Can design make work, work?

In this three-part series, we’ll talk to leaders and managers from teams at Shopify, Ironclad, Twitch, Uber, and more to learn about how they’re rethinking the way they work to keep pace with the outsized change in work right now. For part one, we will focus on the unique view people managers have on the dynamics and challenges at work today, and how taking some simple cues from design can turn that vantage point into an advantage.

There is, quite literally, no time like the present. If you’re a people manager, you’re probably feeling this pretty acutely (especially the “no time” part). With corporate life undergoing a seismic shift, change has become the only constant at work. Between navigating the nuances of hybrid work, contending with an onslaught of technological advancements (and distractions), and motivating teams in an era of upheaval, your job has undoubtedly become more difficult.

But look at it another way: The sheer lack of a baseline “normal” can also be freeing—a carte blanche to reimagine the future of work, starting with your own job as a people leader. So if you are questioning how you’re spending your time, or wondering how to connect with your team in a way that brings more value, energy, and output to your work, start here. In this series, we’ll dive into some real world inspiration to help you map a WIP future—a future that embraces change for the sake of ourselves, our teams, and our work. Let’s call it a redesign. Step one? Take radical stock of the job you have in order to transform it into the job you want.

Decline every meeting

Why spending less time together might bring your team closer

At the start of 2023, Shopify took the dramatic step of purging all recurring meetings with more than three people, later gradually adding back the most critical, so employees could work without interruption.

As radical as it seems, canceling every meeting reflects people’s basic need for time to work independently. Shopify is fully remote, and to collaborate effectively, employees contribute when they can to “always on” collaborative Figma and FigJam files. “Our team is distributed across many time zones, so it’s hard to have meetings,” says Sebastian Speier, a Senior UX Manager at Shopify. “Tools that allow us to collaborate asynchronously, we really want to invest in those.” To free up your schedule, try seeking out other ways to connect. Building “culture” might sound squishy, but it’s also pretty straightforward: Make sure your people have the time, space, and resources to be great at their jobs.

An image of people working collaboratively in a FigJam file, using stickies, +1 other's ideas, and using washi tape designsAn image of people working collaboratively in a FigJam file, using stickies, +1 other's ideas, and using washi tape designs
Bringing topics you usually cover in standup and planning meetings gives ideas room to breathe.

As for your time? Be brutally honest: What do you do all day, and how neatly does it align with what your boss, or your boss’s boss, thinks you do? Executives tend to think managers focus on high-level tasks, such as leading institutional change and helping employees chart their personal growth. Managers, meanwhile, tend to find themselves tackling more mundane problems, like how (or whether) to hold meetings and find talent. Start taking back your time by using collaboration tools and visualization strategies to streamline your meetings—or better yet, get rid of them altogether. Moving work forward doesn’t always mean “let’s meet.” When you do, think about how you can make that time more about building interpersonal connections—starting with conversations that are less about substantive "outcomes" and more about an attitude or philosophy towards the work.

Do something better with your time (asynchronously)

Take the thrash out of feedback cycles

Early-and-often visibility not only keeps teams connected but also helps avoid the late (and devastating) “swoop and poop”-style feedback from stakeholders

A zoomed in image of a reflection and strategy FigJam fileA zoomed in image of a reflection and strategy FigJam file
A visual, synchronous brainstorm is not only valuable for working together but also documenting decisions

As a manager, you might find yourself whipsawed between trying to come up with a solution that resonates with everyone and one that pleases no one. Instead, why not try reframing the problem altogether? Create a manageable feedback loop by sharing a draft of your work as a screenshot in FigJam. That way, colleagues and other stakeholders can leave annotations, post stickies, and use emoji to express themselves without slowing things down and forcing the team to respond to every idle thought.

Be open to change. Putting processes in place so your team members don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel is a great way to help them focus on what they do best. But teams also need space to express what isn’t working. At Super, a startup for automating residential building maintenance, employees are invited to contribute anonymous suggestions for streamlining the company’s operations at monthly retrospectives. This ritual has led to key improvements, including a new system for reporting bugs and a weekly, 15-minute meeting for testing new features as a team. “It’s us as leadership asking, ‘How do we get better?’” says co-founder Lindsay Liu. “And a lot of the [company’s] optimizations have come about from those retros. It has fostered an environment where everyone feels like they can share.”

