Tips on Creating an Open Culture on Your Design Team


Originally written for Wake in 2017. See the post on their blog here.

To enable everyone on your team to do their best possible work, it’s important to create an open environment where everyone feels comfortable and safe being themselves. When done right, this kind of culture seems effortless, as if it’s how every team is most naturally inclined to work. But that is rarely the case. On most teams, this openness has been created, not stumbled upon, and the key is trust.

Trust is a complicated beast, but it comes down to an individual’s ability to share something that could be used against them with the confidence that it won’t be. You go on vacation and give your key to your neighbor, asking them to water your plants – they could take all your jewelry and electronics, but you trust they won’t. You share something personal with a loved one – they could post it to Twitter, but you trust they won’t. The ability to trust enriches your life, allowing you to explore the world and connect with others around you.

Trust is also the key ingredient to an open and sharing design culture on your team. Your team must trust that they are safe to share their work so that they can get the feedback that will ultimately make their work better.

But how can you build this environment at work? Trust is a tricky thing to create between a group of strangers, and it will take time, but it can be done. Trust can only be earned by building personal relationships, so the key is to encourage your team to see their teammates as peers instead of just colleagues.

This is by no means the definitive recipe for trust, but rather a handful of things that will help your team build the types of relationships that will ultimately allow them to openly share their work.

Team events
This might sound cheesy, but team events are incredibly important. Friendship and trust have a hard time developing when agendas, deadlines and deliverables are involved, so be intentional about creating a space for your team to connect outside of their work requirements. While any team event is better than no team event (with a few notable exceptions), here are a couple things to think about when trying to choose the right one.

First, be comfortable sacrificing productive work time for these events. The last thing you want is an event to feel like an imposition, so steer clear of weekends and be mindful of time demanded during the evenings. Try scheduling it for a Friday afternoon. Your team’s productivity can be pretty low by that point in the week anyway.

Also, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when choosing something to do with your team. Go to a museum, or play miniature golf. Going out to dinner and drinks somewhere is always fun, but pair it with something a bit more memorable.

Scheduling events like this will allow your team to share things that they wouldn’t during work hours and start to understand each other on a deeper level.

Passion talks
Something that more and more teams are trying out these days is the “Passion Talk.” It’s fairly self-explanatory, but the Passion Talk is a regularly scheduled, team or company-wide event where team members get a chance to give a brief presentation about something they’re passionate about. The catch? It cannot be work related. Sports, video games, whiskey, Settlers of Catan; it’s all on the table.

Since there’s an element of public speaking involved here, it may not be smart to make these mandatory for your team as it may create more anxiety than it’s worth. Test the waters by asking if people are interested in the idea before you send out a schedule of presenters.

Assuming there are enough people interested in the idea, passion talks are a great way to learn what makes your teammates tick. You’ll start to see the people you work with as the complex, quirky individuals they are, instead of just “a UI designer.”

In addition to helping everyone understand each other on a deeper level, it also gets people more comfortable sharing personal things with the team. After sharing that you followed the Dave Matthews Band tour of 2001 across eight states, you’ll probably hesitate less to share a design in progress with your team.

Decorating desks
Okay, this one’s a bit out there, but it can have some awesome but maybe less tangible results. People are most likely to share when they feel comfortable and safe, so encourage everyone to turn their desk into a little sanctuary. Maybe even give everyone a little discretionary “desk-decorating” budget to really encourage it.

Like the passion talks, encouraging people to show a bit of themselves on their desk will spark more personal conversations between teammates. You never would have known Todd was such an audiophile if it weren’t for the cool headphone stand on his desk.

Lead from the top
Anything you do to create this open environment has to be advocated by your leaders and managers. Being the first to share will help encourage others to do the same. It can be hard and uncomfortable for managers to show this kind of vulnerability, but someone has to lead the charge. If your leaders aren’t engaging with the team and exhibiting the values you’re trying to inspire, meaningful change will never happen.

Building an open culture can be a bit lumpy. By this mean that changes won’t happen immediately or even in direct relation to the events you put on. It will happen in bursts that are hard to predict, but the most important thing to can do is keep trying. Keep encouraging your team to connect on a real human level, not simply as colleagues. Some day you’ll hear someone say they’re just so grateful to have such a great, supportive team, and you’ll know that you’ve been successful.

Will FletcherComment