Working from Home: A Designer’s Guide

I just finished blow-drying my hair. Putting on makeup, and actually picking out an outfit. Including shoes! I might not leave my house today, but I’m ready for work.

Working from home can present any number of challenges. For most people who face a rushed morning followed by a slow and infuriating commute, working from home sounds like a dream. My friends get so jealous when they find out I work from home, and I know they have visions of me sitting around in pajamas all day, bingeing on Netflix and mowing through snacks. While this pretty much IS my evening routine, when it comes to 9 to 5 (or oftentimes more like 6 to 6), I’m all about business.

I’ve been working from home as a graphic and website designer for almost 8 years. I run a very busy and productive business so I’ve pretty much mastered the at home thing, and I’m really happy to share some of the tips I’ve learned along the way. Remote work is more and more common these days, but to be a successful remote or home worker, you have to have discipline.

For me, I have set work hours. While I don’t set an alarm, I automatically wake up around 6 a.m. Working from home (unless you are working remotely for a company with set hours) doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get up early. I’m a big believer in flex time, and I think that you should be able to work when you want and when you’re at your most productive. I know a lot of web designers who are most productive between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m., so if this is your jam, take advantage of it! For me, I happen to be at my best first thing in the morning (after coffee of course). But I get up every day like it’s a workday. I drink my coffee and check my email, and pretty much blow right into the day. I can get a lot done between 6 and 9 because I’m not interrupted by emails as much.

A really important thing I do is get dressed. I really feel strongly whether you’re a girl or a guy, that getting up, showering, shaving, and actually putting on clothes (real clothes, I don’t sit around in a suit all day, I just wear jeans (and yes I own like 20 pairs because that’s my wardrobe staple!)), but I actually do put on something that I would wear to a business casual office. I’m also a big believer in shoes. This may sound weird, but being showered and fully dressed with shoes on just makes me feel more productive. I already sometimes feel like I don’t have a “real job” even though I earn a solid income and have been in business for a number of years, and being fully dressed helps me feel more legit.

Opinions vary on this, but I actually do leave the tv on when I’m working, but only to news. Working from home can leave me feeling really disconnected and isolated, and having live news on (like CNN or BBC) lets me feel like I’m connected to the real world. I don’t find it distracting either, like I would if I were watching a show and I can’t mentally get past watching daytime television. Otherwise, I listen to music, or if I need to concentrate, silence (which you don’t get in an office).

“I’m a big believer in flex time, and I think that you should be able to work when you want and when you’re at your most productive.”

I’m also big on exercise. You don’t have to be an athlete, even just getting out for a brisk walk is important to clear your head. I usually wait till I get really mad at a client and then pound out a run (just kidding – sort of), but I do run every day, usually in the morning. This also helps with feeling less disconnected and it’s just good for you. Some people like to leave the house for lunch. I’m not a big daytime eater so this doesn’t interest me, but for some people, it works. In the past 6 months I’ve started playing tennis at lunchtime, but I’m not 100% on this. It’s good to break up the day, but on the other hand, when I’m in “the zone” leaving the house can be really distracting (and frankly, if you need to work a real 8 to 9 hour day, can eat up valuable time). But experts would probably agree that getting out of the house at some point during the workday is important. The other thing that I do is get out of the house at night. I have a pretty solid social life, so I try to do something in the evening – get a coffee, take a walk, hang out with friends, whatever. You don’t want to become a recluse. And speaking of friends, if you work from home it’s important to set boundaries with your friends. A lot of people think I can just pop out anytime in the middle of the day for coffee or whatever, and while technically this is true, it’s really not. My business is successful because I treat it like a real business. Whatever I wouldn’t do in an office I try not to do at home (okay this is a bit of an exaggeration, there are some major plusses to remote work) but like, I wouldn’t just dip out at 2:30 to go grab a latte if I worked in an office. A lot of times I don’t even tell people I work from home. I just let them think I work in an office because it cuts those sort of things off at the pass.

My final piece of advice on working from home is setting tech boundaries. I would work 15 hours a day if I could. So we already know all about how you’re supposed to turn off your phone before you go to sleep, etc. but if you work from home, tech boundaries are doubly important. Most people who work from home have a separate office, I actually prefer to work on my MacBook on the couch. It’s just more comfortable for me (though I might be paying for it later, ergonomically). So its even harder to create a boundary between work and home. The major thing I do is manage email. This requires some discipline, but I have my email open from when I get up to 5 p.m. At 5 p.m., email window goes off, not to be reopened till the morning. I also deactivated email alerts on my iPhone. The last thing I want to do is be out and about at night when I’m technically “off” and have someone dinging me. It can be dealt with in the morning. This is incredibly important. Some people go so far as to put their computer out of sight, shut the door to their office, etc., but you have to create a boundary between work time and home time. I also put any work-related paperwork, notes, etc. in a drawer, I don’t even want to see it when the day is done.

Working from home has its advantages, but you can’t put the cart before the horse. A lot of people start out with the goal of working from home. This doesn’t make sense to me, and it smacks of envelope-stuffing pyramid schemes. My company evolved organically, till it became prudent to “quit my day job” and begin working full-time for myself. I had no end goal of working from home, but it didn’t (and doesn’t) make sense financially to rent an office. I think if you do what you love and what you’re good at, you might be able to build it into a full-time business, but your end goal has to be doing what you love, not doing what you love so you can sit on the sofa!

I feel blessed to have such flexibility but there’s a lot of work behind it. I feel like I actually work more than my friends who have office jobs. It’s dedication and discipline (and lots of luck!) that have gotten my company to where it is today and I try to do everything I can to stay healthy and productive in my unconventional work environment.