Can you introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Alex Muench, a senior digital product designer working remotely from Germany. I currently work full-time at Doist on the productivity app, Todoist, and the team communication app, Twist. Occasionally, I travel the world and work from inspiring places like New York City, Hamburg, Berlin, and more.
How did you start working remotely and why?
My path to getting hired at Doist was a bit unconventional. Before and during my time at university, I started working as a freelancer on my own and within ad agencies, collecting work experience with multiple internships.
I was about to finish my bachelor’s degree in communication design and needed to work on a final project. I had an idea for an app that I wanted to bring to life – a read later app called “Short” that filtered articles by reading time and surfaced the shortest articles with reading times of 5-10 minutes. On ProductHunt I found my future colleague, Enric, who worked from Menorca, while I worked from Germany. This was my first “remote work” experience.
Through Twitter, I connected with my future boss Amir, the Founder and CEO of Doist. After I finished university and graduated, I was asked if I wanted to work for Doist. I was already passionate about Todoist and I’d been using the app to manage my day-to-day personal and work life and got hooked. I didn’t hesitate and accepted the offer to start as a product designer. This was almost 5 years ago.
Our current hiring process is definitely different and more advanced. Being referred is still one way to get a job, especially in the design industry. But, we also have a more standard hiring process where people can apply through our website and go through a hiring committee and mentoring process once onboarded.
What is your typical day like?
Usually, I get up at 7:30 am. Since I work remotely, I’ve learned to have a lot of self-discipline by following a strict morning ritual. If I don’t have that, my productivity might suffer.
I have a quick breakfast, a coffee, check Twitter, Instagram, emails, and messages and after that, I open my laptop.
Before I start working, I open Todoist, our task manager app, to see my tasks for the day that are already laid out in front of me. Every Sunday I try to plan my whole week. This plan is mainly an estimation, so I make a few adjustments every day.
On Mondays, the design and Twist teams meet in short 30-minute status meetings. The rest of the week is purely focused on work and includes mainly written communication with the team, rather than more real-time meetings. We use Twist, a tool we created ourselves, that promotes calm and asynchronous team communication through thoughtfully written threads. It’s a bit similar to email. I’m happy to be a part of the core product team building a tool that is respectful of a team’s time and attention. We tried chat tools like Slack, but for a remote team spanning over 15 time zones, constantly being online and keeping up with conversations was exhausting and stressful. Most conversations don’t need an immediate response.
On a daily basis, I organize most of my time around one big project with a squad of people from different teams. Our projects are executed in 4-weeks DO cycles. These cycles can be dedicated to developing a new feature or conducting a design exploration for Todoist or Twist.
My main areas of work include the following:
- Writing design specification documents and prototyping user flows
- Updating our design libraries
- Working on iconography
- Giving feedback on other designers’ projects
- Reviewing the latest implementations for Todoist and Twist
- Organizing a Todoist project to improve feature parity across our apps on all four platforms (Web, macOS, iOS, Android and Windows)
- Discussing overall product decisions
- Replying to requests or bugs our support team forwards to us
- Sharing design inspiration (UI details, blog posts, tweets, product releases) with our team
Lunch is around 30 minutes to 1 hour. I take a few small breaks during the day to think. Then, I try to finalize my work by 6 pm, give or take 30 minutes. At this point, I close my laptop which means work is done for the day. After dinner, I unwind with an audiobook, podcast or watch a movie on Netflix.
How do you stay efficient and engaged while working remotely?
Music, planning and taking one task at a time.
At Doist we work in monthly project cycles. This allows us to plan our work more or less beforehand. One big project is assigned to one designer with one goal. This helps you set a focus and plan ahead for each day of the upcoming week. We plan each week on Mondays and have status meetings. After those, I try to break down my tasks and mostly focus on just one bigger one and a few smaller ones. It is super important for me to tick this one bigger task off. Then, I’d call it a successful day already.
To accomplish this I turn on my background music, close all apps I don’t need, turn my phone facing the table and try to get into deep focus mode.
Naturally, working remotely requires some context switching. Often times you need to wait for feedback and move to another task while someone on the other side of the world is asleep or just waking up. So, having smaller tasks as “backups” is always a good idea. New things come up every day as well, so it’s important to stay flexible.
I’ve learned that effective communication and blocking out distractions are the key to getting things done.
What are the tools and workflow that you’re using to get things done?
For planning my daily tasks, I use Todoist. For team communication, I use Twist. For our design process a mix of Dropbox Paper to brainstorm and write thorough design specs, Sketch for the actual product design of the UI and user flows, and Zeplin for handoff to developers.
Giving feedback to designers or developers is more effective when you add a visualization or annotation to the idea you want to communicate. For this I use CloudApp. Keyboard shortcuts help me quickly upload any screenshots or annotate designs or bugs I encounter.
How do you think remote work will evolve in the future?
