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My Unusual Work Life

office.jpgI'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.

Final Thoughts
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!

Reader Comments (17)

An interesting read. Thanks for sharing the information. You have mastered the ability to stay at home and work, and actually working!
April 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterRT

I like the picture of your office, I like the clock reference for USA/EU time, good to know from the ols European people.

My best regards
April 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterRoberto Cruz
Thanks RT! I wouldn't say I have mastered it, but I feel good about my progress in getting more adept at working from home. It's a constant challenge, but you try and learn all the time and stay honest about where you might need to improve. But I think that's a great way to live anyway.

Yes Roberto, you see my twin clocks -- they come in very handy to be aware of deadlines and times -- I used those all the time!

However. I must admit that my office is not always so clean and tidy. :-)
April 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Hello Mike,Great article about your work regime, I really enjoyed reading it and I can easily identify with a lot of what you mention here.

I recently (Feb 05) left working in a major local Agency to work from home as a freelance desig/web designer and I know that the isolation is a fairly major issue for most folks. The various means of communication afforded by the web have made a huge difference to remote working and it does help bring a 'social' aspect of sorts to those who work from home. I find this also extends to my handheld (Treo 600) and it too plays its part in keeping me in the loop when on the road.

I must say that although these isolation issues do exist the 'buzz' of being my own boss and running my business far outweighs the occassional inconveniences of my new regime - and I get the impression you have a similar outlook.

Bear me in mind for your 'Remote Workers' network if you get the time to dwell on it further. I have a good article about virtual teams that a colleague mentioned to me, if I can locate it I'll send tio to you.

And... is that a G3 beize box Mac there?? ;-)

BTW I recently splashed out and upgraded my Mac G4 to 2Gb of RAM (double what I had) the speed bump is amazing, so don't wait, fill all thise RAM slots, you know it makes sense!

April 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterDavymac
I think that remote working is actually a range of options. My wife is a freelance translator and works much the same way you do. I drag work home from my office in order to meet my targets. Both of us deal with people in different time zones as well.

My wife does experience a certain degree of social exclusion due to her work. I do not. I'd like a lot more, in fact.

Thanks for your post.
April 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterTom Fuller
Nice to know about your work-life Mike.Cheers and greetings to the family.
April 24, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJesus
Hi Mike,

What an interesting post. I'm an office worker, but have long been interested in being a home worker, should the opportunity arise, so it's been interesting to read about your experiences. My father-in-law is a home worker too, and what you say about the loneliness of home working, and the need to keep to a schedule and make sure you get out and about, is very similar to his own experiences I think. Thanks again for sharing this.
April 24, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterNeal
Great article, Mike! My father is teleworker, too (German Mac magazine) and I will forward this article to him...

Nice greetings,

- Lo
April 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLo Szabo
Great Article Mike,

I am currently looking to move towards how you work. Now all I have to do is find the job ;). I always find it interesting how people work.

I currently work at a chemical facility as the sole Electrical engineer. I am in charge of the Electrical power system that supplies power to the process units. Our electric bill is roughly $1 Million US a month :). I spend roughly 60% of my time in my office, and the other 40% in the field, cross checking drawings to the physical installations or trouble-shooting problems. It leaves me physically drained, as I actually need at least one more engineer.

I'm looking for a change because I am expecting my first child, a son, in a little less than a month. I would love to be able to work at home. :)
April 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Johnson
I've also found it helpful to visit with other homeworkers in the area.

It will be interesting to see the long-term effect of telecommuting on urban development patterns in the United States. There have been many false starts with telework, but I think it's finally beginning to catch on as more people get tired of commuting and more work can be done remotely.
April 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph LeBlanc
Davy: Thanks for the note on your situation. I can't really justify a Treo because my work days see me here at the home office most of the time. So, for me a Palm and basic phone suffice. But I can see the advantage of a Treo for more mobile folks.

As for the Mac in the pic -- that's a 7200/75, so it's almost not worth souping up actually. Mainly it burns CDs when I need it to. :-)

Tom: yes, it seems remote working does indeed offer a wide range of social levels of interaction, depending upon the position I suppose. It should be interesting to see as remote working increases, if there will be organizations arising to help connect remote workers together.

