When my alarm went off this morning, at it’s usual time, it was still dark outside. Summer is officially over. (Long over, I know, but I’m tenacious.) This past winter saw an incredible amount of snow in NYC. My usual habit is, if there’s snow on the ground, I’ll walk one block. I don’t quite know if it’s sad or awesome that the rule doesn’t hinder me much (there’s three delis, 15+ restaurants, at least 5 bars, great coffee, a wine shop, and a hardware store all in that radius). I feel lucky to have so much convenience, but sometimes, claustrophobia starts to kick in.
For over 3 years, I’ve done my work as a (full-time, in-house) UX person remotely. Most of the folks I work with are somewhere in California, but the rest are all over the world—Germany, Bangalore, or scattered throughout the US. Whenever I tell someone I work remotely, they squeal with excitement. I’m living their dream! I’m lucky to have a great bunch of teammates that have ninja-level skills in remote collaboration. I’ve learned a lot from them, but the adjustment wasn’t easy, and some thing are definitely harder than others.
I don’t have a hard time getting started working, but I do have a hard time stopping—especially to take a shower or exercise in the morning. I’ve managed to make the early morning shower non-negotiable, and I love heading to the gym in the morning—I get out of the house, and come back in to start my day. I’ve done other little morning routines in the past, such as leaving the house to get a cup of coffee and coming back, or leaving the house at the end of the day to go to the gym then, as a signal to start or end my day.
Mix it up
Now, I live in a small NYC apartment, so perhaps this isn’t a universal problem, but when I don’t get a change of scenery from time to time, the walls start to close in. I’m an expert on local coffeeshops, I’ve rented co-working desk space, and I try to eat lunch completely out from time to time. I make sure my desk is an organized, attractive place to spend time when I’m there. I’m a junkie for Meetup groups, both UX-focused, but also just neighborhood happy hours. They give me a way to (kinda) replace the after-hour drink that’s a bonus of working in the office. I even met a fellow remote worker in my neighborhood this way! We chat work at the coffeeshop together and have been known to haul ourselves to lunchtime yoga.
What you think is obnoxious, really isn’t — it’s probably just enough
I think this is true for a UX person in general, but over-communicating is really important here. Say it, say it again, then say you’ve said it. It’s going to be your job to check in with people, ask them what’s going on, and offer your help. Yes, it’s not fair that they think you can read their mind, but just suck it up here. You need to re-frame your job from, "Maker of Pictures" to "Master Communicator Who Also Communicates in Pictures."
Focus on sustaining and cultivating relationships
This is super-hard for me, because I am a crazy efficiency freak. So, in my imagination, I should be to heads-down work all day and be a super-productive design all-star. Of course, by that point I may have gotten out of sync with others, or just merely am not putting in the time to develop the kind of relationships needed to collaborate with others on a creative team. I cringe at reaching out to people just to say hi, or using time at the beginning of meeting asking about plans for the weekend, because I respect their time. But, when I think about it, some of the people I value most are those who take the time to reach out to me in a person way, even though I’m not physically there. And long-term, these relationships make you a more efficient designer.
Ok, this is hard. This is why they built all those open-plan offices, right? You really have to work through the discomfort with someone on remote creative collaboration. Once you’ve broken through and get them thinking and reacting as comfortably as they might in front of a whiteboard, you can leverage that relationship. It’s definitely a complicated dance that taxes your leadership and facilitation skills. You need to find a way to motivate that person to be creative with you, without being pushy or scaring them away. Get comfortable with silence, which can seem more awkward on the phone or online call. Eventually your collaboration partner will start to fill the space with ideas. Screen-sharing is incredibly helpful, as you can transcribe ideas for your partner with your design tool of choice. If your partner is willing, have them drawn something on scrap paper and email you a photo or hold it up to their webcam. Basically, be flexible, be scrappy, and learn to work with ambiguity and imperfection. In design and life.