Design Process
8 minute read

Design In A Remote Setting: A Toptal Design Talk

Luboš is Toptal's Lead Product Designer, and along with his team has led all design initiatives at Toptal since 2012.

Some designers require the comfortability of their home base office or studio in order to properly carry out their work. Others may find challenges in team or client communication when not working face to face. Many who are transitioning from the traditional office design setting may be skeptical of the remote work lifestyle. Whereas others have been working remotely for their entire careers, as with Toptal Design Lead Lubos Volkov. Thus, Toptal Technical Editor Kent Mundle chats with Lubos in order to learn his tips and strategies for balancing life, work and pleasure in a remote setting.

maintaining productivity isn't an issue when remote

Kent Mundle (KM): For some people, maintaining productivity when working remotely isn’t an issue. Rather, trying not to work too much is surprisingly the greater challenge. Do you find it more difficult to balance productivity or fun with remote work?

Lubos Volkov (LV): Well, first of all, you definitely need to be a strong individual when working remotely. Some people need to just go to the office and be given a proper schedule in order to manage themselves. This being said though, I agree it’s important to balance the work with exploring. Say if you go to some tropical location, and you want to make sure to get both done. What I make sure of every day is to set some goals or tasks that I need to accomplish. There are usually four things. First, are the work goals. Secondly, are personal errands or tasks. Third are the personal projects. Fourth is an optional set if there’s time in the day. So, everyday I try to balance these four things. Thus, if I complete one work task then I try to follow it up with a personal task.

KM: Does this regimen change at all when travelling, rather than just working remotely from home?

LV: Yeah, for sure. Often when travelling, or actually working from home sometimes as well, I might have an unproductive couple of hours where I feel as though I’m just staring at the screen. Rather than force it through I allow myself to get out and explore, then come back with the necessary energy or focus to finish the task. There’s no point in bossing yourself around and saying that everything work related has to happen first, especially if you’re not being productive. You might as well get outside for a bit then get back to work when you’re ready to be more efficient.

This being said, you should always try to be accessible while exploring though, in order to avoid any emergencies where you’re needed, but unable to get a hold of. When travelling, make sure you have the extra SIM card and check Slack every now and again, just in case something needs to be done immediately. Obviously though, don’t compromise the exploring time by spending the whole time on your phone. Just being accessible is important.

remote design work requires planning

You need to be a strong individual in order to work in a remote setting.

KM: Have you ever been caught in an emergency situation like this where being away from your workstation led to a difficult moment?

LV: I definitely allowed it to happen once in awhile in the beginning. It’s especially easier to manage now that there is a team working with me that can help in case of this though. So, for example once I was out exploring the city, and the request came in to change something in the production. I needed to find some kind of transport, rush to the apartment, do the work and send it off then wait for the project to be completed. Had I not had that SIM card with me though, it could have been even worse. I ended up hanging around most of that night until the project was entirely completed.

KM: So does your plan making imply that you’re someone who prefers patterns or routines in order to accomplish their desires in work and life?

LV: Well - not necessarily, although I think planning is important, I don’t really like a routine lifestyle. If I don’t plan, I’ll just be less efficient, and that means spending more time in the office. That’s not how I want to spend my life, nor working on the same thing over and over. I really try for every day to be different. So, by planning I can encourage myself to try to do new things every day, and really push the limits. This might mean trying new designs, or getting out and taking some cool pictures. Every single day of my life is different, depending on the task, so it’s not boring.

KM: Were you skeptical at all about remote work in the beginning?

LV: I can’t be skeptical because I’ve actually never really worked in an office. My first gig was when I was 19 and I was working for a Silicon Valley startup remotely. I haven’t worked in an office since. I had one interview for an office job and it was just so weird, the idea of all these people coming in at the same time. Working remotely has just always felt more natural to me because, you can choose your timeframe, and have your freedom. This freedom is really important to me. It’s the way that I feel work should be with the internet.