Neal: thanks for the note. Good to hear your dad verifies what I've experienced here! I do think as with everything there's a tradeoff you make, and for me overall, I like this kind of lifestyle. I need to improve the social interaction, but I feel what I have in place really isn't bad -- but it took a while to establish. I suspect having to 'establish' that may not be the right cup of tea for some folks, while it works better for others.

Lo: I'd love to hear your father's comments on this article and hear his own experiences and tips.

Alex: Thanks for the kind words! I hope you are able to find a position you love as much as I love my own spot here; even thinking towards that goal is a good place to begin. I'd suggest checking out Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink and Brand You by Tom Peters to get started.

Joseph: I'm leaning toward locating some other home workers myself. If you have any suggestions as to where to start, please send them along! Meetup maybe?

I too am interested in seeing how remote working and free agency effect the future of how neighborhoods and other things change. Rising gas prices certainly will have their impact on increasing remote workers, especially now that there are so many communications optins available. should be an interesting 10-20 years ahead, that's for sure! :-)

Thanks everyone for your comments! Please feel free to leave more if you like, I love the dialogue here.

April 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Interesting post, lots of good advice; thanks!

Coming to this about six months late, but having been around telecommuting a bit and wanting to get into it more, what sort of interpersonal conflicts have you run into and how have you resolved them?

I ask because I've seen harmless attempts at humor or sarcasm get misinterpreted and the whole thing snowball.
September 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Albury
Hi Mike:Looks like I am the latest arrival to your posts. I was very impressed with your candid insights and information about what has worked for you as a remote worker. This especially interests me because next year I want to work from home as well (doesn't everyone!). Two colleagues who live remote to this agency location are already doing that, so there is hope!

I have spent the last XX years doing consulting (contracting) at various clientlocations and since I live in the Baltimore/Washington DC corridor, there is always a hassle with the commute.

Although I am eager to begin (and I already have a home office with a high speed connection and a door I can close) I think the isolation might bother me. I have been talking about this with another web colleague in Vancouver because he has done remote work for years.

As for setting up a contact group for remote workers, in the last five years I have participated in a listserv on YAHOO that allows one to register and when an email is sent the listserv software sends it on to each member of the listserv. This worked very well for a diverse group of professional/technical folks who sometimes met in person maybe twice a month.(We were able to meet at a local public library that charged us nothing for the room). Our purpose was to network for career opportunities, share contacts and technical subject matter. The rules were based on good netiquette, and no discussions were allowed about topics unrelated to our fields which of course removed discussion of those touchy areas (eg.:religion, race, or politics) that can really put some folks off, as Richard indicates.

If you use meetup, that makes me believe that you want to be in contact with more local remote workers.

Whichever you decide to form, if you do, I would be really interested in participating.

I referred the two open jobs on your company website to a friend who is originally from Spain.Maybe he will try it!

For those who might want to look for freelance work online, the site still has some opportunities listed.

(BTW I came to your website from the links about moleskine journals and notebooks).

November 23, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCarol
Carol, thanks for the note. I know I've already replied privately a while back but wanted to publicly say thanks for your comments in November. :-)
December 29, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
When you say corporate identity is important to you, what do you mean? Is it a political thing? Or do you mean that any company needs to project an identifiable image which can be replicated and refined to attract customers?


Mike H
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike H
Mike, the latter. I think a good corporate identity that portrays a business just reinforces the products or services they offer.

Of course you have to have a good product too, because a great identity for a product or service that is bad might initially look good, but cannot uphold the company.
January 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Wow. What an interesting story. I absolutely envy you. Your boss is a great friend in pushing you towards the career change. You are brave for making the leap. I would love to have some kind of job doing anything on my Mac, but need to go back to school as I am also a generalist, master of nothing! I dabble in photography and some design. Only thing that may bother me is the loneliness of not having coworkers at times. I would just pick up an apple macbook pro and go to any coffee shop with WiFi and talk to people while I worked if I got too lonely. There really should be a website for people who want to do this sort of thing. Maybe a networking and friendship weblog of "at-home computer career people". What do you all think?
March 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLainey

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