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Interview
March 3, 2021

Remote Work

4 Designers Reveal How to Survive Forced Remote Work

March 3, 2021

The sudden switch to remote work has caused quite a stir at the beginning of 2020. Many of us were forced to rebuild old habits to get used to the new format. You may be familiar with the turmoil that came with the pandemic. However, every crisis brings opportunities. This is also an opportunity to rethink your professional career, think over the balance between life and work, and, of course, get a completely new and useful experience!

This interview reveals the experience of four professional designers who share not only their stories but actionable tips for everyone who wants to switch to remote work seamlessly.

Asher Blumberg, an Award-winning Designer Currently Working at Amazon

Asher Blumberg is an award-winning designer currently working at Amazon who empowers creativity by evangelizing design thinking and human-centered transformation.

Remote Work Means More Flexibility

I’ve been working remotely due to the pandemic. This new format has opened new horizons for exponential freedom and creativity. My experience of work from home has made me adapt to a different style of working that has created more harmony and life balance. The flexibility of being able to shape and form your daily routine that uniquely fits your working style, needs, and desires is next level.

 

At first, it was hard to find the right collaboration tools and frameworks to produce at the same level. Collaboration software like Flowmapp has allowed me to bridge that gap, to breathe the same type of life into my work that was once only possible when cooperating with my team in the office. I’ve helped condition our team to remote work by establishing new rituals (Friday kudos and Monday morning icebreakers) that make it fun and easier to connect on a human and friend level.

The most challenging part was co-working out of a loft in San Francisco with my wife.

We're both designers, which is amazing since we can give each other face-to-face feedback like when we were in the office. On the other hand, having to talk over each other while presenting to executives and stakeholders made it hard to perform at our best. We decided to move back to my dad's house in Santa Cruz to make space for creativity and hone our craft. Also, my dad has a sweet backyard, and being home made us feel that we could tap back into community vibes with the family — my dad, sister, wife, and two cats. That helped tremendously psychologically and emotionally while we were in lockdown/shelter in place.

a man work from home illustration

BEING CHAINED TO A DESK IS NO WAY TO LIVE, NO MATTER HOW ENGROSSED YOU ARE WITH YOUR WORK

What appeared to be a piece of cake, that I didn’t initially expect, was the reconditioning of the mind and body to the new habits of working.

Collaboration was effortful at first, but I helped set up new ways of working with my colleagues by establishing new team rituals I mentioned above to create more trust and empathy for each other.

How to Keep a Healthy Life-Work Balance

I created this balance by establishing new habits to overcome the dire pandemic facing the world.

 

  1. I changed up my usual routine.
    Instead of my common way of powering through three-hour deep work chunks, I broke it up into smaller ones using the Pomodoro technique. Being chained to a desk is no way to live, no matter how engrossed you are with your work. I began using Pomodoro to drive greater results and be more efficient with my time. Limiting the use of my phone while being in front of the computer helps me focus on the things that matter.
  2. Also, take breaks!
    I mean going for a walk or getting into nature. It has become crucial for my psychological well-being, creating greater equilibrium and nourishing my soul.
  3. Take some time.
    Setting up friendly remote work conditions took some time to get used to, but once I locked it in, I experienced exponential creativity and more freedom than I’ve ever had in my pre-pandemic life. After reading the “5 AM club” (I highly recommend reading it), I established rituals such as morning gratitude walks at sunrise/twilight. At first, it wasn’t easy to become a morning person, but without the temptation to go out and party or stay out late at night, I managed to adapt to the new transformative lifestyle. I got inspired to make the most of my mornings, eating breakfast outside, or experiencing the magic of sunrises.

Work From Home = New Hobbies

One of my goals during shelter in place was to reinvent myself by creating a new personal brand identity. So, I started my own pet project. I primarily used Instagram to share my design musings with the world and channel my creativity and pent-up feelings. I also became obsessed with my two cats, buying all types of cat toys to keep them occupied. My cats, Maui Wowie and Fluffy Fofu, became central to feeling all the feels and getting through it all. 2020 was the year that I became a devoted parent, a cat dad. :) They had some behavioral issues, so I took it upon myself to design and iterate on their environment to create a sustainable living/work habitat where we all could thrive. I don’t think it would have been the same without them. Their companionship has become a cornerstone to my happiness. Also, sharing adorable cat pictures not only breaks the interest but gives me excuses to text my friends (Guys, sorry for bombarding you with cat pics :) ).

