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'Round the Clock Research: Conducting Research when Your Team Becomes Cross-site and Cross-time zones

As a product agency, WillowTree puts a lot of effort into maximizing efficient collaboration between team members. We keep our project teams under one roof because we find that it maximizes efficiency and shared understanding. There is a lot that can get lost in remote communication and we don’t always have control over our team’s location. How do you collaborate when a project requires its team members to be halfway around the world from each other?

This is the exact situation in which we found ourselves in early autumn. Our team that was working on research and strategy for The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was forced to split team members across multiple locations: between our office in Durham, North Carolina, and Beijing, China. While this initially presented a host of stressful challenges (think: travel visas, translator necessities, and the Chinese Embassy), we quickly recognized that a perfect 12-hour time difference presented a unique opportunity to perform alternating rapid research and design sprints.

Here was our general plan:

  • 2-person team working in Durham, NC (1 researcher, 1 designer)
  • 3-person team on the ground in China (1 researcher, 1 designer, 1 strategist)
  • Twice-daily standup meetings: Generally, we would have twice-daily meetings to ensure that the team could maintain a shared understanding and continually progress towards project goals. We did this for 13 days while our team was geographically dispersed.
  • Morning (EST), Evening (CST) China team recaps their day’s work and syncs the US team on progress; both agree to what the US team will do during their mini-sprint.
  • Morning (CST), Evening (EST) US team recaps their day’s work and syncs the China team on progress; both agree to what the China team will do during their mini-sprint.

Time Zones

Overall, the process was successful: through regular handoff meetings, our product team was able to continue working together in a continuous yet agile way despite being over 7,000 miles apart. Over the course of 13 days, we were able to iterate on a number of different concepts for our app, hold a UX workshop, conduct several hours of qualitative interviews, launch two large-scale quantitative surveys, and meet key international stakeholders.

Are there things we would do differently next time? Absolutely! We learned a lot from this process:

A lot happens in a day of work - I’m sure you are often asked, “How was work today?” You probably usually respond with an adjective (ex: good, fine) and an activity (ex: I did some usability testing). Now imagine if instead, you had to summarize everything you did—that’s the challenge we faced. Handoff meetings that summarize an entire day of work succinctly and effectively take a lot of planning. Even when meetings are kept to the most important items, they can be quite long.

Context is lost around handoffs - Daily handoffs are dauntingly large. Additionally, a lot of context is lost when work is handed from part of the team to another. The medical field understands this well, so they have best practices in place to minimize context loss and patient care errors when signing out from one team of caregivers to the next. Context loss in our line of work isn’t exactly the same: it doesn’t result in poor patient outcomes, but it can cause confusion.

Exhaustion can set in - We love what we do, so naturally the prospect of cross-cultural research is exciting. But when people get too excited, they tend to want to do too many things and that can lead to overextension. Planning and trying to execute too much can get exhausting, especially for the traveling team that is out of their normal routine, trying to get around in a new country.

With these lessons learned, our team came to some conclusions about how we could improve our process for the next time we engage in a cross-time-zone, cross-located project:

Standardize handoffs - To make handoffs more efficient, develop a standard format for every handoff meeting. This lends a level of expectation for each meeting that makes them easier on all team members. For our purposes, we think a 4-part meeting would have been best:

  • Review team outputs from most recent day & sync with the team that is starting their day
  • Agree on next steps
  • Prioritize the top 1-3 things (no more) that the team receiving the handoff will do in their working session and what the output of each looks like (e.g. new mockups, analyzing a survey, etc)
  • Discuss what the next 2-4 days might look like-- doing so helps both teams understand the direction of the project in the very near-future

In addition to adhering to these steps, we recommend having a living, organized document of this meeting flow.

Establish a handoff meeting DRI - A standardized, organized, and efficient meeting doesn’t just happen on its own. You need to have 1 directly responsible individual (DRI) who is tasked with setting the meeting agenda and documenting team consensus for each of the four points listed above. It doesn’t have to be the same person every day—though it might be better if it is—but someone should always have at least 1-2 hours of their day devoted to organizing the handoff for the opposite team. This time ensures that the handoff is efficient and valuable to both teams.

Relentless documentation - It takes time, but document everything you do each day of your cross-site project and hand these documents off with your key outputs. It may turn out that your team on the opposite side of the world has a question that arises about how or why you did something in a particular way and you can’t answer it while you’re sleeping. Taking the extra time for documentation—and even better, having a set format for these notes—goes a long way toward reducing the loss of context that comes with handoffs.

Scope expectations and prioritize work - Finally, we recommend not trying to do too much and overextend your limits. Sustainable flow is an important part of work; with two handoff meetings a day and a brand new routine for the remote group, fatigue can set in quickly. You’ll need to prioritize: “What are the most impactful activities that we can accomplish with the limited time we have?” We already covered prioritization and outcomes in handoff meetings, but in addition to prioritizing your day-to-day, you’ll need to prioritize across the entire project timeline. Doing so helps the entire team’s productivity and maximizes the positive outcomes.

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