STORIES

How to build a resilient design community

DESIGN OPERATIONS
BY CORINNE O.
8 MIN TO READ
AUGUST 3, 2021
Interviewee Ramya Ramaswamy faces the camera standing in front of trees.

SUMMARY

A seasoned design program manager shares her 10 go-to tips for building and maintaining a strong community of designers.

Why build community at a company? It makes people happy and helps them do better work. And when challenges arise, a strong sense of community helps us overcome them—this past year’s upheavals and the cataclysm that is COVID-19 have proven this. But even when things are fine, people need and want to belong; at Facebook, we’ve gone so far as to do internal surveys on this issue, and they’ve shown that a strong sense of belonging leads to higher fulfillment, better performance and longer retention.


My two years as a Facebook Design program manager have impressed upon me the nuanced benefits of building community—and how to do it skillfully and sincerely. Supporting a team of 300 product designers in London, I drive education, diversity and community initiatives for design teams in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region. But at the end of the day, I help create a community where people feel like they belong. In this article I share 10 practical steps you can take to build a strong community in your company.

A pair of glasses glimmers with sparkles.

1. Create a team vision

Your team’s vision is their “Why”—the ultimate goal they’re pursuing. It promotes growth, both internally and externally, and also invites innovation. Your team’s vision can take form in a mission statement, set of values, or longer narrative.



For Facebook Design—our global community of product designers, content designers, user experience researchers, and many other creative practitioners working across Facebook apps and technologies—we have a long-form narrative that unites us around a shared vision. This narrative includes five key messages that tell the story of what makes our community so unique. Our narrative states that Facebook Design:


  • Keeps the billions of people who use our products at the center of our work.

  • Gives people the support and autonomy they need to do their best work.

  • Understands that innovation comes through exploration and challenging our own assumptions.

  • Brings together product design, content design, user experience research, engineering and other functions to find new perspective and achieve design excellence.

  • Develops tools, technologies and expertise to evolve the way we design.

When giving your design team a clear “Why” they can believe in, you give them a reason to show up every morning and decide to give their best effort. Give them something they can identify with and that will help build cohesion within your team. You want them to work towards the same goal, together.

2. Everyone builds community

Building community isn’t a one-person job. You need to engage your whole team and make them each responsible for building that community. Of course, you can identify “engines,” people who have the energy and desire to make things happen.



Talk to these people, help them start small, and give them responsibilities. Maybe that means organizing a “lunch and learn,” where someone shares their expertise casually or talks about a project that went really well and their learnings. Maybe it means inviting a designer from another company to talk about their work, or finding a training that the team can attend together. The possibilities are endless.



It is important to publicly recognise people’s initiatives and celebrate their or their team’s involvement. When thanking people for their involvement in the community, consider touting success metrics and explaining how an initiative helped the team reach a common goal.



Most importantly, make “community building” part of people’s formal work objectives, and include this objective in their performance review. In their reviews, ask them to demonstrate how they helped build the community, and reward them for doing so.

3. Set people up for success

You want team members who know what they are doing, what is expected of them, and what their role is in reaching team and company goals. This means you shouldn’t leave any room for guessing, and this starts with your recruitment experience, the onboarding you offer, the resources you make available, and how much support you give your team members.



At Facebook, we run a nearly week-long training program called Design Camp, which gives new hires in design roles context about how we’re structured, how we work together, how we communicate, and what is expected of them. Classes are taught by members of our community.



Another way to set people up for success is to train managers on how to welcome their new hires. Show managers how to build an onboarding plan that continues after the first week. We’ve all been in jobs where we’ve been thrown into the deep end, expected to read a short handout, and go ahead with it. It takes so much more time and effort to figure out your work in these conditions.

4. Focus on diversity and values

A diverse team is a creative team. You want a team that will deliver good work, of course, but you also want one that’s creative in finding solutions and exploring new paths together. Focusing on ethnic, cultural and cognitive diversity in your team will allow new ideas to flow, enable healthy debates, and encourage people to lean on each other. People are naturally curious, so make the most of that.



