is not created in a vacuum, but in constant communication and collaboration with stakeholders, product managers, users, and development teams. So the infamous three we mentioned above would just impair our work.

In this article, we share the best practices for distributed teams that actually work. Here’s how we defeated the most common challenges of remote work.

Challenge #1. Broken communication 

If you want to manage a remote design team easily and effectively, first of all pay attention to how the communication is happening. 

In remote design teams, spontaneous communication is absent and text format leaves a lot of room for confusion. As a result, colleagues communicate less, and miscommunication often happens.

Problem: miscommunication. Solution: support frequent and effective communication in your team using tools for remote work

As it’s been said many times, communication is the key and you don’t want to let it become chaotic in your distributed design team. Here’s what you should do:

  • Keep the number of video calls limited as they are the most tiresome form of communication. Incorporate the culture of follow-ups after online meetings. 
  • Organize the rest of the communication channels: messengers, design tools, and calls should not duplicate one another but work as a structured communication system.
  • Ask for feedback from your team members about the communication. If people in the team are frustrated with something, they might (consciously or not) sabotage the comunication.  

After implementing these tips, your communication with the team will become more on-point and effective, people will proactively approach each other with specific questions, and it will get easier to lead a remote design team. 

But there are other pitfalls waiting for you on the way. 

Challenge #2. Silos mindset

There’s a chance that you have never heard of silos. Or heard about it in an agricultural context. You are not alone, silos is a rather new term in business language. It describes a situation when departments of the company work isolated from each other. Instead of sharing their expertise, teams store it like grain is stored in actual silos. 

Covid-19 was a big test for remote teams and it caught many companies off guard. Some teams simply did not know how to work remotely and it deepened the problem of silos, so departments started growing apart. 

Silos mindset is a serious problem, especially for product companies. When there’s no strong cooperation, knowledge sharing and such, the success of your product is at risk.

Imagine the situation: your designers and developers work as two independent departments that contact each other only when it’s time to hand off the design. As a result, the design team creates layouts without consulting with developers about technical possibilities for implementation. 

As a minimum, developers will have many questions for designers, and the work will be slow. But scenarios can be even worse, up to the need to create a new design to meet the development possibilities. This is a silos problem in action. 

Problem: silos (when departments of the company work in isolation and don't share expertise. Solution: cross-functional teams and effective collaboration processes solve the problem of silos

The good news is that it is possible to deal with silos: 

  1. First of all, educate your team, explaining the importance of sharing expertise with each other and working towards a common goal as one organism. 
  2. The next step is creating easy ways to communicate and share the company's knowledge base
  3. Build cross-functional teams and effective collaboration processes. 

But even when all the processes are done right, the human factor still remains. And for the teams that are distributed around the world, it can be a serious challenge. 

Challenge #3. Weak ties

It might sound a little weird, but weak ties are the biggest problem for distributed teams. Broken communication and lack of collaboration can be solved with the right processes. But how to make people cultivate friendly relationships if they rarely see each other and spend work days apart?

  • Implement the culture of getting to know each other across the team. There are great ice-breaking tools like Donut Slack bot for random and casual one-on-one meetings.
Donut bot on Slack
Image source: Donut website
  • Know your team members and organize outstanding online activities that people will actually love. Having fun online is possible. Think outside the box and be creative as a team. You can try a Wonder platform for online creative collaboration and building the feeling of togetherness in the distributed team.
  • Corporate off-sites are a must. At least once a year bring your people together to eat, play and connect. 
Problem: weak ties. Solution: the sense of common goal and team building activities

Even if your distributed team belongs to different companies that work independently, the ideas we mentioned above will only improve your remote work. 

How Eleken leads a distributed team of designers

Eleken was among those companies that effectively worked online before it was cool. Actually, since the company was founded in 2015, we have been working in a hybrid format. Our clients are around the world, and with each of our projects, we prove that long-distance relationships do work. 

Leadership vs Ownership

Our design team leader Maksym recently shared the advice that basically sums up Eleken leadership:

  • Don’t be afraid to give people freedom of action and responsibility.
  • Don’t micromanage, but trust your designers
  • Apply product management best practices, even if you are not a product manager.
  • Surround yourself with smart people eager to learn new things.

How do we manage our remote design team and implement these principles? 

First of all, we keep our design, marketing, sales processes, and documentation tidy. We mostly use Notion for that.

Our team is growing and onboarding new people is important. Our onboarding document for new designers makes the start of remote work with the design team quick and simple. 

Eleken onboarding of new designers in Notion 

A new colleague can come back to it or study our design processes there anytime. The same approach we have to our collective expertise- we preserve and share it through design systems and inner design workshops. 

Every week we have design feedback sessions and collective brainstorming for the design team.

Eleken distributed team meeting

We recommend this practice to all remote design teams, as it brings the team together, and it’s a great and fun way to learn together.

War in Ukraine became a huge stress and emotional challenge for all Ukrainians, including our team. But thanks to great processes and motivated people who love what they do, we did not interrupt our work. Our clients were actually amazed to see how our team completed tasks in the first days of the war, sometimes from bomb shelters.

Image source: Eleken on Instagram

We all felt that clients and the rest of the team rely on us and continued to work not out of pressure from management, but from our own feeling of responsibility. My teammates say that the stability of our work helped them stay sane in that madness, and was the source of calm and security. All thanks to the great people and culture in the team. 

We hope you will never have to experience what we did with war. But here’s the lesson we learned, and you can benefit from it in any other extraordinary situation. The disaster seemed unrealistic until the very last moment, but we were prepared thanks to: 

  • Clear inner and external communications 
  • Well-established processes 
  • Strong team spirit 

This strong base was not built in one day. But in times of crisis, the investment in a team and processes returned fully. We did not lose a single client or employee and our business keeps scaling despite the war.

Final words

We don’t know how the world will change in the next five years and what challenges it will bring to businesses. But we are sure that transparent and frequent communication, as well as strong leadership and positive team culture, will help distributed design teams to overcome any challenges. 

Manage your distributed team with confidence, invest in your people and their well-being and it will result in outstanding design productivity and portfolio. And if you are looking for a skilled design team that works remotely around the world, you came to the right place. Drop us a line and let’s discuss how we can help you. 

Mariia Kasym

Writer at Eleken