I'm at the local Caribou Coffee early in the morning, wrapping up a brief chat between a client in Pennsylvania and a friend in Manchester UK, but that's not unusual. In fact, most of my work day is spent on design and web projects for clients and colleagues in Europe and the US, and it's been that way for nearly 7 years.
I work for MakaluMedia, an engineering, web and design services firm with offices and colleagues in Germany, Spain, Ireland, France and the USA (me). I work from my Milwaukee, Wisconsin home office, collaborating remotely with clients and colleagues around the world.
I have an unusual work life, to say the least.
Recent conversations with friends put the idea into my head to document my story and the unique work situation I operate under at MakaluMedia, because whenever I share my story with others, they're quite interested and often amazed. So, here goes.
It all began with Matt, a friend living in Germany whom I met on a Powerbook users mailing list in 1994. I'd purchased a Powerboook Duo 230 in 1993, and found this early online community of Powerbook users friendly and very helpful. In fact, one of my very best friends, Andy, came to me through this mailing list.
I ended up helping Matt with some print design projects on which we both really enjoyed working together. Then I met Matt in person on a 1995 trip to Germany. At the time, Matt worked as an engineer for the European Space Agency, but had a deep interest in the Internet which he pursued in his off time.
Around 1997 Matt had decided to start his own web design and engineering firm, and began lobbying me to join as his first colleague and designer. I was quite interested in the idea, being very interested in the web myself. I'd been doing print design for 7+ years by then, and had started experimenting with website design and construction both personally and professionally. But I wasn't quite ready yet.
Matt kept up the subtle pressure as his business went from a part-time to full-time. My reasons for waiting eventually wore down. My interest in the web and web design only increased. So, In mid-1998 I decided to take the leap from print to web design and join Matt's new firm. I figured it was a no-lose situation.
I was single, very interested in the web and I wanted to do something unique, challenging and fun. I figured that if this gig didn't work out, I could always go back to print design. But if the gig did work out, I'd have the opportunity to explore new work and maybe even invent ways of working. Looking back, it's amazing to realize I'm nearing my 7 year anniversary working for Matt and MakaluMedia!
The Big Shift
Moving from a design office in the trendy Third Ward of Milwaukee, to a home office was a pretty significant on many levels. I switched from a 20 minute commute downtown, working with 8 other colleagues in an office, to the second bedroom of my upper flat. My new work colleagues became Snickers the cat, dust bunnies, the mailman and the occasional FedEx courier.
As with any work environment change there are always tradeoffs. I gained freedom in my work attire, work schedule and reduced my commute to 15 seconds, yet I lost the creative office environment, design colleagues, and space in a hip building in a happening part of Milwaukee. Probably the hardest of the tradeoffs for me is working alone, though this also did wonders for my focus.
Work-wise I moved from about 80% print, 10% web and 10% Mac systems administration at my old design position to 85% web, 10% print and 5% systems management at the new position with MakaluMedia. This suited me, as I love working on web-oriented projects.
Moving from mainly a print orientation to web orientation I was forced me to adapt to new things, such as hand-coded HTML and CSS in a text editor, building web graphics with Macromedia Fireworks and Photoshop and learning how to hack my way around PHP code. Great thing is, I've not lost my love for corporate identity or print work, and I continue to do both.
I also gained new opportunities to travel to our main office in Germany, which I enjoyed. In fact, I need to think about my business trips to Europe, because they've all since blurred together. Since 2001 I haven't been back, because the need for my physical presence became much less critical on projects. Now all of my work and communications can be conducted via email, chat, voice or video.
New Disciplines and Freedoms
I found a few things helped me with my big shift, particularly setting a daily routine similar to my workday at the design firm. I'd have breakfast, brew coffee, commute to the office (all 15 seconds of it) and then start work at 8:30. I always take an hour lunch and quit at 5:30/6 pm each day. Over the years I've found that discipline in maintaining a regular start, end and lunch time helps keep me on track. Once and a while I'll vary my schedule, though I find I'm most productive when my normal routine is maintained.
