A series of zines about the ways organizations coordinate
Tandem – A virtual office for remote teams
Office hours: the powerful design tool you aren’t using (yet)
Make your team available so you improve your work, build connections and extend your influence.
One of the practices that our Design team has put in place (and was recently expanded to include Product Managers!) is holding regular “Office Hours”, where we proactively make ourselves available to the rest of the company. We go to the heart of the office — the lunchroom, so we’re in a central spot and no one feels like they’re bugging us. We make ourselves known so everyone can see that we’re open to answer questions, hear feedback or talk through ideas. The laptops are there to show work in progress or walk through a problematic area.
Quick aside: this works just as well for the “team of one”, so there’s nothing keeping you from doing this if you’re the only Designer in your office.
Why we hold “office hours”
Once you get beyond a handful of people, it’s impossible for everyone in a company to be aware of, and contribute to making an awesome product. It’s understandable — people are busy and likely aren’t even aware of what the Designers, Developers or Product Managers are working on. Conversely, it isn’t easy for us to stay on top of recent Customer Support trends, feedback to Account Management teams or reasons that Sales lost a potential customer to a competitor. That’s no good.
While you may have some processes to help address those issues, there’s nothing like building relationships to hear about it earlier and more often. When we connect in a friendly manner, reliably and in real-time, we build our reputation as people who care about our colleagues and our customers. We show up to knock down useless silos. ’Cause who wants those around?
Predictable office hours build relationships with our coworkers throughout the company. They build trust and provide new paths to communicate. If you genuinely listen and collaborate, you’ll see your team’s influence increase, helping you to nudge the company towards a design-driven mindset. Also, you no longer have that awkward hallway nod to someone you’ve worked with but never talked with. They’re probably pretty interesting.
This is in addition to other methods of connecting with people throughout the company and should not be the only way people talk to Designers or provide feedback. We also set up roundtables with other teams and actively reach out for one-on-one sessions when we can.
Design is not a solo endeavor. We crave context and challenges to our assumptions to produce something that serves the people who use it. By making ourselves proactively available, we invite others in to help us see the wider picture. We also gain insight into the small changes that we can weave into projects as we go to improve the experience, allowing us to make an impact with little-to-no additional work (which is awesome, right? Right).
Now, we know everyone has an opinion on design. It’s a common gripe that surfaces when we get feedback that we aren’t ready for and likely disagree with. Hearing those opinions, whether or not we take them is a part of the job. And of course, just as often, Designers get frustrated when they learn salient information after the work is done. So…” ugh, everyone has an opinion” meets up with “why didn’t anyone tell me that?!”
We know we don’t know everything, we spend hours researching solutions, patterns and ideas, so the most valuable thing we can do is to open our work up for others to question and challenge. By asking for feedback, we demonstrate that we value input from non-Designers.
Why not actively seek it out early, when we’re ready for it and there’s time to make a material impact? (Hint: there’s no reason not to!)
Designers know we don’t know everything, we spend hours researching solutions, patterns, and ideas, so the most valuable thing we can do is to open our work up for others to question and challenge. By asking for feedback from people who know our customers and industry, we learn, while demonstrating that we value input from non-Designers and they, in turn, see the value we bring to the business. Plus, we make a better product for our customers — it’s the ol’ Michael Scott “win-win-win” scenario!
Some questions we ask
- Are there any areas that seem to frustrate customers?
- Can you tell me about the people who use our product? What’s their world like? What challenges are they trying to solve?
- If there is one thing we could fix right now, what should it be?
- Ooh, where’d you get those gummi bears?!
These sessions are by no means a one-way street of feedback. Designers have the opportunity to give back by sharing what they know and the reasons behind our decisions. Our co-workers aren’t likely to hear about our rationale, constraints, and goals in any other forum, not to mention just how much we debate teeny tine details within the team. We have an opportunity to share tools, practices and thought patterns that can be applied beyond our team, and we’ll volunteer to help them do just that.
Office Hours also provide a unique opportunity for people interested in our field to learn more. It’ a safe first step for those who may want to be a Designer down the road, but don’t know where to start. We’ve all been there. It’s no fun, especially for the shy or those in underrepresented groups. It also provides folks on our team an opportunity to grow through mentorship. So yeah, let’s jump in and answer some questions!
It’s Easy, So Long as You Schedule It
There really isn’t much work involved. All you need to do is:
- Set up a recurring time — ideally by sending an optional calendar invite to the rest of the office, making sure your team knows their participation is expected, even if no one shows up (they will in time)
- Send a reminder or two — drop a couple of notes in shared communication channels ahead of time, the first a couple of days ahead, the second on the morning of the event (you can likely automate this easily)
- Show up, ready to collaborate — bonus points if you bring treats to share
chedule your Office Hours on a recurring basis (monthly works for us, weekly might be better for you), it allows the rest of the office the opportunity to block the time to join, even if only for a few minutes. This can be important for customer support groups, who have to be on the phones at specific times. Since they have the closest ties to the humans who use our work, we better cater to them. Everyone else benefits as they can schedule around it if they want to join.
Also, commit to at least six months of these up front. No one may show up to the first few. That’s alright. They’ll notice after a while — and continued reminders from you!
So, when are you going to set up your office hours?
This could be very useful for support and content teams of SaaS products. “A service for your website that makes it surprisingly easy to collaborate in real-time…TowTruck lets users communicate, co-author, co-browse and guide each other.”