Building Your Happy Place

September 23, 2019 Megan Taylor

 

When I started at Pivotal, I knew that there was a wealth of knowledge and design experience throughout the company. However, I didn’t feel fully connected to it. I could easily reach out to my team in Seattle but, when it came to designers in other offices—organic conversation, and comradery was a significant challenge. 

After shying away from yet another thread in the company-wide Slack channel, I realized that I needed a more personal way to meet and learn from the larger community. That idea eventually became Design Happy Place; a weekly remote meeting where peers come together to share knowledge and support. 

Welcome to My Happy Place

If you were to join Design Happy Place today, you would see a gallery view full of friendly faces from various cities looking back at you in our video conferencing tool. Each meeting begins by introducing newcomers to the group. Then we dive into sharing any wins or unresolved challenges that we have experienced during the week. This conversation is left to flow organically but typically results in celebration and insightful problem-solving. Finally, we draw one or two design-related topics from our shared Trello board and engage in discussion for the remainder of our time together. 

11 members of Design Happy Place smile and comedically attempt to virtually high-five through their rectangular windows in a video conference call.

All-in all, the routine is simple. Nevertheless, the impact that a single hour a week has made on our design community is greater than I ever expected. Most notably, Design Happy Place provides value by:

  1. Encouraging cross-office collaboration

  2. Sparking creativity and innovative solutions 

  3. Strengthening design culture

  4. Creating channels for emotional support 

  5. Guarding against feelings of isolation for employees on remote projects

One of my favorite things about Happy Place is that it’s not just for designers at Pivotal. We’ve already seen designers at our client companies start picking up the practice. We even have a Developer Happy Place running in the Seattle office. The moral of the story is, if you would like to be more connected to the people around you, in the workplace or otherwise, you too can build a Happy Place and customize it to suit the unique needs of your community. 

On the Road to Happiness

The thing that makes me most confident in the value of Happy Place is the fact that the meeting wasn’t always successful. A lot of work went into experimentation and iteration before landing on the format that we use today. 

Design Happy Place started out as “Design Hour,” which was a classic design critique across three offices (we’ve grown to at least eight now!). I invited designers to join a Zoom meeting where we would share examples of our work and provide constructive feedback. It went well...for the first meeting…

By the second meeting, the appeal of finally putting faces to names was overwhelmed by the pain of finding someone willing to present their work for design critique. As it turned out, we all received so much feedback from our own teams and users that preparing material for a design critique felt forced. The very core of the meeting had become a barrier to entry. 

For a moment I considered canceling the meeting altogether. Maybe the ideal that I was striving for didn’t exist for a reason? But civilizations aren’t built in a day, so I shook off my doubts and I iterated. This time I stopped pushing on design critique and showed up to the meeting with nothing but a list of open-ended discussion topics including “How do you articulate the business value of design?”

The change was like a breath of fresh air. People began opening up about complex problems and sharing their unique experiences. Before anyone had noticed, we were over time and looking forward to returning to this refreshingly happy place. Clearly we had uncovered a piece of the community building puzzle that we had all been missing.

As the weeks went on, we continued to build upon this new discussion-driven format. I introduced a Trello board to keep track of activities and topics that people were interested in (including a space to request a design critique on the rare occasion that someone was genuinely looking for one.) I also tinkered with different facilitation styles and agenda items based on feedback from my peers. Today, when I log in to Design Happy Place it feels right. It feels productive and, even more importantly, it feels happy. This is a feeling that I want to share with others but, in order to do that, we’ll need some actionable success metrics that make it easy to repeat the experiment. 

Metrics for Success

A successful Happy Place is a lot more than a feeling. I’ve found that these are the leading indicators of a healthy community as a Happy Place evolves:

 Happy Place Occurs At a Regular Cadence

One of the best ways to drive behavior change is to set a routine and stick to it for a couple of months. Every Thursday at 1:30 pm (PDT) there is always someone to chat with at Design Happy Place. 

Tip: Talk to management about protecting time for Happy Place. People will be more likely to attend if leadership has already bought into its value.

People Meet (And Learn From) Someone That They Would Not Have Otherwise Interacted With

Before I started Design Happy Place, I didn’t really know anyone outside of my own office and had no incentive to reach out. After a few months, I found myself collaborating on projects with designers across the country and meeting even more interesting people along the way.

Tip: For remote meetings, have everyone login with their own webcam. Seeing everyone’s faces up close makes conversations feel more personal. 

People Not Only Attend But Invite Others

The pool of people making appearances in Design Happy Place has been steadily growing for over a year now and this has happened purely through word of mouth. If you build a Happy Place that fills a need, it won’t take much effort to get folks to attend.

Tip: If too many people attend Happy Place, try breaking into smaller groups. Of the 42 designers in our community, 3-12 typically attend on any given week. A smaller group size helps by giving everyone a chance to talk.

Your Happy Place Inspires Others To Create Similar Events

Happy Places are not secrets to be coveted but rather tools to be shared. They can coexist as easily as different job titles within one company. Ultimately, time spent at Happy Place positively impacts employee performance, so don’t be surprised when other groups start following your lead.

Tip: You can pair Happy Place with quarterly events that offer even more learning opportunities. At Pivotal we have Design Town Hall where employees can share lightning talks as well as Design Round Table which offers in-depth discussion on a single topic.

Happy Place is Self-Sustaining

This was my proudest moment in the history of Happy Place. Everything would be going great until I had a schedule conflict and then the meeting just wouldn’t happen. So how do you enable a community to carry on with Happy Place without a clear facilitator pulling the strings? For us it took a recurring Google calendar event, a shared Trello board full of discussion topics, a handful of seasoned regulars, a Slack channel on the side, and an agenda simple enough that anyone could pick it up from week to week.  

Tip: Generating discussion topics doesn’t have to be a solo effort. If you start running low, spend the last five minutes of Happy Place writing down ideas as a group.

People Feel Safe Sharing at Happy Place Even When They’re Not Feeling Very Happy

You’ll know that you’ve reached the next level of community health when people feel comfortable sharing emotionally challenging stories and letting themselves be vulnerable in front of the group. At Pivotal we are lucky enough to have employees that live by the pillars “do the right thing, do what works, and be kind.” So remember, always be kind. 

Resources

Now that you’ve seen what it takes to create a successful Happy Place, you’re well on your way to building one of your own. To help you on your journey, here is a Trello template with a few discussion topics and group activities. Invite a handful of peers and watch as one little meeting turns into a vibrant community. I hope that it makes you as happy as Design Happy Place has made me. 

A preview image of the Happy Place Trello template featuring lists for discussion topics, group activities, and the week's agenda. 

About the Author

Megan Taylor

Megan Taylor is a Senior Product Designer at Pivotal.

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