I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in central Massachusetts, where all the houses are the same and your backyards blend into your neighbors’ backyards. I was lucky that one of my best friends, Jess, was my backyard neighbor. We met in the third grade and grew up going to the same school from elementary all the way through to college 👯
Looking back, I realized that our friendship was influenced by something psychologists call the proximity effect. Essentially, it says that being in close proximity with others lets you get to know them better and allows you to find common interests. But this isn’t a post about my friendship with Jess (we’re still going strong btw).
As it turns out, the proximity effect is also something you often see in work relationships 🤝
Because Drift is scaling at hypergrowth speed (within the last four years we’ve grown from about 20 to 350+ employees and from one office to four), teams are becoming bigger and employees are becoming physically spread out. So as a team, we’re putting in more effort needs to keep building tight relationships with our coworkers.
And as an early designer at Drift, I’ve seen how our hypergrowth has impacted the design team with each and every hire. When we grew from two to four designers, we still had tight feedback loops and were able to pop up at each other’s desks for quick gut checks. Our desks were in close proximity to one another within a small office.
At the time when we grew to six designers, Drift also moved offices. Our team became more physically spread out, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that it was harder to keep those tight feedback loops. Our team was going through growing pains, and with that came the need to form new bonds and develop trust in new ways.
To Build Strong Teams, You Need To Focus On Building Trust
Why trust? A team without trust has a detrimental effect on results. Teams need to trust each other in order to feel comfortable sharing and receiving honest feedback – which is what fuels great design 🎨
But you and I know – trust isn’t a switch you just flip on. As Brené Brown says in Dare to Lead, “trust is the stacking and layering of small moments and reciprocal vulnerability over time.”
So, Drift is scaling, and the team is (literally) growing further apart. Now what?
I’d like to tell you about Drift’s Design Lab. Once a week, Drift’s designers get together for about four hours to work in the same space and create stronger bonds with one another. We all sit at one table and come and go as our schedules allow. It usually starts with a creative group activity (we’re currently loving A Few Minutes of Design) and then we continue on with our workday.
Sharing a space in the Design Lab helps create an open, casual environment to share feedback, inspiration and what’s happening in each others’ lives. The atmosphere was inspired by the collaborative energy of Scout, Meetup, and (of course) the proximity effect.
It’s become a foundation the team can build on to fit their needs. A place to talk about our design system, teach each other new tools (like how to use Figma), catch up on team initiatives like UX Bug Crushing Night, and even share vacation photo slideshows. It’s also not just for designers – we often get drop-ins and visits from people in other departments who want to get help from (or sometimes just say “hi”) to the design team.
But You’ve Got To Have A Little Fun With It
And the great thing about Design Lab is that there isn’t a singular owner, and because of this it is constantly evolving. One activity brought by Akhil, a designer on the team, is “Wingmasters.”
Essentially, you get paired with another designer and you make slideshows for each other. The first time you see the slideshow is when you’re up there presenting it to the team. You’re given one title slide with words for a topic, and then the rest are auto-advancing, image-only slides. Truly a moment of winging it.
What I love about Wingmasters is how it’s such a ridiculous activity that brings the team together through vulnerability. Imagine you’re up there, presenting something you’ve never seen before to your peers and trying to make up a cohesive story on the spot. You’re completely vulnerable. And then imagine being in the audience, seeing your teammate winging a presentation and thoroughly embarrassing themselves. Yet cheering them on and supporting them through this ridiculous event that you’re about to do next.
So how has Design Lab and activities like this impacted the team? Not only has it become a time designers look forward to during the week, but it’s also helped our team build trust through a positive, supportive, and collaborative environment. Like Brené Brown said, trust is “earned not through heroic deeds or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening and gestures of genuine care and connection.” Having a space where we can all be together helps encourage these small moments.
Personally, I’ve been able to get quick feedback and help when I’m stuck on a design. I’ve also grown closer to my teammates. Hopefully they feel the same way 😅
It’s impacted the onboarding experience for new Drifters as well. Mary, a designer who recently joined the team, shared that the welcoming, casual environment of Design Lab has been an awesome experience for her as a new member of the team.
Now It’s Your Turn
Design Lab started in response to Drift’s hypergrowth and all the changes that come along with it. If you’re also sensing this on your own team and want to create your own Design Lab, there’s no better time than now!
The first step is to create your own “backyard” where your team can drop by at the same time and the same place each week. And then just let it evolve from there. Each team is unique, so your definition of “Design Lab” will be too.
What do you do to foster the design culture at your organization? Are you doing something similar? Tell me more! I’d love to learn what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for your team. Send me a message on LinkedIn or Twitter – talk soon ✌