When you’ve built a strong, diverse community, it shouldn’t tolerate hate speech, discrimination or bias. To create this strength, you will need to make people feel welcome no matter their differences and make sure your community is inclusive. Work on listening for understanding, learning, and educating. It is important for everyone to feel safe in their workplace and in their community. Focus on creating spaces where people feel safe voicing concerns, pointing out where you or managers could do better, and debating approaches. Moreover, make sure your compensation structure equitably supports your workforce.

Three plants sit side-by-side. Each one is bigger than the one on its left.

5. Personal growth is community growth

You can’t have a community without people, and your best people won’t stay if you don’t invest in their growth. Cooperation happens in high-solidarity organizations only when the advantage to the individual is clear. Before doing anything, people ask “what’s in it for me?” So you need to clearly show them that their personal growth and wellbeing is at the heart of your community— that you will look after them and invest in them.



Upskilling your team is one way of doing that. Invest in people’s education. Help grow their knowledge and skill sets, and teach them things that will help them do their job. But just as important: Help them learn about things that will make them better community members (how to be an ally, how to manage biases, etc).

6. Trust and empower

You’ll have to trust your team. You have hired each member for a good reason. They have the skills, they have the enthusiasm, and they will do amazingly well if you enable them.



Responsibility is based on ownership and objectives. When people own their goals, they think about achieving them with more passion than they would if they were mere tasks on their to-do lists. Give people responsibilities, not tasks.



Give everyone the power to hold each other accountable, using the established values and behaviors of the community as the standard. As a manager, be their coach and their support. Get them to tell you where they want to take their career and how you can help them get there. Your role is to help people grow, remove roadblocks, and support them in becoming better at what they are doing.

7. Be the leader

Leadership isn’t management or a title; it’s influence. Leaders care for others (thanking them, supporting them) and they initiate. To build a community, you need a team of leaders who are personally engaged and can thus engage others. This way, everyone can exercise initiative.



Of course, if you are a people manager you can also be the “engine.” Community building can start with a group of committed managers looking at ways of improving things, bringing people together, and enabling them. It is common to look for solutions outside of your team or organization, but look inside and leverage your own and your team’s experience.

A human hand opens underneath a glimmering star.

8. Encourage authenticity

At Facebook, we encourage everyone to bring their authentic self to work, because authenticity leads to empathy, and that’s what we need to work together. COVID-19 might have helped us empathize with each other; in various ways we’ve all suffered. I, myself, have been stuck at home, far from those I love, having to sometimes juggle work and homeschooling. Because my team has established authenticity, and thus empathy, I have no problem telling my manager, my coworkers, and even those I don’t know that well, that today might not be a good day to meet about X, or that I’m struggling and that I need help or time.



My design community at Facebook has really helped me this past year. I knew what the expectations were in terms of my work, but I also knew I had the space to breathe, take a step back, slow down, and talk to people. Within our community we have so many affinity groups, from those interested in mental health to those interested in dogs, coffee, and beyond. No matter who you are, there is a place for you to listen, share and be yourself beyond work conversations.

9. Give space and start small

It is likely that you will have to create space for people to share beyond more formal teamwork. I mention organizing social events earlier in this article, saying it’s not enough to build a community. Of course, it isn’t. But you will need to allow your team to spend time together and bond. As many of us are still stuck at home at the moment, it seems trickier, but there are still ways to organize time for people to relax and hang out with one another.



Give people forums to discuss what really matters to them. People trust people they know. People want to build friendships, and especially at the moment, many people crave social contact. In tough times, put the pressure of delivering work aside for a moment, and allow people to come together with no other expectation.



You can start small. Small teams and initiatives will promote change, and they will become examples for other groups that will help grow the community. Commitment is contagious when people realize the benefits not only to the organization but to themselves.

10. Ask and be ready for change

You shouldn’t try to guess what your community needs or wants. Ask them. Create open forums, run polls, ask for opinions, send out surveys, or create a council to consult on a regular basis that can serve as the voice of the team. Find ways to keep your finger on the group’s pulse. If your community is unhappy, you will quickly notice.



Not everything you’ll try will stick—you will have to try, and try again, and adapt, and probably also abandon ideas that don’t work. But that’s okay. Just be ready for it and don’t feel discouraged. People crave novelty, so even things that worked might stop working at some point. If something doesn’t work, don’t hesitate to discard it and try something new. Things might not be as great as you’d imagine, but remember: A community is constantly evolving. You can iterate as often as needed.

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