Christine Soules, a Product Designer and Illustrator

Christine is a Product Designer and Illustrator. She loves doodling, hiking, tasting new foods, and black cats.

Work From Home in 2020 is Different From What I Was Used To

Actually, in every job I’ve had, there has been some capacity for remote work. These have been common scenarios:

 

  • A core in-office team was working with a specialist or expert who was assisting remotely.
  • An in-office team was working with a remote engineering team.
  • Two office locations of a company that were collaborating on a project.
  • As an independent consultant, I was working remotely for an in-office team.
  • And finally, in 2020, my first experience with an entirely remote company happened.

In 2019, I absolutely loved working from home when I was freelancing full time.

It was incredible even for clients I worked within the Los Angeles area. It can take two hours to get across town here, so the ability to get things done remotely gave me back so much time I didn’t have to spend commuting.

Work from home during the 2020 quarantine is different in a lot of ways.

To start off, I lost what was supposed to be an 18-month contract that I was incredibly happy with. Such a major bummer! Not only was I transitioning to fully remote work again, but also looking for a new job.

 

I was fortunate enough to find another suitable role with an awesome team at a remote-first company, which definitely made the transition smoother. They had accurate documentation, a regular happy hour in Zoom, and trust that everyone will get their work done.

 

However, it was the first time I was working extremely closely on a day-to-day basis with people I had never met — and still haven’t met. Often, we ended up making up for this by having more frequent meetings than we would have if we were in an office together. It has been tiring in some ways, but it also ensures that nothing gets lost in translation, which saves us from re-work.

The other essential adjustment is the lack of in-person human connection.

When I was in the office, I could chat with my desk neighbors about little things in our lives. When I worked remotely previously, I could still go out with friends in the evening and travel to see my family. Now, if I don’t have any meetings, I could spend an entire day without speaking out loud. I’ve made up for this like many people — having happy hours and games with friends and family over video chats, and also asking my coworkers real, personal, human questions when we meet over Zoom.

Four Greatest Challenges

  1. Providing Sufficient Context.
    It’s critical to treat meetings slightly more formally than it would be possible to do with teammates in the office. I always like to lean heavily into documentation — in fact, I wrote a whole article about it. For example, when I walk through designs, I like to put them into a presentation that includes a summary of project goals, highlights of research conducted, important notes from our previous meetings, etc.
  2. Handling Asynchronous Communication.
    I like to focus on using powerful and convenient collaborative tools. For example, for presentations, I like to use Google Slides — people can leave comments and continue conversations even when they aren’t able to attend a meeting. Figma is amazing for creating designs — it is browser-based and allows commenting. It keeps us from misinterpreting feedback, as a team member can comment directly on any specific piece of the UI.
  3. Clients’ First Remote Experience.
    During the quarantine, I have worked with clients who are not used to remote work and are not always particularly tech-savvy. There has been noticeable discomfort with shifting to a new way of communicating with colleagues internally. At times, people have been nervous to speak too much when they can’t get a gauge on body language in the room and when lags cause people to accidentally talk over each other.
    There is also the logistical issue of things like conducting a sticky-note based workshop. Even though we have proper software like Miro, small things like the inability to copy-paste a new digital sticky note can completely derail a meeting for a few minutes. The most suitable solution is just scheduling in buffer time until people get accustomed to these tools.
  4. Zoom Fatigue
    I had so many conversations in-office when I could just pop over to my co-worker’s desk for a couple of minutes and ask them a simple question. It takes plenty of energy to create an invitation for every conversation — to figure out availability and estimate how long it will take each time. I’ve found it helpful to keep brief conversations in Slack — the threads feature helps me keep them from getting out of hand.
a man looks from a laptop screen

 MUCH OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION IS DONE NON-VERBALLY

Other issues with video conferencing are lags and an inability to see all faces at once.

The constant availability of one’s own face can also be quite distracting. It can be very problematic for some people to speak up — you might end up talking over someone every time, or just feel completely thrown off by the lack of body language. Much of human communication is done non-verbally, and a lot of nuances can be lost. My team and I have mostly dealt with this by creating additional break-out meetings where we can talk with smaller groups about the same topic.

