Image credit: Jeremy Booth
8 minute read

Many teams, including ours at Slack, have found themselves suddenly working remotely, figuring out how best to communicate and get things done when we’re all in different places. This situation is especially challenging when it comes to design sprints: deeply collaborative, generative work that usually happens with everyone physically together. Two designers at Slack, Vivian Urata and Jessica Phan, had design sprints planned for March — which, given the circumstances, meant all their attendees were calling in from home. Here are their tips for facilitating successful (and fun!) design sprints when everyone’s working remotely.

1. Be extra-considerate of people’s time and constraints ⏰

The usual method of getting the team in a room and focusing solely on the sprint for a few days or a week obviously won’t work with an all-remote group. And in addition to being remote, people are dealing with more demands than usual on their time and attention, sharing limited space with family members or roommates or taking care of children whose schools and daycares are closed.

As you’re planning the sprint, find out when and how everyone can best participate. Vivian messaged each person attending her sprint to ask about their schedule. After hearing from the team, she reworked what had been planned as a three full-day sprint to be a five half-day sprint instead.

“There are parents with young kids on the team (I am one of them) and others with other obligations, and I wanted to give everyone space to contribute, even if their new work schedule was unpredictable,” she said. “Being communicative and finding the right balance is key to the success of a remote sprint.”

2. Slim down and share out your agenda 🗓

In planning any sprint, you want to make the best use of attendees’ time. But when everyone’s remote, it’s even more vital to focus in on the most important things you can do as a group. Since Jessica was running a sprint for a team that worked closely together and wanted to solve a specific problem, she was able to keep the sprint centered around a few main exercises, without spending extensive time on context (which the team already shared) or broad ideation (which could happen later).

Jessica also made sure to share the agenda for her sprint well in advance, so the team could maximize their time. “Having a clear, simplified agenda and schedule made it easy for people to pop in and out if they had to, because they could figure out which sections were most important for them to participate in,” she said.

A sprint agenda posted in Slack

An agenda for the first day of the sprint, shared in Slack

3. But: don’t skip the icebreakers 🧊

It’s tempting to forgo the social bits of a sprint in the name of efficiency. But taking the time to get to know each other and get comfortable sharing ideas is especially helpful when you don’t have the body language, coffee break chats, and other context of being in the same place.

Starting the sprint with a quick icebreaker can help attendees get acquainted. “We did an icebreaker activity where everyone showed an item from their home that meant a lot to them and the backstory behind it,” Vivian said. “As we shared, we discovered similar interests, and that brought us closer as a team.”

Making space for a personal check-in can also give people a way to be open with coworkers during this unusual, and often difficult, time. “We opened with a quick ‘round-the-room’ chat about our work-from-home situations. Some people had kids in the room, others were perched on dressers or kitchen tables, saying they were working on creating a work station, and some others talked about the views they saw,” said Jessica. “This was probably a lot less structured than an icebreaker I would have run otherwise, but it felt nice to address the elephant in the room: that things were less than ideal and our team was rolling with it.”

4. Set up tooling and expectations for each type of work 🛠

One of the biggest shifts to running an all-remote (and therefore all-online) sprint is finding the right tools to replace the sticky notes, printouts, and other physical materials sprints often rely on. To make sure the sprint ran smoothly and people could share ideas, it was important both to determine which tools to use and to set things up properly before the sprint. Here are the main tools Vivian and Jessica used:

  • Slack(Of course!) For each sprint, Jessica and Vivian set up a dedicated Slack channel. They used the channel to share info and agendas beforehand and pin key messages and files for easy access. During the sprint, participants would post ideas, notes, sketches, and questions to keep a record of their work and allow people who could only attend part of the sprint to catch up and collaborate asynchronously.
  • MuralThis visual collaboration tool subbed in for sticky note ideation, affinity mapping, and collaborative brainstorming by giving people a way to add, group, and work together on ideas. Being able to set up a space with the necessary links and structure in advance made it easy for people to jump in.
  • ZoomA group Zoom video call was the main way the sprint attendees worked together in real time. Screensharing gave people an easy way to present, while side calls and breakout rooms enabled easy small group work.

A group of people on a video call

Vivian’s team, calling in to the sprint

5. Facilitate more than you think you need to 🌟

A remote sprint is going to have some awkward moments: long silences, people accidentally talking over each other, connectivity issues, tooling questions. As you’re leading the sprint, plan to guide the group even more actively and often than you would in person.

“The big difference for me, compared to a sprint where we were all in the same place, was that hosting required a lot more facilitation,” said Jessica. “Finding the patterns and talking through our ideas took longer.” If you’d usually join in as a participant as well as a facilitator, consider focusing just on facilitating during a remote sprint to ensure you have the time and energy to help the group communicate well.

6. Let stakeholders know when and how they can check in 🧐

Without a sprint room that people can stop by or physical artifacts to show, you have to be especially deliberate about keeping cross-functional partners, designers on other teams, execs, and the rest of your stakeholders informed.

Adding your stakeholders to the sprint Slack channel gives them a central place to keep an eye on progress, find relevant documents, and ask questions along the way. Over-communicating with key stakeholders also makes sure they can stay invested in the sprint and have an opportunity to provide feedback and guidance.

Consider including in your agenda a time for stakeholders to see and discuss early work. “The team scheduled a mid-week deep dive to go over our progress before jumping into prototyping,” Vivian said. “This allowed us to get a pulse check and to make sure we weren’t missing any potential opportunities.” She also frequently checked in with individual stakeholders during the sprint to update them on direction and ask if they had questions or concerns.

After Jessica’s sprint was over, she highlighted key takeaways and set expectations by creating clear timelines and action items to share with the larger product team, the design team, and stakeholders across the company. She posted a summary of findings and outcomes, including links to relevant artifacts like user journeys and affinity maps. And importantly, she also laid out next steps — including owners and rough timelines — so stakeholders could see how the ideas from the sprint were being put into practice.

7. Make being flexible part of your plan 🤸‍♂️

Be prepared for the fact that some parts of your sprint might not work the way that you’d hoped or expected — and build in time every day to take stock of how things are going and make adjustments. Check in with attendees to see how the cadence and tools are working for them, or assess which types of exercises have and haven’t been working well with a remote group. And if you see a fix that you think could help, don’t be afraid to tweak your agenda (just be sure to let your teammates know). “Sprints have a sequential nature to them that can feel really hard to break, but sometimes you have to be willing to move things around to make the sprint a success,” Vivian said.

And don’t forget to be flexible with what you expect of yourself as the sprint leader, too. Leading remote sprints isn’t easy — but you’ve got this. 💪