Collaboration once happened while huddled in a conference room with dry-erase markers to unleash ideas onto a whiteboard. Crazy 8 design sprints, dot voting, and journey maps filled with Post-It notes; the cross-disciplinary swap of ideas, historically, was an in-person activity.
But then the pandemic forced collaboration to go digital. After a year of relearning how to work together, we saw one fact stayed true — outcomes come from people, not places. No matter how good we are at it, we believe collaboration is a skill that always needs refreshing. So we rounded up the best tips we’ve heard in the past years. Here are seven of the best collaboration tips — use them to reinvigorate your creativity while connecting remotely.
1. Choose a facilitator
Every meeting needs a facilitator or leader. This person doesn’t need to be the organizer per se, but they’ll need to be directly responsible for making the meeting successful. Before the meeting, this person can test tools, run through any activities, create breakout groups, and plan for potential roadblocks.
2. Take time to foster inspiration
It’s quite easy to be inspired by desk accessories, LEGOs, Funko figures, and books in a design studio. But without a typical design space, teams need to foster creativity and collaboration through planning and ideation. Some of the best tricks we’ve come across? Use what Home Depot’s designers call a “one-day problem framing”: setting aside one full eight-hour day to go through a design sprint with the sole purpose of brainstorming products or tools to aid your cross-functional collaboration.
Don’t have a whole day to devote to design thinking? You can also keep the spark alive — albeit in smaller doses — by carving out weekly time for your team to share what’s inspiring them, whether it’s a new typeface or podcast.
3. Use the right tools
Collaboration stems from trust. But when you move it to the digital environment, you need the right tools, too. Digital whiteboards unlock teams’ creative potential and help inspire new ideas. InVision’s real-time digital whiteboard, Freehand, has experienced a 130% increase in users since March 2020. Freehand also got some fresh updates, including commenting and @mentioning. These new features help users keep track of feedback and share insight while asynchronously iterating.
4. Don’t start from scratch
The online whiteboard has templates designed for collaboration. Among those that can help get the ideas flowing is IBM’s “Product Pyramid” template designed to help teams visualize their product plans. Sometimes IBM teams move through the template together. Other times, they use it to encourage participants to tackle the sections they feel passionate about. Either way, the team never has to start a collaboration session from zero.
5. Hold consistent retrospectives
Practice makes perfect, and holding regular retrospectives that foster fruitful discussions can help grow your team’s trust. Some ways to improve your next retro include setting expectations early so team members will know how to best participate. (For example: Will cameras need to be on?) Ask easy questions in the beginning to get the wheels turning, like: “How would you describe the last two weeks in a word?”
6. Forge partnerships across departments
If you work in a large organization, don’t limit collaboration to just those on the design and engineering teams. Instead, forge partnerships with others across teams. Jason Mayden shared this wisdom with us on a recent Design Better Podcast episode.
“If I can be a bridge and build meaningful relationships with people who have felt overlooked, then that’s the type of leader I want to be,” Jason says.
7. Get aligned
Often, gaps, like those between design and engineering, result from miscommunication of how different mental models intersect, explains designer and developer Natalya Shelburne. If you want to change how your teams collaborate, you must change how you work. Determine your team’s collaborative pain points: Who picks up the slack? Is a single person a workflow bottleneck? By pinpointing where issues consistently pop up, you can better solve them together.
Brittany Anas is a Denver, Colorado-based freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to publications including Apartment Therapy, Forbes and Men’s Journal and previously was a reporter at the Daily Camera in Boulder and The Denver Post. She worked three years as a federal background investigator before transitioning into a full-time freelance role.