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Growing a Distributed Product Design Team

April 2021

Article

Pilar Serna
Sofi Salazar

When I moved to Stockholm at the beginning of 2020, I was tasked with expanding the internal tools team in Spotify’s Platform Mission. We already had a few amazing designers working on tools in New York and Stockholm, but if we wanted to establish design practices that make an impact and help our engineering organization to be more human-centric, we needed to grow. But, like most plans in 2020, we were forced to reassess when everyone at Spotify was invited to stay home due to COVID-19.

I’m a Senior Design Manager in Platform, an organization with about 600 folks mostly working on things that aren’t visible to Spotify listeners. We’re the people who build internal tools for learning and speed and to support the fundamental capabilities of Spotify. 

Our team of product designers is embedded in different groups within Platform, designing for Data and Insights, Experimentation, Machine Learning, Tools for Web and Mobile Infrastructure, Security, and Spotify’s homegrown developer portal, Backstage.io.

The pandemic presented us with a whole new challenge in growing this team: How do we achieve our original goal of creating a highly collaborative and efficient product design team while everyone is remote?

Growing a distributed team

A distributed team is one that works together but from different locations and (sometimes) embedded in other teams. Setting up a distributed team with a lot of new hires, we knew we needed to have robust processes for growth so people could work together efficiently from the get-go.

We focused our efforts on creating a hiring and onboarding process that allowed us to get to know candidates quickly, set a solid foundation for collaboration, and cultivated a culture of empathy and self-care among team members. 

Virtual hiring

Leveraging talent acquisition

Because distributed teams work across time zones, and on a variety of parallel projects, they do best when members are self-motivated, highly organised, and really great at communicating. These qualities (along with all the usual: a passion for design, strong past experience, and personal success metrics) formed the framework for the types of designers we were looking for.

In order to find a strong lineup of candidates fitting this profile, we quickly learned how important it was to have a good relationship with talent acquisition and to establish honest and clear communication with them early on. 

We formed a strong partnership with our Design Talent Acquisition Manager, Brooke Sommerhalter, who guided us through the virtual hiring process:

"In a normal hiring process, the relationship between TA and Hiring Managers is extremely important, but when looking at hiring a distributed team, that relationship is paramount. This new way of building a team provides so many new opportunities, but it also creates a lot of ambiguity in the process. We knew early on that what would work for our partnership was weekly meetings and thinking outside the box for each candidate that came through our pipeline. It's never a one size fits all strategy. Decisions aren't always made as quickly as they once were but they are very deliberate. It's an exciting time, the distributed work set up allows for much more flexibility for Spotifiers and in turn creates more possibilities to diversify the teams," said Brooke.

As a manager, I found we were most successful when I was actively keeping everyone updated about team needs, challenges, and priorities for the roles we needed to hire for. This clear and consistent communication allowed us to move fast, straight away.

Interview process

The biggest difference between hiring at Spotify before and throughout the pandemic was that we were unable to meet in person.  

Previously, candidates in late-stage interviews would be invited to our office in Stockholm or New York City (no matter where in the world they were located). This was a great opportunity for everyone to meet and for candidates to get excited about the role. Now, we need to ensure candidates enjoy the hiring process and get a feel for the type of team they might be joining, without meeting us in person. Here are some of the methods we adopted to do just that: 

Find out what makes candidates tick

In the introductory interviews with candidates, our talent acquisition partner would share more context around the job opportunity, but also use this as a chance to find out who the candidate is; what’s their design journey, what are their hopes and dreams. 

We also really took care to get the conditions of our virtual interviews right. We made sure to engage in sincere conversation, to develop trust, and create a safe space so we could minimize the nerves or awkwardness of a virtual interview and really get to know the candidates.

What’s their style?

During virtual portfolio reviews, candidates had the opportunity to walk through a few of their projects, explaining the process from insight to the final design. We made sure to take time to understand how they like to practice design and their journey in designing products — rather than just talking about the final polished design screens. 

Take advantage of tools

Cross-functional interviews using virtual boards (like Mural) and collaborative activities were also crucial in properly evaluating our candidates, getting to know them, and allowing them to get to know us in the virtual world.

I asked Daphne Lin — a Product Designer who joined the team via the virtual hiring process — what her experiences were:

“Interviewing virtually has its challenges. You can't visit the office, you don't know how people sit or work together, you can't get a feeling for the environment. However, everyone also meets through the same video medium, in the comfort of their own space, in their own timezone.” 

