The letters "XD" made up of images of the experience design team, with a personified strawberry waving at you.

How to build a fully remote Experience Design team (with a lovely culture): the Hotjar way

March 18, 2021 by Julia Feld

We’ve been fortunate at Hotjar that we were already fully remote pre-pandemic, but we’ve still felt the covid-sting. For one thing, it’s become pretty clear how much we depend on our company meetups to maintain the culture we know and love.

So, here was our challenge: in a world where we’re all a little video-call fatigued, how could we create a team-building event (full of delight and whimsy) that would help build this connection?

in-person vs remote
This kind of trust-building and camaraderie is hard to develop online

Building closeness from afar

For obvious reasons, we couldn’t have an in-person gathering in 2020. And in that year, the XD (Experience Design) team grew from three to 12 people. That’s a lot of growth in a short amount of time, without having any in-person connection.

And since we work primarily embedded within our cross-functional squads, we don’t have many natural touchpoints with the XD team as a whole. So it was no surprise the topic of team connection and collaboration kept rearing its head.

We knew we had to create an event. Our primary challenge was overcoming the reality of it being fully remote. For us, the worst-case scenario was people coming away feeling, well, like they’d been on Zoom calls all day, every day.

strawberry red

We ended up with Strawberry 2020 (it’s the name of the Hotjar red, and explains our little friend you’ll see guiding you through this article). A fun, immersive week of activities that brought us closer together as a team, and got our creative juices flowing.

Here’s how we did it, what we learned, and how you can do it too. Ready?

A table of contents with jump links for your reading pleasure:

  1. Planning the event
  2. Our event themes and activities
  3. What we took away from the experience
  4. Resources to plan your own event

Planning the event

The original plan was to do a week-long design sprint as a team, but after synching as a planning committee, we quickly realized we needed a little time to get to know each other first.

When thinking about ways to build trust, we needed to surface the diversity of cultures we have on our team. Building trust can take on many different forms: some people build trust through informal social time, while others might build trust through making something together.

In planning the event, we created different trust-building themes to speak to our differences while unifying us.

To set expectations for the week, we kicked off on Monday with a Hopes and Fears workshop to all get on the same page - literally. We set up the event in a single Figma file that would be our home base for the week.

Event intro

Our event themes and activities

Continuous learning and reflection as an act of growth

We approached the theme of continuous learning through three activities:

  • A UX and Psychology course
  • Reflection time after the course
  • A workshop to reflect on our individual processes in our squads

On Monday and Tuesday, we brought Joe Leech in to teach us about integrating academic psychological concepts into the experience design work we do at Hotjar. This set the stage for work later in the week, gave us a shared language within the XD team, and also allowed us to learn together and grow professionally.

After each day, we spent an hour noting down our learnings from the course to ensure we captured some actionable takeaways (and could reference them as we went forward).

Download learnings

Monday and Tuesday were pretty intense days, so we scheduled Wednesday to be a bit slower, with less call time and more introspection. We spent the morning individually mapping out our design processes, and in the afternoon, we shared the pains and gains of our flows and traded tips.

This allowed us to support each other by sharing techniques for overcoming challenges without creating a single binding process that everyone has to follow.

Laugh together

There are countless corny sayings about laughing together, but the reality is that laughter is a great unifier. We found some cool ways to build joy into the event by reaching out to the people over at teambuilding.

They hosted War of the Wizards, a virtual murder mystery where we used our most creative storytelling skills to rescue some of the Wizard’s minions. And on Tuesday evening, we had a big toast where we learned how to make a Vermont Hot Toddy and a Persecco (a fruity non-alcoholic option so everyone could take part).

Social time

Bridge the digital-physical gap

Each member of the XD team let us know if they were coffee or tea drinkers, and we sent out copious amounts of their preferred beverage to enjoy during the event. And we built Fika into our days to share these drinks over a casual chat. It’s remarkable how bonding sharing the same cup of coffee or tea is, even across borders.

All that sitting needed a bit of a counterbalance, so we closed out Wednesday with a Posture Strengthening course with Fabiana Murer, a Pole Vaulting world champion. Some of us on the team still do the exercises to wake up and get energized for the day!

