Not all of us are fortunate enough to live in Silicon Valley where there are lots of opportunities to work as user experience practitioners in a wide variety of domains. Some of us live in more remote places and can’t move to hot beds of UX for personal reasons. I have been working remotely from Maine since 2008. I started as an in-house designer for H&R Block, and then became a remote freelancer and remote employee of an agency where most other employees are onsite. The growth of remote work has made it possible to overcome the location requirement for a lot of positions, and, as a result, many people who have traditionally worked exclusively in an office work remotely at least one day a week because of the benefits.
Remote Work Models
I conducted a survey of 62 UX professionals, mostly researchers and designers, who work remotely and interviewed nine of them to gain additional depth on their responses (see Figure 2).
Scenario 1: Convert to Remote
Jacinda has been working for a company in Chicago, IL, as a user researcher for the last 10 years. She recently had kids and has decided to move back to rural Iowa to be near her parents. Her manager, Betty, has two choices: She can let Jacinda go or she can let her work remotely. Jacinda’s job often involves working with her project team—half of whom are in the Austin, TX, office—so she’s often on conference calls anyway. Most of the user research they have been conducting these days is also done remotely, so Jacinda spends a good deal of her time at her desk. If Betty lets Jacinda go, she would have to hire a new employee and invest the time and money required to find a replacement and get them up to speed. Given Jacinda’s domain knowledge, it would take a lot of resources to find someone who is up to her level. The company has a few people who currently work remotely (they were also in-office employees before they moved and became remote), but doesn’t have a formal policy. Betty decides to try letting Jacinda work remotely and see how it goes.
Jacinda is excited that she will be able to keep her job because there are few opportunities near her hometown and she likes her company. She is also a morning person, so she is excited to know that she will have the opportunity to hit the ground running during her most productive time of the day. When she moves into her new house, she sets up a dedicated office with all the tools she needs. As she settles into a groove, she finds that she can get more done at home because she does not have people stopping by to chat. When she gets lonely, she Skypes with her old work friends with whom she has already built relationships.
Both Jacinda and Betty are happy with the way the situation has turned out. Jacinda is super happy and loyal to her company, and Betty gets to keep one of her best employees.
Scenario 2: Occasional Remote
Gordon is a UX designer and his company has a policy that allows everyone to work from home one day a week and other times as needed. He has a one-hour commute each way, so he is able to save a significant amount of time on the days he works remotely. Gordon’s office is an open concept and he finds that he gets distracted by all the noise. So he saves focus-intensive tasks for his work-from-home day and may schedule additional days if he doesn’t have meetings and needs to get a focused task done. While he enjoys going into the office for the social aspect and for weekly design studios with his whole office team, he definitely gets more done at home. This policy also allows him to do things like schedule doctor’s appointments with minimal interruption to work productivity, which used to take a huge amount of time because of the double commute.
Scenario 3: Looking for Remote
Darryl’s wife was relocated to the middle of nowhere. Darryl is a UX generalist—he does both design and research—and there are no companies near him with UX groups. He wanted to stay with his previous employer, but they have a policy against working remotely. His manager was sorry to see Darryl go because he is talented, but his hands were tied. Darryl has been interviewing for remote jobs and some not explicitly labeled as remote (he looks at employee reviews on Glassdoor to see if he can get a sense for whether the company is remote-friendly.) As he interviews, he has found that some companies do all their interviewing via phone and video conferencing, while some want him to travel to the office.
Darryl finds a job with a company that is in another UX desert that could not find a suitable candidate nearby. When he starts his new job, he goes to the site for a week to get to know the people he will be working with. He then plans to go in every couple of months to help build working relationships with his new teammates. The company hired him because he had the right skill set for the job and they were having trouble finding someone who fit the bill locally.
Scenario 4: Remote Consultant
Cindy is a freelance UX researcher. She likes the flexibility that comes with working for different clients on different projects, but seldom goes into her clients’ offices. She lives in a big city, but frequently finds clients in other locations because she prefers to work from home. She dislikes office politics and knows she gets more done without having to deal with them. The clients she finds are looking for people with her particular skill set and are willing to let her work remotely. She also likes to travel to conduct research, so it does not really matter where she is.
Why Work Remotely?
People who decide to work remotely do so for a number of reasons. The most cited in the survey were family, productivity, traffic, and work/life balance. For those who only work remotely occasionally, they most often cited productivity, traffic, weather, and personal appointments (for example, waiting for the cable company).
“I don’t get distracted by people walking by or office politics. I don’t waste time getting ready for work or commuting.” —Alexis Morris
Working remotely gets a bad rap because those who don’t do it think there are too many distractions and if you can’t see the person, they must not be as productive, right? However, many of the people I talked with said they like working remotely because they are actually more productive than when they are in the office. The problem with the assumption that working remotely leads to less productivity is that it assumes everyone has the same personality and work style.
Some people need to be away from people to be productive and working from home affords that. When these type of people have to work amid open office concepts, working from home can provide an environment for focus that is just not possible in the office.
For others less disciplined in separating work and home, going into the office each day is probably more conducive to productivity unless they can create a separate work space in the home and “pretend” they are going into an office when the work day begins.
