The digitally-defined workplace: making remote design work

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 3, 2017
The digitally-defined workplace: making remote design work
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 3, 2017

All the signs are there: remote work is on the rise, and its upward trend will continue. By some estimates, up to half of all U.S. workers will carry out their jobs remotely by 2020.

But what about remote design? Surely, designers won’t be able, much less required, to work in distributed contexts. After all, our work is highly visual in nature. We need to be able to draw and point and gesture. We’re meant to work face to face, shoulder to shoulder. Right?

Well, sort of. The fact is that remote design is already rampant. We found that a majority of designers face remote work on most or all of their projects. Your odds of designing with a distributed team are ever increasing.

Unfortunately, we also found that about 40% of designers feel that the quality of their work goes down when working remotely. That’s a problem. But it can be solved. We’ve seen firsthand that, with a little forethought, remote design can be as productive as working together in person—if not more so.


For example, MURAL partnered with Erik Flowers, a service design expert at Intuit, to conduct remote service blueprinting sessions. With teams in both Mountain View, CA and the Philippines, travel wasn’t feasible.

Still, they needed a way to close the gaps in customer support workflows throughout the company. Using MURAL and other digital tools to engage entire teams and replicate customer journeys, they were able to collaborate effectively and efficiently across distances.

Through close, online collaboration, they managed to get a better understanding of the holistic experience and gain empathy for their customers more quickly.

In fact, the team was amazed at the hours of work that had been saved at the end of the session: there was no transcription of sticky notes or photos of whiteboards. Instead they had an instant, digital record of work that they could easily return to.

But in order to see this level of success, you need to have cohesion across teams. Productive remote collaboration starts with selecting a set of core tools and agreeing upon ways to use them. We call this approach the digitally-defined workplace.


Define Your Needs First

“Not another tool!” How many times have you thought this?

Well, we hear you. Tool fatigue is common, and with what seems like a new one appearing every week, it can be hard to keep up (not to mention all those passwords). More important, it’s hard to know which tools really provide value.

From our research and observations, there is a core set of practices that support a well-balanced, digitally-defined workplace. For each need, we list the types of tools that can help your team succeed.  

  1. Share, store and archive documents and common content ongoing. Teams need a way to exchange files in different formats. The types of tools that get you there include:
  • A shared drive
  • An intranet or wiki for posting documents
  1. Foster the ability to make decisions together in real time. You’ll need to speak directly with colleagues, both individually and in groups. The types of tools that get you there include:
  • A/V conferencing (we use Zoom)
  • Instant messaging
  1. Communicate with each other individually or as a group asynchronously. Keeping your team’s momentum going in between touch points can be challenging, especially if you’re working across time zones. The types of tools that get you there include:
  • Instant messaging (we like Slack)
  • Email
  1. Make a habit of planning, tracking and managing work. Collaboration requires some coordination. Having good planning methods keeps your team more efficient. The types of tools that get you there include:
  • Robust calendaring system
  • Project management tools (Basecamp is good)
  • Workflow tracking (like JIRA)
  1. Enable your team to creatively solve problems visually. Mapping out your team’s collective thoughts is key to fostering common understanding and decision making. The types of tools that get you there include:
  • Screen sharing capabilities (again, Zoom)
  • A virtual whiteboard


Tool Ecosystem-1-991221-edited.jpg

In another good example, Ephraim Bhatoo, Workforce Manager at Disney, used a constellation of tools to conduct backcasting exercises.

Backcasting is a technique that starts with a vision of the future 10 or 20 years out. A team then works backwards to the present day, asking themselves, “What needs to happen for this future to be true?” It allows the team to explore different possibilities, while arriving at concrete next steps.

Needless to say, it's an involved process that can’t be done in one sitting. So to keep the momentum going, they communicated with participants around the world through many channels over time.  

And in the end, Ephraim’s teams were able to include more people and keep a high fidelity of information for ongoing knowledge management of the project.

As with any creative work, the tools you use to get to a finished product are not one size fits all—and neither are the solutions. Once you have a sense of the key tools you’ll need for your project, you can define your preferred solutions.

Establish Your Tool Set

In many cases the decision to use a given tool is left to chance. Teams try things out and solutions come together haphazardly. No one seems to own or manage them, and you’re left to figure it all out on your own.

Or, in large organizations, the decisions are what tools to use are made far away from the center of action. Teams may be left improvising and hacking on their own.

Organizations that value giving employees the right tools will take the time to understand the needs first. An IT procurement manager for one large software company told us, “You have to go around and watch how people in the organization collaborate. Then, empathize with what they need. A company should have a complete set of tools to help them get their jobs done.”

To help with proactively selecting which tools to use, we recommend taking a step back and examining the collaboration needs of dispersed teams. This will help you avoid implementing tools at random or sticking with useless ones out of habit.

In a survey we conducted with more than 275 designers, we found trends in the most common tools used in each of the aforementioned need. We’ve indicated our own preferences at MURAL, but here’s what others are leaning towards in terms of a default tech stack for remote collaboration.

  • Skype
  • Slack
  • Dropbox
  • Google Mail and Calendaring


Of course, your company may have restrictions on what your team can and can’t use. Still, it should be possible to create a common stack that suits the specific needs of your digitally-defined workplace.

Put the Tools to Use

Once you’ve defined which tools work for you, identify the scenarios that foster success— and recreate them often.

  • Use multiple devices to log into real-time meetings and share whiteboard drawings quickly via webcams. Or try the IPEVO to show sketches instantly.
  • Create a shared folder to set up space where you can exchange photos and digital mock-ups.
  • Use an online prototyping service to mock-up new ideas quickly.
  • Ensure your audio works well for real-time meetings, because poor audio brings further imbalance to team interaction and can be a showstopper.

Maintain Your New Workplace

Just as we spend a lot of time and energy maintaining our office buildings, getting our physical workspaces in order is important for productive work and effective collaboration. Even, or perhaps especially, when executed remotely.

Given the trends, we’re left to wonder why we don’t spend as much effort configuring our digital workplaces. Why is that we don’t see digital tools as an effective means to close physical gaps in our workflows?

In reality the remote, mixed or distributed workspace is a constellation of services and tools: video conferencing, chat, file-sharing and project management tools. And in order to run successfully, it needs attention too. Make creating and maintaining a digitally defined workplace part of your design operations.

Go Digital First

In our modern workplaces, the end format for all valuable information in an organization is digital. If it’s important, you’ll type it up or create an image of it.

The innovation center of EY can facilitate day-long design thinking workshops completely digitally. There’s not one piece of paper involved. How do they pull it off?

Their innovation center is equipped with MS Surface Hubs and iPads for participants so that everyone can interact digitally. And the benefits are immense. The fidelity of information is higher, for starters. But also the turnaround time is reduced by half or more.

The truth is that even if you’d prefer to work face to face or with paper sticky notes, our organizations and the modern workplace require new ways of thinking and working.

And while the digital transformation of the workplace has just begun, now is the time to start learning the skills needed to collaborate effectively in completely digital ways, particularly for design and designers.

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.

Related blog posts

No items found.