Web designer turned product manager, working remotely for 4 years

1. Hey, can you please introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Christian and I live in Austria near the city of Graz. I own a small house in the countryside, where I live together with my wife and 14-year old son. It’s a big advantage to live in a house and have plenty of nature around you, especially in the challenging times of Covid. 

I work now as a product manager for the design app, Gravit Designer (that is now owned by Corel), for more than three years and I am fortunate to be the team lead for 15 exceptional people to build the best design app in the world. What I liked most when I joined the team was that everyone was remote, so we all had the same premises and there was never a feeling of “not being connected” or “missing out”. Over time, more people were hired, some of them being co-located, which meant the risk of creating “silos”, but in hindsight this never turned out to be a problem. Since the pandemic we are all remote again anyways, so we are all back to the “original spirit”. 

My desk I work from day in and out.
My desk I work from day in and out.

Gravit Designer is spread around the globe, with people sitting in Canada (where Corel is located), USA, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia (not the US state, but the country), India and China, so we are covering a pretty wide range of time zones, which probably is the biggest challenge for me – but can also be a big plus. Why? When other teammates are still sleeping, I have a couple hours of focused work, because as soon as more and more people come online, all the messages I sent earlier will get answered eventually 😉 

2. What motivated you to choose remote working?

Working from home wasn’t a deliberate decision first. I was working in co-located offices as a web designer for my whole life, which didn’t fulfill me any more, so I was kinda at a crossroad in my life looking for a new challenge. It came in the form of writing The Sketch Handbook for Smashing Magazine. While I worked on the book, I spent two days a week at home over a six month period. 

Roughly at the same time, my current employer approached me – becoming aware of me because of the book – and asked if I wanted to work for Gravit Designer, first as an evangelist and later in my current role as a product manager. Turned out, it was a fully remote position and as I always dreamt of working from the comforts of my home I accepted immediately. I never regretted this choice so far! 

3. What were your initial months like? Did it live up to your expectations?

I didn’t have any expectations at all, I was just so excited to finally spend my working hours exactly as I wanted. I didn’t even have any problems at all to adapt – usual challenges like being distracted by household chores were never a problem for me, as I always made a clear distinction between work and spare time. Of course, I sometimes also do the wash up in my working time, and regularly prepare lunch after school, but I see those as welcome breaks and not distractions. 

Needless to say, sometimes “being on” blends in with “being off”, but this can actually be a good thing. While many other people dread their time in the office and long to go home, I enjoy my job so much that I usually don’t mind to “live at my working place”.

Another trait I wasn’t much aware of before was that I’m actually quite good at time-management and self-organisation, which of course is also a big plus in my role as a product manager. 

4. How did you find remote working roles?

I didn’t have to look, they found me 😉 

Cycling is another hobby of our family.
Cycling is another hobby of our family.

As I mentioned earlier, my current employer approached me because they saw my book. I have worked with them ever since. 

5. What have been the best, good and worst aspects of remote working for you?

The greatest: No commutes, better focus, being able to start my day as early as I like, more freedom to run errands, accept parcels or pick up my son from school. Also, when we had a lockdown in Austria during the pandemic, I loved that my wife and son were at home and this created a lot more “connectedness” in our family.

What else: No need to prepare food for the office but being able to cook afresh in the lunch break, and much lower expenses for fuel and maintenance for my car. And grabbing some sweets during the day 😉 

The worst: When I need to work but my family has a day off. Since the space where I usually work from is close to both our and my son’s bedroom, I can’t use it when my family still sleeps, so I need to “move” to my cellar room (that usually acts as a gaming room), which has a rather low ceiling and is really small, so it sometimes creates some mental blockade. I also like to go to the bathroom and get properly dressed in the morning before starting to work, which also isn’t possible, as our bathroom is also close to our bedroom. And of course, it’s always an unpleasant feeling to keep telling your family that they need to be quiet when I have a meeting. But we managed to arrange. Other than that, I couldn’t find any disadvantages with working from home. 

6. What tools do you swear by while working remotely?

When I joined Gravit Designer, we were still using the old-fashioned Skype for chat and video calls, but then quickly moved over to Google Meet. For a while that worked pretty well, but as Slack became more and more popular, we also made the switch eventually. Last year, Corel switched to Microsoft Office 365 entirely, so we had no choice than to adapt to Teams. In the beginning, it was a bit tedious, as it lacked a couple features we were used to from Slack, like reminders and threads (including replies to messages). Meanwhile, it’s our tool of choice for our entire team communication (and throughout Corel), as calls work really well and are a vital part of Teams. It has its quirks, but we wouldn’t want to miss the comforts of an integrated communication platform anymore. Besides, we use the obvious Word and Excel online, as well as the tools of trade of product teams, Jira and Confluence. 