Nevertheless, there were some pleasant things as well!

I was extremely surprised by how much earlier my whole schedule has shifted. I have been waking up at sunrise and started working with my morning coffee in my pajamas instead of having to rush to go through the repetitive “getting ready” process each morning. If I stay in bed 15 minutes longer, it won’t make me “late for work,” — so it has removed almost all stress from my mornings.

 

I love the ability to get boring or administrative tasks out of the way first — without a set timeline — and then get dressed and ready for the more creative part of my day.

How I Keep My Mental Energy High Throughout the Day

This is honestly something I feel I’m not great at yet. Before the quarantine, I was motivated to keep a 9/5 schedule for myself, even when I was freelancing remotely. Doing things with other people in person is a strong reason to have a shared agreement on how to sort your time.

smartphone with tentacles illustration

STAY AWAY FROM YOUR PHONE

I’m trying to take advantage of this time as much as possible by running errands or working out in the middle of the day while my physical energy is up. I can work a bit later in the evening because my mental energy will last longer.

 

My company implemented a time tracking system, and it was incredibly useful for helping me understand when I had put in a “full day’s work” when I could just keep working forever. I would definitely recommend tracking time, even on an individual level, until you get a better sense of how long you’re working each day.

To distinguish your personal life and work not to face an early burnout, optimize your ideal combination of habits/structure and flexibility.

I’ve noticed that even trivia, like my teammates saying “goodnight” on Slack at the end of each workday, can make a huge difference to me in feeling like I can stop working. I enjoy having my meal times set each day and have recurring Zoom social events, such as watching trashy reality TV once a week with a group of friends at a specific time. Working out, running errands, talking to family members and other things can now be more flexible than ever, rather than trying to cram them into a complete set routine.

Almost Everyone Is Working with Pets Now

I had a client who accidentally turned on a Zoom background to be a tropical beach and he could never figure out how to turn it off. I could hear his dog barking from time to time, and he tried to introduce me — but because of the detection of the background focusing on him, I could only ever see a single paw any time we had a meeting. I still have no idea what his dog looks like. :)

Michael Abboreno, Designer at Ford Motor Company

Michael Abboreno is a UX Designer who believes products should be simple and enjoyable to use. He believes that user experience is important to all aspects of life, both digital and physical.

How I Switched to Fully Remote Work

This was not my first experience of working from home. My previous position was entirely remote, however, I wasn't necessarily a fan of this format then (I also didn't know how to properly establish work-home boundaries). So, I knew what to expect but also had to change some critical job functions and tools.

 

That appeared to be easy, though it was an alteration to have all of your coworkers remote as well. Certain tools had to have workarounds. I think many companies and most teams now use whiteboard apps when before, many people probably didn't know digital whiteboarding existed.

 

Communicating with colleagues and the volume of meetings since the lockdown have become a needed adjustment.

Communication has considerably slowed down with people having to take care of home chores or family needs during the workday. This has probably been the nicest part of the lockdown. Colleagues are more understanding of daily lives impacting work. Additionally, rather than being able to show your teammates something in passing or quickly at your desk, formal meetings are a lot more common now. People find it strenuous to organize calendars, as they need to establish a specific time to go over even insignificant design changes. Of the two, the increase in meetings is the most frustrating by far.

 

The good news is that there are no more 2-hour commutes and less money spent on gas!

I've found it much easier to cook for myself since I've been working from home, as well as getting short chores done. If you need to get dinner prepped, you're able to find time during online meetings to cut veggies. If you need to make a quick stop to the store to pick up medicine, you can do that during the lunch break. At the beginning of the lockdown, I learned how to make pickles. Many people I know have been exploring cooking and growing their skills in the kitchen. My few friends have got into making pizza dough.

a man spends time with a smartphone

DO NOT LOOK AT EMAILS AND MESSAGES OR THINK ABOUT DESIGN AFTER A CERTAIN TIME

How to Cope With the Working Routine and Stay Productive

The main thing that has helped me is taking walks before and after work. This helps to give somewhat of a routine and separate work from life. Changing your home decorations with the season is beneficial as well. I put up Halloween decorations and later slowly transitioned Christmas ones, which gave me a sense of "changing of the seasons" even within my house. It's really small, but I noticed several of my coworkers doing the same on our zoom calls following Thanksgiving. :D‍

 

As for keeping a healthy work-life balance, I’d recommend not looking at emails and messages or thinking about design after a certain time.

