At Shopify, I’m part of a close-knit team that thrives on the energy we create by being together in the office every day. We take advantage of each other’s proximity, relying on the quick feedback and unplanned discussions that happen naturally when you sit together.
So when the opportunity came up for me to work remote, I was both hesitant and excited by the challenge. I spent the next 4 1/2 weeks traveling and working in Japan, while the majority of my team was 13 hours behind at home.
The experience was both humbling and insightful. And it taught me a lot about the best ways to design a remote process.
1. Check in daily
Schedule 30 minutes daily to check in with your team. Starting off our days with a video chat “standup” helped us quickly spot solutions, set direction, and keep up with what everybody was doing.
Tools like InVision made it easy for us to give design feedback in real time. iDoneThis helped map out an agenda for our daily stand-ups, and our Trello board became the team’s hub to see what everyone was working on and what was coming up in the pipeline.
Get into the habit of overcommunicating everything. False assumptions are the deadliest threats to productivity.
We got into the habit of emailing our team each time we launched a project to share design decisions, goals, and next steps. At the end of each month, we also send a team digest of our top accomplishments that month. Does this increase email frequency? Sure. But when it prevents uncertainty or misguided directions, an extra email in your inbox is worth it.
We also used our Sqwiggle statuses to let each other know what we were up to. What started off as a funny way to share quirky anecdotes about our day became an important way for us to get a quick overview of what everyone was up to. When your team is 5,000 miles away, it’s easy to forget to tell them the little things. Going out for a run? Grabbing lunch? Set it as your status, and maintain a bit of that water cooler chat.
3. Let people know when you’re available
Because of the 13-hour difference, my work hours shifted into the evening. I jumped online at 5 p.m., took a break for dinner at 7:30 p.m., and finished my workday at 1 or 2 a.m. Communicating our available hours became critical for my team, as our hours were completely shifted. Let your team members know when they can expect you to be online, and set boundaries on when you won’t be available.
4. Shut down
While my evening work schedule isn’t for everyone, it was an easy adjustment for a night owl like me. Surprisingly, the most significant difficulty I encountered was my inability to turn off work mentally.
Turning off my laptop meant I was offline, but hours later my brain was still racing with thoughts about work. After a week of insomnia, I realized that not only were the midday breaks important, but the time spent after I shut down was crucial. When my work day ended, I took an extra 10 minutes to meditate and calm my mind.
The surprise benefit of distributed teams
Interestingly, spending time apart helped my team communicate even better—even when we’re working side by side. That’s why we still have our daily morning check-ins and regular email updates. Knowing that we can count on each other and succeed no matter the distance between us has really helped build our confidence as team.
by Serena Ngai
Serena is a designer working at Shopify, where she helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses.