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Working Remotely: An Honest Reflection, Tips, & Tools

By Dan Newcomer on May 17, 2016

Last August, my wife and I made an insane life decision to hit the road for the West Coast. We hit a wall where we were feeling stale in our routines back East, so we did what every other person does in that situation—a cross country drive to California with our cats in tow.

remote-roadtrip

Since then and along the way, I’ve been working remotely for Think Company. I’ve spent 9 months away from the hive, on my own. A lone wolf you might say, or more a “Renegade”—a drifter with a purpose. I find some wifi, sign on, log those hours, then ride off into the sunset. I have worked in every setting—libraries, cafes, airports, planes, co-working spaces, and apartments.

My story isn’t too different from others who have opted for the remote work lifestyle, and this isn’t my first rodeo either—I worked remotely for a year and a half with my last company. But this is different. Think Company isn’t just a job, or a company, it’s more than that. Only being away have I realized how much the people I work with matter to me (… don’t get too emotional, Dan, stay on topic…). Being embedded in the studio(s) for almost two years before this journey helped cultivate some great friendships and instill a sense of the culture that is so important in our day-to-day.

I’ve read a dozen or so great articles about the remote lifestyle and I’ve been an evangelist myself (and still am in many respects), so I don’t want to waste your time by preaching the merits of a remote organization versus a central studio or office. That’s not my purpose and that’s for my mentors and leaders to decide, who by the way I trust more than anyone else. For that argument, check out Jason Fried’s excellent TEDx talk here.

I do want to tell you how this experiment has been going for me personally and professionally over the last 9 months.

What Has Worked

In the tech field, a good amount of companies really making remote work a viable option are centered around development of digital products (37Signals, Buffer, Treehouse, etc.)—building digital products, writing code, testing, logging bugs, and of course collaborating. However, these tasks are sometimes slightly different from design consulting, which involves an iterative, visceral series of exercises that rely heavily on gauging comfort zones and client reactions. Presentation and communication are key elements of what we do.

The idea of a presenter not actually being “present,” and more or less a disembodied voice leading a room of clients through a kickoff or design deliverable sounds kinda nutty. But so far, I’m here to argue it has worked.

A Cross-Country Map

For example, with this remote setup we were able to kick off a project with a client located in London, a team member located in Australia, a team from Philadelphia, and yours truly from California. We kept the call focused on the task at hand, and our attention never wavered.

I’ve been able to work between Eastern and Pacific time zones, never missing a meeting and providing consistent coverage. However when those later hours of the day kick in and Slack is kinda empty, I really feel that absence. More on that later.

What I’ve Gained

Confidence

1. Starting my journey from Think Company 2. Working from libraries has been a great resource, Here in Roxborough State Park CO 3. Working from Open Ground Studios, Seaside CA 4. Working from SHARED in San Francisco CA

This experiment hasn’t gone without its bumps in the road, but I am still learning as a designer, and we are still learning from this experiment as a company.

When I was full time in the studio, I was in those early learning stages of conducting a successful design consultation. The decisions logged on any given design—whether it was a wireframe, illustration, or visual treatment—meant the world. It was a scary time.

Since hitting the road though, Chad, my Director, helped me realize this key insight:

If I can pack up my east coast life, sell my home, drop a pin in a place I’ve never been, and drive across the country on a gut feeling, then the confidence to design a few screens or present a concept to a client can come more easily.

The world got a little less daunting because I was able to break out of that bubble and look at the bigger picture. I can’t tell if it’s the confidence from making a huge life decision or the fact that I’ve been working remotely, but my design work and attitude has improved immensely since the start of this journey.

Consistency

Collaborating and presenting remotely on our team has already been well established by the dynamic of working across our two studios in Conshohocken and Philadelphia. Each Monday, we meet remotely for our weekly “Huggle” to kick off the week and give each other some proper face time. The tools have all been well curated at this point; Google Hangouts, Slack, and Google Docs keep the world turning and efficient. I imagine this is also the case elsewhere.

My remote routine requires all three tools day to day to be successful. A consistent set of tools has equaled a consistent approach to my voice and presentation skills in each meeting. I know the makeup and sound volume of my environment, and I curtail my environment based on my calendar. Days when I am presenting to a client, I ensure I am at home with total silence in the background. On days when meetings are lighter and I need to fill that social void, I travel to a café or working space.

This is a dedicated routine that I hope builds confidence with my collaborators—that I am always as present as the person sitting next to them, even though I’m thousands of miles away. Deliverables have become designed with a clearer purpose of communication in mind, since body language and gauging reactions have become removed. As sharing beyond the call (even internally) has become more important, annotations on design deliverables really come in handy.

“…As people spend less time in the office—which results in less face time with the team—clearly communicating ideas, emotions, and concerns is necessary when body language and the benefits of proximity are absent.”
Paul Jun, Helpscout

Tools of the Trade

Blog Graphics_tools

1. A laptop with a few specific apps—Join.me, InVision, Preview, and Hangouts 2. A phone camera to capture sketching, and check scheduled meetings 3. Pen and paper still rule for explaining quick thoughts 4. A tablet for drawing, wire-framing, and communicating ideas on screen.

I have narrowed down my toolbelt to a comfortable set of apps that have gone a long way for my productivity. These are my never leave home without it tools that have made this journey possible.

For presentations: a combination of Join.me and Mac’s simple Preview app has been the perfect way to show a deliverable or deck—there are no animation hangups, vector lines and graphics are crisp, and Join.me’s built-in call feature has been vital in areas with bad cell reception.

For collaboration: Google Hangouts, Docs, and Invision Boards have been an excellent way to track notes, sketch quickly, and collect inspiration.

remote-drawing

Mark and I collaborate through an online sketching session. What a great sport.

I’ve even gone as far as rigging my phone to capture live sketching with pen and paper- which was vital for illustrating a key storymap. Just recently I bought a Wacom tablet for illustration purposes, and I am beyond excited for the opportunity to use it to live sketch on a call.

The simplest way to communicate an idea, however, is with pen and paper. With any smartphone camera, I can share a quick sketch instantly and talk through it while on the call.

Tips of the Trade

Along with those tools come some tips for working remotely that have kept me productive. These techniques are well-carved into my routine now.

“Doers will get stuff done even if they are in Timbuktu.”
Wade Foster, Zapier

Know Your Schedule, Know Their Schedule

I have Inbox on my phone cued up to West Coast time and Inbox on my mac cued up to East Coast time. It’s kinda funky, but this way I know what timetables my coworkers are dealing with, and I know exactly how painfully early I might need to jump on a call. 6:30 am? Not a problem. This also gives me a good idea of the blocks of time where I can be seriously heads-down and not sweat missing a deadline.

Know Your Environment

If wifi is integral to your task—joining a call, presentation, etc.—then being cued up in an environment with consistent wifi is important. There are days though where, as a remote worker, you just need to get out and join the waking world. Wifi in most cafes starts to drop out around 10 am to 1pm when they have their highest traffic for lunch. I make sure I have enough production-related tasks during that time so that  I can be completely focused, remain productive, and not look like a complete weirdo.

Surround Yourself with Creativity

Co-working spaces are a great way to feel aligned with other creators and busy doers, and they don’t feel as anonymous as a cafe might. So far I’ve had the opportunity to work out of Open Ground Studios in Monterey, CA, and SHARED in San Francisco, CA—both well-established artist communities. There is something refreshing about logging on from a shared space where painters, illustrators, seamstresses, and startup teams co-work together. If I was smart, I would spend even more time in these spaces as this is a great way to network and get to know new people.

Check-ins are the Life-Blood

Interactions, specifically 1:1 meetings with managers, have become the life-blood of my adventure. These meetings are how I validate if I am on track, find out what is happening, and most importantly, connect on a human level. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have design managers who have been open to this experiment, and who have seen the value in changing scenery and trying something new. Dan B., Chad, and Brian are adventurers and experimenters at heart. The facilitation of monthly and weekly meetings has gone a long way.

The Grass isn’t Always Greener on the Other Side

Nothing is perfect of course, and there are some drawbacks to not being in the studio(s). These are things many other remote workers will say are easily cured with certain tools,  but when you are one of a few remote workers at a company, you tend to feel these drawbacks in a different way.

Missing the Camaraderie

When the company quarterlies or holiday events roll around, this feeling stings. I think it has something to do with missing a landmark or milestone and allowing the work to flow directly into the next project. It’s valuable to have specific cut-off points and chances to reflect on the hard work before diving into the next engagement. To be honest I don’t feel I’ve slowed down or taken stock of the work I’ve done since moving last August.

Cut-off Time

Working in between time zones has definitely led to some longer days as well as the inevitable project creep into personal time. Giving myself appropriate cut-off times is of course the solution, but it’s easy to get up early for east coast hours and then have the day roll into west coast hours.

The Virtual Water Cooler

Remote evangelists will again have solutions for the fact that they are missing the 1:1 chemistry that comes from being in the same place—apps like Slack or Campfire will alleviate this element—but I think this really applies if the whole team is remote and there is a commonality shared among everyone.

Russ was kind enough to include me in the team photo at the holiday family dinner. It’s like I’m actually there!

As one of only a few remote designers on my team, I feel a bit left out when the lunch hour hits, when a group is grabbing coffee, or when a team discusses project challenges off the cuff in the hallway. These are definitely valuable touch-points you can never replace through a virtual setup.

What’s Next?

I can’t tell how long this remote thing will stretch. So far it’s working and I feel like a pioneer—keeping in mind that I am extremely lucky to fulfill this dream I’ve had. I don’t ever want to do anything that would dissuade someone else from following their own path. In fact, here is a great resource if you’re feeling the same way.

At first this was an experiment meant to last one or two months until I was settled. This has stretched well beyond that, still ongoing—a reflection of how incredible the Think Company team is to work with.

I do want to say, no matter where this leads, that I am very grateful to have this opportunity and the support of the following individuals who have made this experiment possible, and have helped me stay connected: Dan B., Chad, Mark, Suzanne, Alli, Lucero, TJ, Becca, Kristina, and everyone I’ve collaborated with along the way. Thank you.