Remote work will become more popular once bosses trust their employees more and they realize that effective communication doesn’t need to be instant chat, but asynchronous. It’s not black and white of course. Chat and in-person conversations are still very valuable. Not only for team bonding but also for collaboration.
I think cities that enable remote work outside of your home, with libraries that offer wifi and free workspaces and easily accessible co-working spaces that you can visit spontaneously, will become more and more popular. They offer the social interaction aspect that some people miss when working solely from home.
How to you stay in touch with your team?
We have a weekly team meeting on Mondays where we share our weekly “snippets” and talk about how our last week went and what we plan to do in the upcoming one. The rest of the week consists mostly of asynchronous written communication in Twist threads, direct messages or Paper comments.
Once a year we have a team retreat. The whole company meets for one entire week in one location for team bonding, activities and workshops. We’ve had quite a few already reaching from Menorca to Santiago de Chile to Iceland. It’s always exciting to spend some time with people you work closely with every day or seeing new faces that you mostly just recognize from avatars.
What do you enjoy most about working remotely?
- The silence and ability to focus
- Being able to work from anywhere I want
- Shutting off distractions for a long period of time
- Organizing my days by myself
- Flexibility, like going swimming at off-peak times when almost nobody’s there
- Being able to travel and visit family who lives abroad, like my sister
- The trust I get from my colleagues
What is your office/workspace look like?
It’s very minimalistic. All I need is my 15 inch MacBook Pro, AirPods, a cup of coffee or tea, water and my phones (iPhone 11 and OnePlus6 to test iOS and Android); occasionally I use my iPad for testing and viewing mockups. I’m sitting at a wooden table, there’s nothing special. I chose my setup to be able to be as flexible as possible, to move around and still have enough screen estate to do my best work.
What are the challenges of being a remote worker?
Communication and socializing. Getting everyone on the same page: Discussing and clearly communicating our goals, current process, and what we’re working on next. Setting clear expectations, following up on your progress, visualizing and describing your ideas to the smallest detail so everybody can understand it and you convey your points clearly.
This takes a significant amount of time each day. However, the advantage here is that all decisions are written down so you can always refer back to discussions.
Do you have any side projects? Can you speak about them?
In my free time, I like to practice calligraphy. You can follow my account here. Next to that, I’m always trying to engage with the design community, share my experiences and a few resources that I find worth sharing with a wider audience and can help designers like recently, my document templates that you can find here on my website.
What are your future life goals?
A lot of goals come to my mind. I’m an introverted person but I love giving useful feedback, helping others to grow, planning and organizing projects and product roadmaps, taking on responsibilities, bringing more awareness to accessible design, and guiding a team to success.
My goal is to go in a direction that allows me to engage with all these interests, whatever that role might be.
How do you combat feelings of loneliness, isolation and burnout?
Being close to my family, taking lots of breaks and scheduling regular vacation days. Sometimes it can be hard to disconnect and stop working. This can be dangerous for your health so I’m trying to take short breaks more often and strictly shut off my computer when the workday is over.
What is special about the place where you live?
It’s very quiet, my family is here, you can get around easily by car or public transport, and you have everything you need here. The historic city centre is gorgeous and of course, we have the most famous Christmas market in the world “Christkindlesmarkt” here in Nuremberg.
Besides work, how do you like to spend your time?
I enjoy watching movies, spending time on my iPad on Procreate creating calligraphy pieces (@calligraphy_alex), reading good books about design, creativity, self-help, psychology, philosophy, leadership, physics, social sciences and more (mostly on Audible), going to the stadium to cheer for my football team as well as taking a swim regularly.
Do you have any recommendations for those who want to work remotely too?
You won’t know if you like remote work until you try it. You need to be a person who values solitude and can be very productive working on their own. It also depends on what kind of learner you are. Do you crave having people around you and get inspired by a collaborative setting? Or the complete opposite? If you don’t know, you need to experience both ways of working. A mix is definitely possible too, like working from home one day and from a co-working space another.
When you work remotely you need to learn patience, too. You’ll have to wait for responses and know what to work on next.
Mentors help a lot, especially before you have an automated and established process. This comes with experience. You are not only a designer, but you are also a manager of your own time.
One very important soft skill I value: The way you communicate in written form must be very deliberate. Imagine you can only encourage someone with written words. Every little word becomes important. You can transmit positive or negative vibes just through details in your writing, like emoji, an exclamation mark, or lack thereof.
Carefully written communication is so important for team dynamics, especially on remote teams.
I highly recommend a few books and resources like “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work”, Doist’s Ambition and Balance blog where we talk about remote work, productivity, and team communication; “Mismatch: How inclusion shapes design” to learn more about accessible design and why it is important; “Atomic Habits” to learn more how you can check in on current habits, the good and bad, and how you can build new effective ones for a more productivity and healthy life.