Design Process
7 minute read

Design Talks: Remote Working as a Digital Nomad Freelance Designer

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

“Digital nomads are people who choose to embrace a location-independent, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely, anywhere in the world.” –Digital Nomadism, a Rising Trend, MBO Partners

Research finds that 4.8 million independent workers currently describe themselves as digital nomads, and according to Gallup, 43 percent of Americans work at least some of the time remotely, and of these, those who work remotely 4-5 days per week increased from 24 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2017.

The promise of the freedom and flexibility offered by living, what by many accounts is the sweet life of a digital nomad holds a powerful allure. But as rewarding as digital nomadism may be for those who have taken the step, the lifestyle presents particular challenges.

Some freelance designers need the comfort of their home office to work efficiently. Others may find challenges with team or client communication when not working face to face. Many who are transitioning from the traditional office setting may be skeptical of the digital nomad/remote work lifestyle, while others, like Toptal Design Lead Lubos Volkov, have been working their entire career remotely. Toptal designer Kent Mundle chats with Lubos to learn his tips and strategies for balancing life, work and the pleasure of a remote setting.

Freelance designer digital nomad remote working at a pool.

Kent Mundle: For some people, maintaining productivity when working remotely isn’t an issue. Rather, trying not to work too much is the greater challenge. Do you find it more difficult balancing productivity and fun working remotely?

Lubos Volkov: You definitely need to have a strength of purpose when working remotely. Without a regular schedule and the consistency of going to an office every day to manage your time, it’s up to you to hold yourself accountable. It’s particularly important for remote workers to find a balance between work and play—for me, setting daily goals that I make every effort to accomplish helps.

I try to balance these four things. First: work goals. Second: personal errands or tasks. Three: personal projects. Four covers other options if there’s time in the day. If I complete one work task, then I try to follow it with a personal task.

Kent: Does this regimen change at all when traveling, rather than when you are working from home?

Lubos: Occasionally when traveling (also sometimes working from home), I may have an unproductive couple of hours where it feels as if I’m just staring at the screen. But rather than forcing it, I give myself permission to take a break—go out and explore. I usually come back with a renewed focus, able to finish the task. If you’re not being productive, there’s no sense chaining yourself to your workstation. You may as well get outside for a bit, then get back to work when you’re ready to be more efficient.

Nevertheless, if you decide to go out, it’s very important to remain accessible in case you are needed. When traveling, make sure you have an extra SIM card, and check Slack every now and then in case something needs immediate attention. But try not to compromise your “away” time by spending most of it on your phone.

Freelance design tips.

You definitely need to have a strength of purpose when working remotely.

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

Lubos: It definitely happened in the beginning. It’s easier to manage now that I am working with a team.

Kent: 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?

Lubos: Not necessarily. Although I think planning is important, I don’t really like a routine lifestyle. But if I don’t plan, I’m less efficient, and that means spending more time in the office. That’s not how I want to spend my life.

I try to make every day different. By planning, I encourage myself to push the limits and to do something new every day. This could mean testing a new design, or going out and taking some cool photographs.

Digital nomad lifestyle freelance designer working at the cafe.

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

Lubos: I’ve actually never really worked in an office. Working remotely has always felt more natural to me because you can choose your timeframe and have your freedom—and freedom is really important to me.

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

Lubos: I prefer a calm environment. And I like to work with a dual screen—an iMac and Macbook, I find going light with the Macbook a bit restrictive—so I tend to work from home when I’m in my own country.

When I travel, I’ll hit the cafes when exploring, but I typically don’t work from them. The Airbnb rental is a better choice for me than a crowded public space.

Digital nomad working remotely.

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

Lubos: I can understand why this could be a problem. It hasn’t really been for me because it’s the way I’ve always worked. I find it helps to make sure I have a few video calls scheduled during the week.

It’s solitary, but not necessarily isolating. But you have to have the right mindset to be a remote worker for sure.

I’ve also met everyone on my team in person. We’ve done retreats and that sort of thing.