A zoomed out view of one of Shopify's planning files in FigJamA zoomed out view of one of Shopify's planning files in FigJam
A zoomed out view of one of Shopify's planning files in FigJam

But it’s also important to put up guardrails around your work. Say you’re eager for buy-in on a new project, so you let your whole staff share feedback. “Soon, the comments are piling on with no end in sight,” says Figma Chief Product Officer Yuhki Yamashita. “Or worse, folks (especially C-suite) pop into the file with little to no context, drop feedback, then disappear. This phenomenon is sometimes called the ‘swoop and poop.’ Suddenly, you have a fresh round of feedback that needs to be addressed. It can be devastating.”

Ways to make feedback feel more like a gift

Get it out of the doc!

Generating ideas out in the open with a mix of free-form sketching, stickying, and wordsmithing can get people in the right headspace to make more meaningful contributions

What does good collaboration look like? It’s not everyone in a room frantically slapping stickies on a wall. The pandemic proved how unnecessary, and frankly limiting, that style of collaboration can be. Instead, it’s bouncing ideas back and forth in a single file that serves as a single source of truth—a north star to which people can hitch their creative journey. This can be as simple as ditching your go-to planning tools in favor of something that lets you generate ideas free-form. Shopify Senior UX Manager Katarina Batina describes the process of starting with a visualization instead of a doc akin to “breaking your brain” (in a good way). "If you are so used to following a process as a company, and part of that [process]  is opening a doc and putting in answers to questions that aren't really the questions we need to be answering, then you lose all of the creativity that is expected to come up with really unique ideas," says Batina. “When you ‘break your brain’ before solving a hard problem, it means you're likely to have a new perspective on that thing,” she says. “It might actually [generate] more creative solutions.”

This is something you used to do more organically in a conference room setting. The idea being that the space is a place to convene around a big idea. Now the canvas is that room, and it provides a space to give each other feedback that supports further iteration. It’s visualizing complexity and making it tangible. Such an approach enables not only incremental solutions, but also lets bigger ideas  bloom. “At Shopify,  we’re trying to develop a strong forward-leaning vision,” says Shopify’s Speier. “When you collaborate with 20 different people, you can’t assume everyone can share their vision in a doc. It’s a lot easier to come together in a tool that has words and other things, too—ways of painting that vision. It makes it easier for everyone to contribute."

An image of a smiley face and a quote written on a sticky noteAn image of a smiley face and a quote written on a sticky note

Be down for downtime

Creating more ways to connect outside of “the work” leads to happier, more productive teams

One of the toughest things to shake in a remote work environment is that sense of, well, remoteness. At Shopify, teams hold virtual scavenger hunts and other social activities on digital whiteboards to build camaraderie in a way that feels authentic for a remote team. Speier admits it isn’t a perfect replacement for the sort of in-person communication that many workers crave. The trick is finding a balance where you can bring that criticality to an environment that feels personally connected and psychologically safe. “There is an unspoken contract that we will have difficult conversations about work,” says Shopify’s Batina. “Critique has to be hard, detailed, in the weeds. Having to do that, and then turn your camera off and be alone just makes you question your own skill set. You have nothing affirming."

An image of a FigJam file titled "Hovering Art Director"An image of a FigJam file titled "Hovering Art Director"
Speier and his team at Shopify have weekly "cool downs" where they do activities with just-for-fun prompts. 

Speier echoes the sentiment. “People really like to feel connected to their colleagues in a meaningful way,” says Speier. “[But] it’s very taxing emotionally and physically to have 100% of your communications with your team be about making your work better.” When everyone is operating from a shared understanding, it’s easier to spend less time focusing on only the work. At the end of the day, there’s only so much energy you can give to figuring things out, and some of the biggest wins you can foster is making sure you build in enough in-between moments where work is secondary to just coexisting as coworkers, maybe even friends.

For Speier and Batina’s teams at Shopify, making space for downtime allows people to connect beyond the work, which in turn makes the hard parts about work feel less personal. It’s a way to capture that old feeling of an IRL studio critique, where, as Batina recalls with fondness, “You’d walk out [of the crit], and you turn to the person whose work you just reamed on for an hour and say, ‘Dope shoes.’”

Thing to do other than meet about work

For part two of our three-part series, we’ll look at ideas and strategies to organize and motivate the team and put the dream back in work.