To also talk a bit about the gear I use when working from home: I’m quite an Apple fanboy and can’t resist to buy anything they bring out, so I own the latest 16″ MacBook Pro, the LG UltraFine 5K Display, which is quite a marvelous piece of display technology, and a Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad. I also tried to love the Magic Mouse for so long, but there was a point where I just couldn’t stand its imprecision and non-ergonomic design anymore. So I switched to the Logitech Anywhere MX 2S, which is a way better choice. Speaking of Logitech, for video calls I use the Logitech C920 HD Pro webcam, as the built-in webcam of the LG is rather crappy in comparison. 

Living close to ski resorts, we also go skiing sometimes
Living close to ski resorts, we also go skiing sometimes

7. Your most exciting/ hilarious experience since you started working remotely.

Nothing stands out in particular, I just love the moments when random pets, spouses, kids, parents and other house residents enter video calls by accident. I even had calls, where I invited my wife and son on purpose, to talk to my co-workers and polish their English skills or socialize a bit. Generally, socializing is critical for any remote team. While I mostly prefer to keep communication in written form, we ensure to have a weekly “CoffeeTalk”, that’s rather casual and strictly non-work related. It isn’t mandatory, so it can sometimes be four people and other times close to ten. I’m convinced that only a team where each member knows each other and their quirks can work well together. Especially in chats, misunderstandings happen quickly, but if you know the person on the other to a good degree, it’s much less likely that you “misread” them. 

8. What is your golden advice to a new remote worker?

By all means, make sure that you have a dedicated space to work from, where you are mostly undisturbed by kids/spouses/parents, including a desk that you don’t need to clear up every time you stop working in the evening (or even acts as a dining table otherwise). Nothing is worse than always being “on the run” and unable to focus properly. This also comes in handy when you intend to have a video call with colleagues because as funny as it is occasionally, constantly having some kids fighting in the background or a barking dog is a no-go for every proper remote worker. 

To add to that, the usual – a decent and stable internet connection (especially the “up” speed is important), good headphones (I hate when I hear myself talking in the background of a video call), and a proper webcam (I find people that turn of their webcam intentionally quite rude). And please do yourself a favor and show up on time for calls. This is important in every business situation, but even more so when a whole bunch of people are waiting in front of their screens, already eager to continue working while waiting for the last person to join. 

9. How do you see your career shaping up and your goals?

I’m pretty open to that and let the flow of life happen – I was never a “goals guy” who wanted to achieve this or that in one, three of five years. I just have a couple of “wishes” to the universe: never work in an office again for more than twice a week; being team lead or in another managerial role, as I discovered my passion to lead people and enabling them to achieve outstanding things; committed colleagues; an interesting range of duty; a cozy (warm) house to work from; a dedicated, spacious office, and not just a “corner in my house”; and a decent coffee machine. Everything else is just a bonus and I’m ready to accept whatever life will offer. 

10. How do you expect remote working to evolve in the future?

Remote work is here to stay, no doubt. Companies need to understand that meeting their employees where they are most productive, focused and happy – which turns out more and more is at home – is key. On the other hand, being able to go over to a colleague, discuss something, looking them straight in the eye, seeing their body language, is still unbeatable. So I think that a hybrid model will catch on and the strongest teams will form where people can basically choose when and where they work, but are still required to be present in the office for a certain time, ideally when everybody else is around, too. 

I love to go hiking with my son and enjoy the silence in the mountains.
I love to go hiking with my son and enjoy the silence in the mountains.

Like I already said above, socializing is an important aspect of every successful team. If people can’t spend their workdays together in a fully remote setting, at least a couple of full-on team gatherings are required each year to catch up on this social aspect. Another thing I discovered: To have an ideal window for communication, time zones can’t be too far apart, because with a time difference of more than six hours there’s always one person that needs to make a compromise. If the preconditions are set, I’m convinced that remote teams can beat fully co-located teams. The latter also have their advantages, but I’m sure that companies which enable their people to work remotely at least partly will conquer the world in the long run. 

11. Where can we follow you on?

I’m not that active on the internet, so just be sure to check out Gravit Designer, the product I’m working on day in and out. It’s the best professional design tool that runs right in your browser and makes you totally independent from where and on which platform you want to work. We just added a touch interface, that enables you to design on-the-go on your iPad. A feature that comes in handy especially in times like these is real-time collaboration, allowing you to communicate on a design file with your peers no matter where they are located. 

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