Tasks also make a difference. Solo tasks that require a lot of focus are well suited to remote working. Tasks that require collaboration are better suited to an office. The biggest task that people said they still have issues with doing remotely is white boarding and design studios where teammates give feedback on each other’s work. There are a few tools that are available to help with this, though (see Tools section).
Everyone I talked with said that the occasional technical issues that prevent people from being productive away from the office are far outweighed by the benefits of being able to focus on tasks that require it.
“I have found that using video (Skype, Google Hangouts, WebEx with cameras on) really helps in terms of getting to know people, even if I’m not meeting them in person. And having some face-to-face meetings throughout the year is really helpful, too, so that the relationships are not solely remote.” —Rachel Kern
Another topic that causes some people to think that working remotely isn’t effective is not knowing whether the person is working or how to reach them.
The people I talked with had a variety of techniques for maintaining a presence with their coworkers. One person stays on Skype all day long. She and her husband both work remotely for the same company and utilize Skype continually. Another keeps Skype audio on while collaborating on a project with a teammate to mimic sitting at neighboring desks so they can ask each other questions as they come up.
One of the best ways to build relationships with people you’ll be working remotely with is to have an in-person kick-off at the beginning of a project. This ensures you have met everyone and have a baseline understanding of personalities and a ground to build from. For ongoing relationship maintenance, some people said they schedule daily chats or make small talk during the ramp-up time on conference calls.
It can actually be easier when everyone is remote than if only one or two people are. If there are only a handful of remote people, it is easy for the office people to forget you exist. Large meetings can be problematic when there are a lot of people in the room who are not all near the phone.
A few people also mentioned missing out on office social events like chili cook-offs. I have participated in virtual happy hours and gift swaps over Google Hangouts that can help remote people feel more like they are part of the social scene in the office.
Getting the right balance of communication about status can be tricky. One of the benefits of working remotely is flexibility in schedule and place, but feeling the need to over communicate presence can make you feel chained to your desk. One interviewee had a good way of putting it: If you wouldn’t feel the need to tell someone over the cube wall what you’re doing (for example, going to the restroom), you probably don’t need to communicate it to the team when you are remote.
Time zones were one of the most often cited issues. The time difference can be both a good and a bad thing. As long as there are at least a couple of overlap hours, meetings can happen and the staggered work hours can be beneficial. When I was working with an offshore team in India, I designed during the day, then they built overnight, and I had the following day to turn around feedback and iterate on the design. We were never waiting for each other to finish our work. The same can be true of people who are working staggered or flexible hours in the same time zone. You don’t have to be working at the same time to maximize productivity.
“If you don’t have to hire for just particular locations, then you are free to find the best people and put them on a project no matter where they are located. You can get the best talent and put together the best team for a project.” —Susan Weinschenk
As we learned in some of the cases described above, allowing people to work remotely is a great way to keep talent. Many of the people surveyed and interviewed started out working in an office and then decided to move away from the office for personal reasons. The employers let them stay on and work remotely because they did not want to lose the employee. Now the employees are extremely loyal to their companies because they feel trusted and are given the flexibility needed to work in a way that works for them.
Hiring remote people is also a good way to hire UX talent when you can’t find someone in your geographic location. It allows you to find the best person for your team or project because it doesn’t matter where they are. You can focus solely on skills and personality fit.
“I can spend the time wasted commuting sleeping that extra hour, which makes all the difference.” —Anonymous
Many people choose to work remotely for flexibility. While a few people said they felt they always had to be “on,” most of the people I talked with said they actually have more work/life balance working remotely than they had previously. The reduction in time spent commuting and the ability to work during your most productive time of the day allows for a better work/life balance than going into the office for a set eight-hour period.
Those who work remote all the time usually have a dedicated office. Those who only do it occasionally may work from the kitchen table or couch. Having a dedicated office helps to separate work and home.
Working remotely all the time can be isolating. To combat this, many attend meetups (like those found on Meetup.com) in their area for social interaction on professional topics. Some people go to a co-working space or coffee shop when they need a change of scenery.
The biggest impediment to remote work is corporate culture. Everyone I spoke with works for companies that have decided it is a worthwhile practice, but not every company is like that.
Corporate policies vary and those policies can also differ from manager to manager. Some may allow working remotely only one day a week or when it snows, but generally frown upon it all other times. Others may encourage their teams to be entirely remote. Whether a given employee is successful depends highly on the culture.
In some companies, a career can take a hit when you are no longer “visible” in the office. I know I would have been unable to advance to a managerial position in one company where I worked remotely due to their ingrained need for workers—particularly at the management level—to be seen at headquarters. It’s often a trade-off the employee has to make.
While most people cited using tools such as Skype, Slack, Lync/Skype for Business, GotoMeeting, WebEx and the like, below are some of the more innovative tools that people told me about.
Making It Work
Under the right conditions, working remotely can be good for both the employee and the company. Employees gain flexibility, productivity, and quality of life. Companies have the opportunity to find the best talent and gain employees that are extremely loyal. When a company makes a commitment to fostering an environment that encourages remote work, the challenges that come in the form of technical glitches and a lack of physical presence are minor and can easily be overcome with modern technologies. The consensus among those whom I spoke with is that the benefits of working remotely definitely outweigh the challenges. Have tips about working or hiring remotely to share? Let me know on Twitter @EfficientIxD.