Before jumping full-time into design, I held down a 9-to-5 job while moonlighting as a designer. I did that for more than 5 years, and in that time worked with many clients, which is where I learned how to be a successful remote worker.
If you can help it, I don’t recommend jumping straight from a 9-to-5 to full-time remote work. I’ve seen plenty of designers who thought they were up for the challenge, only to retreat back to an office environment months later.
I’ll tell you a little bit about how I work to give you an idea of how I’ve set myself up for remote working success.
Much of my success from working remotely comes from my personality type. I naturally gravitate towards being more controlled and disciplined, more structured and procedural. That’s not to say if you don’t lean that way you can’t be successful working remotely. I know other personality types that work remotely just fine. But if you thrive on structure and are naturally self-disciplined, working remotely may come easier to you.
If you’re going to succeed working remotely, you have to set up a routine. Whether you’re up early in the morning and power through eight hours or are a late riser with short bursts of work throughout the day, having a steady routine is paramount to remote work. I’m an early riser (even without having a toddler) so after I help get my family ready for their day, it’s straight to the office chair. For me, it’s important to keep pretty normal business hours since that’s what our clients do.
I fire up my email, calendar, Asana, and Basecamp to get a look at my day. After I have a grasp on what needs to get done, I get a to-do list ready and go to work. If there aren’t any early client meetings, I generally dive right into design work and go until lunch. After lunch, I’m right back at it. I reference my to-do list to make sure I’m on track and then go back to design work until about 5:30 PM.
It’s important that if you have a family or live with others, they all know you have a routine. When you’re at your desk, you’re at work, just as if you were at an office job. If you don’t set that rule right away, your day becomes prone to distractions.
Planning is just as important to remote work as having a routine is. I bask in calendars and to-do lists because they help me plan out my day and keep me on track.
I use my calendar solely for keeping track of meetings. Some people plan out their blocks of time for design work in their calendar. However, I like having my to-do list on paper and in front of me. I use a new 3x5 notecard each day to track the stuff I need to get done. Not only does this keep it visible but I get the satisfying feeling of checking something off when completed.
No matter how solid your routine is or how much planning you do, something unexpected pops up whether work-related or not. It’s important to leave some open time throughout the day. If you schedule a packed day and something comes up where you need to change course, one of two things happen: you add it to your to-do list for tomorrow, or you work late to catch up, neither of which are preferred. If something doesn’t come up, I use that extra time to set up my plan for tomorrow and even start making progress on that plan if time allows.
Like nails and a hammer to a carpenter, Adobe’s Creative Suite is essential to a designer’s tool belt. All Focus Lab designers are on Creative Cloud, which makes collaborating awesome. Creative Cloud allows anyone to set up a library and then share it with anyone also running Creative Cloud.
It’s a huge time saver and has become invaluable for the design team for two reasons:
- If we’re working on the same project, one person can dump in color swatches, text styles, and vector smart objects to a single library. Now all the designers can use those same assets. And anyone can add to that library as the project grows.
- We’ve set up a couple global asset libraries for social media icons and wireframe elements, stuff that we use on almost every web or UI project. Instead of leaving Photoshop or Illustrator to search Dropbox or my hard drive, I open up the Libraries panel and drag the asset to it. Easy peasy.
What about Sketch for web and UI design? We’ve used it on a couple projects but a lot of our clients don’t know what Sketch is. For handing off final design assets to their internal teams, Creative Suite is still the gold standard.
We use GoToMeeting for all client calls and most internal meetings. It can hog a lot of your downstream connection and there isn’t a way to change the bandwidth like you can in Google Hangouts. If you’re running into poor video quality and choppy calls, you may need to beef up your service.
All intercompany chat happens through HipChat. We have rooms set up for each current design project, a design room to post feedback on stuff we’re working through, and a water cooler room for a ton of shenanigans. There are days where the major form of communication comes through animated GIFs. We also use HipChat for one-on-one video calls/screen shares and direct messaging. If you’re working remotely, I recommend some sort of group chat client like HipChat or Slack to stay in touch throughout the day.
For keeping track of everyone’s tasks, we use Asana. For all the features we get (tasks, repeating tasks, due dates, reminders, projects and more), you can’t beat the price–FREE. The PM team loves it because they can see project status and what’s due at any given time.
A remote worker’s arsenal of tools wouldn’t be complete without an organized way to deliver projects to clients. And for that, we use Basecamp. Anything that needs to be communicated with a client happens through Basecamp. This includes project kickoffs, coordinating meetings, weekly deliverables, and a way to get feedback on our work. A lot of this stuff can be handled by email but that can get messy real quick.
For a remote worker, having a dedicated room from which to work is crucial to your productivity. It can’t be at the kitchen table or a TV tray in the living room. Distractions need to be limited and working in a highly-trafficked part of your house only invites them in. While not ideal, my office is part of our rec room. But it’s in the basement so I’m as isolated as I can be from the rest of the house.
You also have to make sure the space is outfitted for working eight hours a day. I ponied up the cash for a higher end office chair because my $100 generic office chair wasn’t doing my back any favors. I have a piano and guitar in my office, which is awesome for getting up and moving around, relieving stress, and distracting my brain from a particular design problem. The bottom line: make your space inspiring enough to be in for a third of the day.
Pros and Cons
There are challenges to working remotely: no face-to-face contact for the majority of your work day, things can get noisy with your family in the house, and you can easily get distracted by doing chores or falling down an internet black hole.
But the biggest challenge is that work is always there. I highly recommend limiting yourself to 8-9 hours a day so you don’t face any sort of burnout. Work hard during the day, but then rest and recharge so you’re ready for tomorrow.
And while there are challenges to working remotely, there are plenty of benefits: no wasted time or money on gas by sitting in traffic, the time spent wasted commuting is now spent with family, there are A LOT of pajama days (heck, even pants are optional), and distracting office banter is kept to a minimum.
Remote work isn’t for everyone. But if you have the right attitude and the right tools, I’m certain anyone can make it work.