Confined to an office with set work hours would've put my other passions on hold
Ben is a Product Designer at @doist, working remotely currently
1. Hey, can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Ben Breckler and I’m based in Luxembourg. I’ve been working remotely for almost 8 years, currently as a Product Designer at Doist where I design for Todoist, a personal productivity tool, and Twist, a team communication app.
I’m into minimalism, interior design, and photography. I recently took up learning to surf. I’ve spent time traveling around France, Portugal, Ireland, and Bali to surf different spots and explore new places. It’s been an incredible adventure that was partly enabled through remote work!
Turning back the career clock to 2009, after completing my Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design in the UK, I freelanced in web design and got into UI / UX design through the D&AD student awards. My participation landed me second place for a BBC mobile apps concept. The concept led to a summer internship, followed by a full-time design position at Ribot, a mobile-first design studio. There, I spent some time working onsite and then remotely on a range of client projects for companies like Google, Tesco, and MGemi on native mobile apps, responsive web, and in-store touchscreen displays.
2. What motivated you to choose remote working?
After living and working in the UK for a number of years, I decided to move back to Luxembourg. At the time, the digital design job market in Luxembourg was in its infancy and didn’t offer the same level of opportunity that I could find in other countries.
I realised that I would have to give up a job that I really liked, working with very talented people. At the time the company was local to Brighton (UK) but open to me working remotely for them. So, I took up the remote role.
Years later, when I was looking to make a career move, I only considered remote positions. I aspired to work for a leading product company with a great team that I could learn from and grow with. So I explored remote opportunities globally!
I’ve been enjoying the freedom and flexibility of remote work. It’s a major perk that allows me to be more productive and do my best work. As a nice bonus, a remote position also lets me travel and surf more to improve. Being confined to an office with set work hours would mean putting other passions of mine on hold.
Doist was a great fit. They’re long-time remote work advocates with exciting digital products, Todoist and Twist. The company doesn’t restrict hiring to specific locations or time zones and allows team members to manage their own work schedule.
3. What were your initial months like? Did it live up to your expectations?
When I started working remotely in 2012 it was challenging at first to switch from an office to a remote environment. I felt disconnected because I lost the social interactions –– lunchtime chat, office events and after work drinks –– that I was used to in an office. Team members kindly scheduled impromptu lunch time calls and shared updates with me, but being the only remote worker in a hyper local company was a challenge in the early days.
When it came to working productivity, I felt more focused and could get a lot of design work done in a day if the work had a clear path. At times waiting for feedback or making a design decision that required team input could get me stuck when team members or clients weren’t used to communicating remotely. That’s where the productivity would break down. Switching to other tasks could help but sometimes I was only working on a single project at a time. Over time the number of video calls and meetings grew to combat this, but it took a big toll on productivity.
When I joined Doist, I was onboarded onto a fully remote global team. I was assigned a mentor to help me find my feet in the company and learn about processes. I could turn to my mentor for any questions I had as a newcomer.
I was also provided with a Todoist onboarding project in which I could find beautifully considered and detailed tasks (setting up accounts, internal design resources, company perks and guidelines, etc) which I could complete and read up on company material during my first weeks and months. The process felt guided and structured which made me feel welcome and cared for!
The first time I signed into Twist (Doist’s own remote communication tool), I was greeted with the team’s welcome messages, introductions and where people were based. I quickly realised how much I was part of a global and diverse team.
I worked together with my mentor Alex on completing my first major tasks. We quickly started to work together with the design and development team and collaborated across time zones.
As part of my onboarding, Doist sponsored a mentorship trip to Porto where I met up with my mentor Alex, Ana (our Head of Design) and other team members that were based there. The trip was a great opportunity to get to know each other face-to-face and learn more about my colleagues outside of work. We worked together on designs, reviewed work, brainstormed, went on team lunches and dinners, and on a trip to Porto’s contemporary art museum.
A few months later in April 2019, I was able to meet the full Doist team (60+ people) at the annual company retreat which was held in the Azores. The retreat had scheduled workshops, team activities, dinners and drinks. The retreat week passed in a heartbeat. We had passionate team discussions about the future of Todoist and Twist, bathed in hot springs, had late night bowling sessions, and early morning sea swims!
I was nervous in the beginning moving from a small team to a bigger fully remote company. I was unsure if I could get to know people well enough remotely and how well global timezone collaboration would work. A strong remote culture, defined core values, and transparent communication helped overcome this.
Overall, the Twist welcome thread, Todoist onboarding project, mentorship trip and company retreat made my first months at Doist an unforgettable experience. Even though most of the team is thousands of miles away from each other spread across 25 countries, those experiences helped me get to know the team much better and form a great bond when collaborating with people on Twist!
4. How did you find remote working roles?
My first remote role wasn’t advertised by the company I worked for as a “remote role”. Instead, I suggested the position and we worked out an effective remote collaboration workflow and refined these practices over the years.