See the human past the screen

Our XD team has a wide array of backgrounds and experiences under our collective belts. To learn a little more about each other, we had a breakfast slot on Tuesday where we shared a hearty meal, with everyone bringing a food from their homeland.

Breakfasts
One teammate shared the full Bavarian breakfast experience, beer and all!

Then on Thursday and Friday morning, we took some time to learn about what each of us loves about our daily work and our professional journeys so far. We discovered that most of us took non-linear paths to where we are–and unearthed some exciting hidden talents.

Build it together

It’s the IKEA effect. If you build it, you like it a whole lot more. So with this loose principle in mind, we broke up into three teams: playbooks, accessibility, and logo. We gave each team a brief (and a lot of free reign) to scope out a project they thought could bring value to the wider XD team.

We dedicated Thursday and Friday morning to working on the project, then presented our output on Friday afternoon. This was perhaps one of the most surprising parts of the event.

The playbooks team created playing cards with the concepts we learned in the psychology workshop. The accessibility team made a checklist reminder to work through as we’re designing with key accessibility parameters. And the logo group created an XD team logo to unify us.

XD Logo

Each group produced amazing resources in a relatively short amount of time—displaying great teamwork that felt like a signal our trust-building had been effective.

What we took away from the experience

We went into this experience with a big question mark and a vague target of building trust within a fast-growing team. In the end, the event didn’t just build trust; it onboarded new team members, generated some great ideas, and developed a real sense of camaraderie within the XD team.

Some people said this was the best week they’d had while working at Hotjar! When the event ended on Friday, an impromptu game of Pictionary broke out so people could keep “hanging out”.

The team even asked to have this event every six months, so planning for the next event is already underway. And since Strawberry 2020, we’ve noticed a significant increase in informal collaboration amongst designers on different projects. That’s a success in my book.

A massive thank you to everyone in the XD team for making the event such a hit, and thanks to Andrew (one of our resident word wizards) for helping shape this article into the piece you see before you today.

Resources to plan your own event

Here are some templates and resources should you want to plan an event like this for your team. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to Daniela, Johannes, or Julia - we’d love to hear how your event went or if you have any questions.

The five top takeaways around planning and logistics for us were:

  1. Plan the event with the team: let people buy-in to the event. Give your teammates a say in how it can serve them best, and take that information—just like user research—and translate it into planning.

    Although we had a trio of designers leading the planning, opening it up to everyone led to some wonderful additions: Denis chimed in with hilarious illustrations on the Figma board, Eddie (who had just joined), organized the playlist, and countless other delights through the event were owned and lead by individual members on the team.
  2. Build time for breaks: it’s tempting to cram-pack every moment of the day when it’s remote. But remember to build in regular breaks where people can walk away from their screens, use the restroom, grab some water or fresh air.
  3. Give yourself time: we started planning in September and held the event in mid-December. This gave us plenty of time to plan calmly, set everything up for the event, and still enjoy the week ourselves.
  4. Shipping times vary a ton: although having a shared physical experience is a real delight, shipping times can vary wildly from country to country. If you want to make sure everyone gets the shared experience at the right time, you may want to distribute budget for people to make purchases locally. A few of our teammates in Italy, Cyprus, and Malta didn’t receive the coffee or tea in time for the event.
  5. Use one call link for the whole event: it’s tempting to make different call links for each scheduled slot, but we’d advise you not to. We found that things rarely ran to time, and by using a single call for (almost) everything, people could hop in and out if they needed, and it meant no one had to worry about being in the wrong “place”.

If you do end up planning your own event, we’d love to hear how it goes. Send us a tweet, tag us on Instagram, or send us an email. Good luck, and have fun!

Fancy putting the Hotjar spin on remote conferences?

Here’s how one Hotjarian made a personalized dev conference for one.

fully-remote-Experience-Design-team
Julia.png
Julia Feld

Julia is a Product Designer here at Hotjar. She's a specialist in creating inclusive communities, which at Hotjar means establishing systems for scalable team collaboration, and elsewhere has meant making the communities of the world more accessible through Reading the City.