KM: Does this mean that you take advantage by often getting out of your office, or working away from home during the days? Or, do you find it difficult to work when not in your own office space?

LV: For my workflow, I prefer a calm environment. Where I’m from, I always work from home. Yeah, it’s best to have the dual screen set up, for me with the iMac and Macbook. This allows for my ultimate productivity. Otherwise, going light with the Macbook I find is a bit restriciting.

KM: Since you have always worked remotely, have you ever found work to be isolating socially?

LV: It hasn’t really been a problem for me because this has always been the way, but I can understand why this might be a problem. I guess how I handle this is to just ensure to have my few video calls during the week and I find that helps.

Sure throughout the days you are alone. There isn’t someone to chat with at the coffee machine. So, you have to have the right mindset to be a remote worker.

I’ve also met in person at some point with everyone on my team. We’ve done retreats and that sort of thing, and all of Toptal used to do them too. This has become more difficult as the company has grown though.

We’ve actually found out the most efficient way to produce something is to work fully remotely on the product, then after a period of time travel to one place together to brainstorm, polish every little detail, recharge, and motivate the team, and then everyone can move to a different location again. Ideally you should do this every 3/4 months to be effective, and you shouldn’t be together longer than 2 weeks, otherwise you will lose momentum. It’s all about timing. You should manage these meetups based on the product state.

Design in a remote setting.

The home office set up.

That being said, travelling and working is great when I can. So, often the airbnb apartment is a better choice for me than a crowded public space. If other people are moving around a ton, I can’t really focus. I’ll hit the cafes when exploring, but I can’t work from them. They’re just not as productive as your home environment.

The idea of all these people coming in at the same time…working in an office just never made sense to me.

KM: So, you find it perfectly normal to work remotely. But, what about working while travelling, is there a limit to how long you can sustain that for?

LV: It really depends, but for the most part I prefer to keep trips short. It’s pretty hard to be as productive because there’s so many more distractions. It’s best to just really enjoy the exploring and then get back to work as best I can. But, I suppose that’s up to everyone. As well, I’m often travelling with another, for example lately that would often be my girlfriend, so I feel bad working while she might want to be exploring. So I’d prefer to keep my travel to something like two weeks, and then get back home where I can be focused.

Design in a remote setting

Lubos sets up shop in Hong Kong.

This being said, travelling to a single location and living there for a little while and only really exploring on weekends is a good option too. As I mentioned before, the really critical thing is to keep some sort of schedule or plan.

As well, keeping streamlined with the services to organize travel makes me more efficient. When travelling obviously it’s about establishing the destination first, really just point and choose. That, or is good at helping to find something friendly with good prices and so on. For flights, Google Flights is what I usually use to find the best deal. For accommodation, I prefer Airbnb, because it’s nice to feel apart of the city always. That being said, in some expensive cities, the hotels can actually be less expensive.

I really try for every day to be different - whether it’s trying a new design or getting out and exploring.

I prefer to travel light if I can too, so then it’s doubly not as productive because I usually will only have my Macbook with me, rather than the usual dual screen set up. I only pack the essentials. I hate the idea of lugging around the huge suitcase. So, the essentials for me are Macbook, charger, couple clothing things, but then I really like cameras. Lately, I’ve even been taking a drone with me. That’s a bit hard, because they don’t let you take the batteries carry on.

KM: A drone? That seems intense! Is this mostly for personal projects?

LV: (laughs) Yeah, definitely when exploring it’s great to get creative in another way. It’s really important to never stop sharing. Whether it’s my professional work, personal projects or also stuff behind the scenes, meaning my videos of weekend adventures for example. People want to see your work, but also the real person behind it. The work is so much more interesting with the person behind it. What I always do before travelling is post on Twitter or some some social media that I will be travelling, and always there’s someone local who will want to grab a coffee or something. It’s great because wherever you go, whether it’s Budapest or San Francisco, you can meet some new people and learn about their lifestyle and work that they do. Now especially I’ll usually introduce them to Toptal too.