I love design, and like many designers, I think and look for inspiration all the time. I believe that there is a point where you need to shut off your brain or consciously remind yourself not to think of work or design in general. Sometimes, the unexpected inspiration can come when you're cooking and explicitly not thinking about design. This conscious effort acts similarly. I am really bad about this, especially when I am busy or have a handful of urgent tasks at work, but I see a noticeable difference when I do give the separation and start getting burned out. Give a chance for yourself to unwind and you will be refreshed, ready to take on any task.

Aside From the Common "Talking While Muted"...

I perform a lot of interviews and usability tests, usually recording these sessions for reference or additional note-taking. Since going online, I had to adjust my tools and how to record sessions, while still maintaining a relaxing environment. I finally got everything figured out and began my research. Due to both not being used to fully online systems and a rapid research schedule, I realized too late that my recordings were picking up only my voice, as I was using headphones... I religiously remind people who want to use a similar recording setup to always do that without headphones plugged in.

Rodrigo Tello, Computational Interface Designer

Rodrigo Tello is a Mexican Brooklyn-based computational interface designer (aka UX designer, UX/UI designer, product designer, HCI designer, interaction designer), with a background in architecture. He is also an artist, musician, and martial arts practitioner.

Different Layers and Difficulties of Remote Work

This was not the first time that I've worked remotely. At my last job, Hopscotch, we were already fully remote since we have teammates both living in Europe and on both US coasts.

 

The work conditions have many layers — the specific instances of the work (the design, the writing, the coding), which doesn't change.

Then there is the indoor personal layer and the outdoor personal layer. The indoor one takes time and discipline to balance — cooking, waking up, setting up a nice space to work, etc. Once you get there, you need to stick to maintain it. Also, there is the "outside world" life, which now it's nonexistent. In my case, stopping exercising has broken my capacity to concentrate; which in itself brings a more uncomfortable setup.

The toughest thing for me was knowing when to start and stop working.

My back and shoulders are suffering a little bit. It's not the ergonomic condition but the invisible silent stress. I would say that remote work is not the challenge but stopping the "life outside work" is.‍

 

However, some common things are not arduous at all.

Managing video calls doesn’t cause any issues. I am also okay with being all by myself. The company is fine, but I don't care about non-interrupted work.

How to Stay Focused and Do More

I ignore video calls from work if I find them meaningless, especially the ones that are about corporate culture. :D It's not about the hacks, it's about slowly starting to implement small routines and compensate for my "loss" of the practice, but it's not the same. I'm thinking of getting a punching bag, since I practice martial arts.

What else can I recommend?

 

  • Ignore Slack or any other chats. Talk to your manager and direct teammates regularly, but ignore anything that looks "corporate culturey".
  • Don't watch Netflix.
  • Stay away from your smartphone. In fact, I don't even have a smartphone. "Being informed" is a lie. We don't need tons of information, we demand meaning.
  • Have a uniform, change clothes. I do this at 8 AM and 6 PM, so I have a specific outfit I use for work. It doesn't matter if it gets ketchup or anything since no one can see you.

 

What's more, my new company gave us some allowance for remote work and I invested half of it in plants. Caveat: I don't know anything about plants. :) I also downloaded the Snapchat camera, which has funny filters you can use on video calls.

What to Do Next?

As you can see, there is nothing impossible and even getting used to the new norm can be beneficial for all the parties. Both employers and employees win. Companies learn how to work remotely, which opens new horizons for their businesses, and can save budgets they would have spent on offline offices. Designers and other team members learn how to keep a healthy work-life balance and save tons of time. All in all, people spend more time at home with their families, and keeping reasonable limits will only make everyone closer to each other. It is a fully ‘win-win’ situation.

 

So, grab the tips from Asher, Christine, Rodrigo, and Michael and start using the best practices to organize your effective work from home!

 

Want to share your opinion on remote work and other ideas for striving in the post-pandemic world? Send your ideas to serafima@flowmapp.com with the subject 'Remote work Ideas’ or comment on the post with this interview on Facebook.

 

Written by Tina Podmazina