How to Work Remotely When It Matters Most: Tips for Designers

04/08/20206 min read
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Micah Bowers
Correspondent for
Micah Bowers is a correspondent for and lead editor of the Toptal Design Blog. He uses brand design and illustration to stir a desire for change that is helpful, hopeful, human.
How to Work Remotely When It Matters Most: Tips for Designers

Life was rolling along–work, family, hobbies. Then, the headlines howled “PANDEMIC,” and your design team went remote, the white-collar antidote to a terrible virus working its way around the globe.

Resolute, you set out to gather remote work resources and make the most of your situation. When news sites ran their work-from-home features, you stockpiled every available pro tip.

But for all your research, you could tell something was off. Remote life wasn’t the good life you imagined. What a mirage it was. “I’ll be up early. I’ll start the coffee. I’ll exercise.”

Reality hit hard.

Right away, distractions mounted. The mental flow so easily achieved in the confines of your cubicle vanished. Your stomach growled at odd hours. Crying children assailed your sanity. Naps beckoned. Either you couldn’t find the will to work or couldn’t stop working. There was no middle ground.

Those were the depths. You were shaken but not broken. You refocused. Remote work was a work in progress, and you started to find your groove. Still, you couldn’t help but wonder, “Can’t I do this better?”

The remote life has a rhythm all its own. It’s more than taking what happens in the office outside the office. It’s a mindset, a culture, a transformational approach to employment. Done right, there’s no better way to work.

How to Work Remotely: 9 Tips for Designers and Teams

1. Prioritize Team Culture

Culture matters in the remote workplace. Even though you’re working from home, it’s important to have meaningful connections with coworkers. Take the time to show interest in your teammates’ lives and make sure to share stories from your world as well.

Don’t be afraid to tell jokes, swap memes, or use emojis on messaging platforms. Be quick to answer questions, suggest resources, and recognize accomplishments. Laughter and shared experiences are the underpinnings of trust and productivity.

2. Utilize Visual Collaboration Tools

Many design teams, even those housed in the same office, no longer rely on real whiteboards for wireframing, site mapping, or ideation exercises. Tools like Miro and Mural make these crucial design efforts easier to document, distribute, and iterate upon.

If your team hasn’t used a visual collaboration software, it might take a day or two to become comfortable with the workflow. Stick with it. On remote teams, collaboration and concept development are painstakingly slow when design artifacts aren’t accessible in a single, cloud-based location.

*Bonus: Now that your team is remote, it’s worth considering what it would mean to switch to a shared design environment like Figma.

3. Take Time to Digitally Disconnect

What’s the best way to avoid digital burnout? Turn off devices and crawl out of your wifi cocoon. Remote work isn’t contingent on 24/7 connectivity. You’re not omnipresent, and you shouldn’t pretend to be. The best you can be is one place at a time. The most you can do is one task at a time.

When you’re working online, don’t hesitate to disable notifications. The barrage of dings, beeps, and chimes will hinder your productivity and undermine your emotional well-being.

4. Relieve Stress with Physical Activity

Change and uncertainty breed stress. When stress builds, productivity wanes. There’s a remedy. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever.”

Today, fitness apps abound. Most provide workout ideas, nutrition tips, and performance tracking. Yoga canceled? Try Downward Dog. Gym closed? Get toned with the 7 Minute Workout.

Prefer a slower pace? Find a stretching circuit. Practice breathing exercises. Use a guided meditation app like Headspace or Calm. Or, forgo full-length workouts in favor of single-set exercises woven into your day.

If solo workouts make you sad, join an online fitness challenge or start a Slack group where you and your coworkers can share exercise ideas and help each other stay motivated.

5. Maintain an Orderly Workspace

Remind yourself, “I’m a remote employee, not a digital nomad. I will not be working from a travel van, an infinity pool, or the heights of Machu Picchu.” Then, carve out a quiet, comfortable workspace somewhere in your home. Make sure you have room to spread out and enough light to see what you’re doing (if you can bring a window into the mix, even better).

At the end of each day, clean your space. Throw away wrappers. Remove dishes. Straighten pens and notebooks. You’ll thank yourself the next morning.

6. Present Your Design Concepts Live

When the time comes to present design concepts, schedule a video call. It might seem easier to send an email, but it’s not. Written exchanges almost always end in confusion. Crucial information loses its impact. Ideas are lost in syntax. Questions become accusations. Instead of a 30-minute video call, you amass hours of needless back n’ forth.

FYI–The same strategy applies for day-to-day design choices. If you need feedback from a fellow designer, assemble your thoughts, ask to hop on a quick call, and present live.

7. Be an Actor and Benefit the Team

Video calls may seem straightforward, but they have a totally different vibe than in-person interactions. The threat of technical difficulty looms over every meeting, but even when calls are clear, there’s a weird time warp that nullifies the subtleties of non-verbal communication. Jokes and clever quips are especially tricky.

It may sound strange, but video calls are an opportunity to channel your inner actor. Annunciate. Emote. Be expressive with your hands and body. When your coworkers are talking, nod along to show that you follow. You may feel phony, but you’re actually signaling that you’re invested in the conversation.

*Bonus: Your teammates can tell when you’re subtly texting off-screen.

8. Invest in Noise-canceling

Speaking of video calls, go ahead and purchase a pair of noise-canceling headphones with a noise-canceling microphone. Don’t cheap out. You don’t want to be sitting there with one hand cupping your ear and the other shielding your mic. You’ll come to dread meetings and find yourself freaking out over the most imperceptible sounds. Plus, there’s nothing worse than seeing your teammates wince every time your dog barks in the background.

9. Define Your Availability

Last but not least, define your daily availability with your team. You may reside in the same city, but the reality is you’ll follow different schedules. Be upfront if you plan to block out times for food, focus, or family. Your team will appreciate the transparency, and you’ll feel more freedom to enjoy your breaks.

Embrace the Benefits of Remote Design Work

As designers, we have the unique privilege of pursuit. We chase problems to solutions and push details to perfection. Inside the confines of our carefully manicured pixel gardens, we have authority. When we leave, it evaporates. There’s much we don’t know about our current crisis–even less we can control. What we do have is a choice to remain level-headed and make the most of our resources.

Make no mistake, they are remarkable resources. We have instant connectivity, globally. We have advanced design tools and unprecedented access to information. We have the ability to work from the comfort (and relative safety) of our own homes.

Remote work isn’t a novelty, it’s the natural progression of our tech-driven world. Whether it lasts for a season or becomes your team’s permanent mode of operation, make the most of it, learn from it, enjoy it.

And stay safe out there.

Micah Bowers
Correspondent for
Micah Bowers is a correspondent for and lead editor of the Toptal Design Blog. He uses brand design and illustration to stir a desire for change that is helpful, hopeful, human.