We found the most efficient way to produce a product is to work on it fully remotely to start, then after a period of time meet somewhere in the world to brainstorm, polish the details, recharge and motivate the team.

You should manage these meetups based on the product state. Ideally, to be effective.you should do this every three to four months for two weeks max—any longer and you can lose momentum.

Freelance designer remote-working digital nomad setup.

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

Lubos: It really depends, but for the most part I prefer to keep trips short—something around two weeks—and then get back home where I can be more focused. That being said,

traveling to a single location and living there for a length of time—say a month—and only exploring on weekends is also a good option. The critical thing is to have a schedule or plan.

Also, streamline your travel planning by using services like Nomadlist to find a friendly location with good prices and fast internet, and Google Flights for the best flight deals. For accommodation, I prefer Airbnb, because it’s always nice to feel a part of the city you are visiting—though, in some expensive cities, the hotels can often be less expensive.

I try to make every day different - whether that's trying a new design, or going out and exploring.

I prefer to travel light if I can, which means no dual screen, as I will usually only have my Macbook with me. I hate the idea of lugging around a huge suitcase, so I only pack the essentials—my Macbook, charger, and a few pieces of clothing.

Digital nomad working on the beach.

Know the Score…

Being a digital nomad is an extremely rewarding experience - so long as you are realistic about your expectations and can balance responsibility with freedom.

Alexandra Jimenez, Editor-in-Chief, Travel Fashion Girl

Digital nomadism is definitely on the rise and looking toward a healthy future. Currently, 4.8 million independent US workers describe themselves as digital nomads, and 17 million aspire to eventually be able to do the same. But the nomadic life is not for everyone, and along with its many benefits, brings challenges that should be carefully examined before stepping out on the road.

For many, remote work is the ideal opportunity—no commute, a flexible working environment, and the freedom to work from any location as long as there is access to a robust internet connection. For this flexibility and freedom, and for the promise of adventure, many digital nomads are willing to accept a lower salary than they may have received working in an office in a major city because in many countries their dollars, pounds, and euros can go much further.

It takes discipline, determination, and focus to work successfully in remote locations as a freelance designer. As the term implies, digital nomads are self-motivated. They need to be. As a digital nomad, you are responsible for your success and must answer to your failures. You must be able to stay calm, cool, and collected in a crisis—and it’s inevitable you will be faced with a few. At times it can be lonely, there are visa hassles, fluctuating timezones, infrastructure challenges, capricious weather, and unpredictable financial security.

But despite these cons, freelance designers/digital nomads living the life strongly attest to the pros, and express without reservation that they are happier, more resilient, more productive, and with the freedom to reinvent themselves that travel offers, find inspiration and heightened creativity.

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

What is a remote designer?

The main thing that sets a remote freelance designer apart from other designers is that they don’t work from a central office. They might work from home, a cafe or co-working space, or while traveling. Some are freelance designers, while others work as employees.

Can UX designers work remotely?

The biggest challenge for UX designers working remotely is connecting with users. But with all of the available online tools for connecting remotely (including video conferencing, chat, and remote testing tools), it’s entirely possible for UX designers to work from anywhere while still interacting with users.

How do you become a digital nomad and travel the world?

The first step to becoming a digital nomad is to find work you can do remotely, whether it’s owning your own business, freelancing, or as an employee. From there, learning tools that allow for remote communication and work is the next step. Finally, develop a schedule that allows for both work and travel.

How much do digital nomads earn?

How much a digital nomad earns depends on the type of work they’re doing. Digital nomads should research standard salary ranges for their position. Remote jobs sometimes pay better than non-remote jobs in smaller cities, due to the need to compete for the best talent with companies based in more expensive areas.

What skills do I need to be a digital nomad?

Beyond job-specific skills, freelance designer/digital nomads need to familiarize themselves with the remote tools used by the companies they work with. In addition, digital nomads need excellent communication and time management skills, and the ability to self-motivate.