January 6th, 2012
We’ve been studying this for some time now and the reality is harsh: A co-located design team will have an easier time of producing great designs than a remote team.
That doesn’t mean co-located teams will always succeed – they don’t. It doesn’t mean that remote teams will always fail – they don’t either. In fact, we’ve met some awesome teams where team members are remote. (The folks at EightShapes immediately come to mind!)
Design is hard. Great design is really hard.
Teams need to rally every bit of energy they have to work together to produce great designs. They need to talk with each other. They need to see each other’s work.
We’ve observed that teams that work closely together create a common vocabulary. That vocabulary creates words and phrases that separate good design decisions from not-so-good ones. It helps the team discuss what’s on track for their design, versus what’s a distraction.
It’s also critical that teams is regularly discuss their emerging vision. This vision gives team members direction when making tough decisions. As things tiptoe up the borders of that vision, the teams needs a channel for expressing their thoughts.
Teams working remotely limit their communication channels. (This is even worse when the time zones are skewed, especially for those teams that span across oceans.) Establishing the common vocabulary and reinforcing the vision becomes increasingly difficult with remote teams. It’s not impossible, but the amount of extra effort is formidable.
We’re still collecting and analyzing our data on this, but our early results seem very clear. You’re more likely to produce a great design when you’re all in the same space, talking to each other. (War rooms are great for this, especially if you have lots of wall space to hang work-in-progress and have impromptu discussions.)
The next best thing is to have everyone be remote, but in the same (or a very close) time zone. Physically getting together at regular intervals can help quite a bit. (It’s even more helpful if your first project can be co-located.)
Teams talk about using remote conferencing tools, but they aren’t the same. The weird delays that come make simple things like telling a joke more difficult. These meetings adopt a false sense of formality because the changes in how the group interacts. It’s an expensive substitute that doesn’t really live up to its promise.
From our data, the worst case scenario seems to be when some people co-located and some remote. The remote people, not privy to the local conversations, become a type of second-class citizen. These teams seem to have the most trouble producing great results.
If you have any say in the matter, you want to aim for a co-located design team. If you can’t do that, then forcing everyone to be remote might be the next best option.
This is really hard for organizations that aren’t located where all the good talent is, or for those designers who are in places where they can’t be near the rest of their teams. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing any good options here for those folks.
It sucks, but those teams face a much harder challenge that teams that have the luxury of co-location. Great design is hard enough when we’re all in one place.Tweet