“I found that through virtual hiring, what I've focused more on is the quality of the interactions I have with people and their ability to verbally and visually communicate. I got a fuller sense of how I would be treated, trusted, and communicated with on a daily basis, more than I normally would have paid attention to. Overall, I had a great experience because Spotify always kept me up-to-date on the process, there was always a lot of communication, and I enjoyed the interactions I had.” 

Remote onboarding 

Breaking the ice

Growing a team can be overwhelming for both new hires and existing team members. I found using ice-breakers to start conversations helped relieve these jitters and set the tone for new starters. 

Senior Product Designer, JD Welch, is another from Platform who joined our growing distributed team and met their new colleagues remotely.

“Trying to get to know new people through video calls is deeply strange, but this team has been really great at making a welcoming environment. I really appreciate that most of our synchronous team rituals are more social than not: instead of focusing just on work, we’ll spend an hour talking about our favourite comfort foods or what colour describes you the best. It sounds kinda trivial on paper, but these things really help develop connections to the people behind the screen.”

An ice-breaker I found particularly effective as an introduction was getting people to describe “My perfect day at work”. During this activity, new joiners shared a little introduction of themselves and how they like to work. 

In telling the stories of a perfect day at work (and by contrast what makes a not-so-great day) everyone developed an understanding of the preferences and work styles of their new colleagues. This activity also helps reveal preferred communication styles and sets the foundation for the team dynamic. 

Staying collaborative and efficient

At the beginning of remote working, our calendars were on fire trying to maintain the highly collaborative environment we were used to. Designers were spending a good part of the week on calls and virtual whiteboards. It became clear that in order to optimize their schedules, they needed to deliberately decide what and how they would spend their time each week. 

JD shared their approach to managing their schedule:

“I am pretty ruthless with which synchronous meetings I accept and decline. If I accepted all the requests I get, I would be attending four different team retrospectives! Asking organisers ‘I want to participate in this discussion, is there a way to do that asynchronously?’ is helpful; if the meeting is based around reviewing an artefact like a planning document, I can usually get my thoughts in without needing to be present at the meeting. For meetings I run, I try to go in with explicit outcomes in mind and always am happy to end early if we’re done. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to get feedback that folks appreciate how efficiently I conduct meetings.”

One way we optimised our time was to define the kind of design meetings we are attending as a team, and the cadence we need (we’re still iterating on this). It was also helpful to create dedicated Slack channels for different topics, design updates to share with the wider audience, etc, this helped us to be connected and at the same time decide what conversations we could have with the group asynchronously, by asking specific questions in specific channels, we reduced the need for some calls. 

Cultivating culture when working distributed

There’s an analogy that likens good team culture to agriculture. Just like how plants need certain elements (like good soil, seeds, sun, water, and weeding) to grow, teams need certain attributes; like mutual trust, shared values, and accountability to do their best work and to help a good team culture grow.

As a leader of a distributed team, it’s our job to constantly motivate and get them excited about the work they’re doing. Don’t hesitate to challenge things, be bold in implementing new practices, and to lead with passion — that’s how good seeds of a team culture are planted, germinate, and bring powerful results to the world.

Taking your distributed team into the future

In distributed teams, trust is highly important. Encourage everyone to be committed and accountable for each other and to think about the impact and the result of their teamwork.

I like to advocate for a fearless culture where Product Designers share their work in progress and seek feedback; taking incremental steps and making small improvements every day. Let the team feel safe asking questions, thinking critically, creating, failing, iterating, taking risks, and expressing disagreement — and to do all of that in a way that’s still fun. 

I’ve shared just a few of the things that helped me grow a collaborative and efficient distributed team. In the past year, there have been some enormous challenges but looking back, we have come so far and adapted to the virtual world by taking it one step at a time. In the team, we’re still learning and growing and, even now, still discovering new ways of working. We’ll keep experimenting, innovating and embracing the change.

A big shout-out to my amazing internal tools team Monospace.

Credits

Pilar Serna

Senior Design Manager

Pilar Serna, Senior Design Manager, Pilar’s work focuses on human-centric design practices and how to work more efficiently and happier. Currently living in Berlin.

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Sofi Salazar

Illustrator

Sofi is an illustrator, tropical creature and nomad. Her work is inspired by the colorful and vibrant Latino culture she's a part of.

Read More

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