Having a relatively flexible schedule meant that I could take a little longer break for lunch or sneak in an errand here or there, then stay later or put in that extra time in the evening or the next day. Time freedom is especially attractive now that I'm married and have a young son. It allows time with Gail and Nathan if I like, to relieve Gail when Nathan is getting on her nerves or for a mental break of my own.
I found it was also important to establish a space for work, which has been either a spare room, or currently a basement office. I think for me it's important to have these two "bases" from which to work — a general time frame and a work space. I can always adapt hours based on the day or the workspace (a café for instance) but I think having the structure of a time and space is critical for me to work most effectively.
Lonliness of Remote Work
Probably the most difficult aspect of working remotely is the loneliness. This was more of an issue early in my remote days, because now IM chat, Skype and iChat voice/video chats are pretty commonplace with the advent of broadband net access. I've also built a group of net-based friends, colleagues and clients with whom I can take a short social break with. I've found that taking short social breaks are good for me, so long as I keep them brief.
As a social person, I also sought out meetings with friends locally, just to get out of the house from time to time. These 'reality checks' are still a critical part of keeping sane in a remote-working environment. IMs and voice chats are good, but for me, personal interaction is also necessary to fulfill the need to escape occasionally and have some face-time.
I have a pretty good balance of social interaction with both net-based and local friends after years of living the remote life and building a network of contacts. However, I've considered searching out or even starting a group for remote workers, either virtually or locally. I figure there must be many other people working in the same way I do, in need of social interaction. I'm still brewing on this one.
More About the Work
Besides the remote part of my work situation, I think the unique nature of the firm I work for is worth going into detail on. A chunk of our clients and my colleagues are European, which for me means 7 hours ahead of my time zone. I arrive at work at about 3:30 Central European Time, as my colleagues are finishing up their workdays. However, this time differential has advantages in that I can work a normal workday (8:30 to 5:30) and provide our clients service from 3:30 well past midnight in their time zone.
While the majority of the Makalu staff are based in Germany, several of my colleagues are remote workers, with 3 in Spain, 1 in Ireland and 1 in France, so we have a pretty distributed company. This creates challenges for us, primarily in the form of communications. We work mainly via email and our secure company IRC server, though we do chat via AIM. Our group also makes use of Skype/iChat AV for voice or video conferences when needed.
My Work Roles
I'm the design director for MakaluMedia, so it's my job to focus on the overall design of our work and internal/external documentation. I'm mainly focused on the design of our sites and web applications with the ability to build static sites and hack a bit of PHP and flash, but mainly I leave the heavy-duty programming tasks to our engineering specialists.
I'm also keen about corporate identity and Mac icon work, so I also pursue those with our clients. My work is quite broad and varied, which suits my "generalist" skills. I like having many different projects happening at once: a new website, a website redesign, several corporate identity projects, setting up a weblog for a client and updating internal company documents.
I've also been interested in blogging and blog design for the past 2 years, which has become a service area and lead generator for MakaluMedia. We've helped setup several blogs for clients but better yet, blogging has directly led to our 4 most recent clients. Pretty cool when an area you love to explore can also provide opportunities and growth.
I hope my story has been an interesting one for you to read. I'm so used to how I work that it seems "normal" for me now, so it's hard to know how unusual my story really is. Maybe my work life really isn't so unusual after all?
I'm fortunate to work in the way I do and for the company I'm employed by. I enjoy varied and interesting projects, great colleagues and clients, work flexibility, helping others and the challenges of maintaining discipline with nobody looking over my shoulder.
In the end, working remotely all of these years has helped me understand that the power to achieve things at work lies inside of me — not in a cool office space or trendy part of town, or even the kind of computer I use. It's in how creativity is drawn up by colleagues, clients and myself and it's about the process of working as well as achieving good results.
If you're a remote worker or free agent, please leave your comments on your work life and ways you've dealt with the issues of working alone. I'd love to hear them!