Since my first remote role, I became increasingly interested in this space and have been following distributed companies and remote designers on Twitter. I would come across remote work positions there. I found out about the Doist position from a tweet. Dribbble also allows designers to filter for remote friendly positions.
5. What have been the best, good and worst aspects of remote working for you?
Remote work has enabled me to design from anywhere in the world and find job opportunities that might not exist locally! I can live near my family and friends without having to compromise moving away for my career. It allows me to travel to different countries and lets me learn to surf while staying productive at work!
I can be productive on my own terms. I get to choose the work from the environment and time that I require to do my best work. I don’t have to deal with being confined to an office space with external factors that aren’t in my control or commuting for hours each day.
I’m an introvert, so I enjoy time by myself and introspection. Remote work can easily push you down a lonely self isolation path if you’re not careful. I had to learn what my body and mind needed in order to stay productive while working remotely. I had to adjust to actively choose to be social, schedule events, and movement or exercise to stay healthy.
6. What tools do you swear by while working remotely?
I don’t think I could work remotely without my MacBook Pro. The laptop allows me to work from different rooms or locations without being constrained by the same desk all the time. I love its simplicity, tactile details, and smooth trackpad. The machine keeps me focused on the actual content and apps that I need to use.
This might come as no surprise, but I use Todoist for personal and work tasks daily. It keeps me focused on the day and weeks ahead. I log everything in Todoist, it clears my head and makes me less anxious.
The Doist team collaborates on Twist. It’s the heart of the company’s communication. We have many channels where we discuss our current projects, company wide updates, share inspiration and socialize there.
7. Your most exciting/ hilarious experience since you started working remotely.
I’ve probably had every version of video call dilemmas, miscommunications, and timezone mess ups over the years! I remember a particular design interview that I scheduled with a potential hire and got the timezones mixed up. It turned out that the candidate had to get up at 5am to take the meeting, and she did without flagging this when I sent the invite. I only realised halfway through the call. (Sorry Brenda, you rock!)
When you work remotely 95% of the time the moments you work alongside your colleagues stand out and make for great opportunities to form connections. Through Doist, I’ve been able to meet the team in the Azores, where we had an amazing time catching up in workshops and team activities. Similarly, my mentorship trip in Porto with my colleagues was so great to get a deep dive into how people work and collaborating closely in person after going back to working remotely.
8. What is your golden advice to a new remote worker?
For me, working remotely means finding a workspace that’s calm and productive. I’m much more focused working from a secluded balcony than a bustling coffee shop. Remote work allows everyone to find their individual productivity sweet-spot. What works well for me might not work at all for another person.
Each individual has to find out how they can be their most productive. My advice would be to try different setups, locations, and tools. Does this setup make you feel good, or stressed? If you could design your ideal work environment, what would it look like? If you work remotely, you can work towards that ideal!
I also recommend a strong routine. A defined work space and schedule works really well for me. This is what my typical remote workday looks like:
- I do my breathing exercise to ease into the workday. Then I prepare breakfast. I start my work day by checking Twist and replying to messages. I check my Todoist tasks for the day and make changes to the plan if needed. Once my communication is cleared, I start my main task for the day and focus on deep work for the rest of the morning.
- At lunchtime I workout, go for a run or a surf if I’m in a country with good conditions. If it’s a rest day, I try to have a social lunch with family or friends. In the afternoon I check Twist to see if any urgent requests came in. I continue to work through my tasks and share my work.
- To finish off, I plan tasks for the next day or week. I close my laptop and don’t check into work until the next day. I go out for a walk and relax in the evening. A clean break from work helps me recharge and digest new ideas so I can come back in full energy the next day!
9. How do you see your career shaping up and your goals?
Since I started working remotely in 2012, I’ve worked with talented people, on projects that I otherwise would have missed out on on a local level. Remote work has enabled me to learn and grow with people from other backgrounds and skills. I’ve been able to work remotely as a designer at all levels.
My journey at Doist continues this trajectory. I’m surrounded by an inspiring team across many different disciplines, countries, communities, and backgrounds. The diversity of the team allows me to learn new things every day and teaches me a lot. I see a lot of opportunity to learn and grow my skill-set and career path here.
Doist also encourages every team member to take a month to work on a ‘Personal DO’, a project where we can learn something new. I’ve been looking into taking a SwiftUI course to further close the gap between design and development. I am excited to get into my Personal DO soon!
10. How do you expect remote working to evolve in the future?
When I started working remotely 8 years ago, I knew almost no-one who shared this way of working. At the time of writing this, most of the world is in a global lockdown and working remotely has become the new normal. A lot of companies are working remotely for the first time ever! Remote work has never been as popular as it is right now.
Agile rooms with stickies mirrored in AR: now that would potentially be useful. Holodeck style scrum rooms with thumbnail pictures of Jira tickets group around on the "walls" or in piles, perhaps? Current ticket systems are great at lists of things, but sometimes (maybe rarely, maybe frequently) you want the simple interface of ("throw this thing into a pile we'll do the data entry to make the system happy later").
I think our tools, policies, and infrastructure will change to accommodate this new way of work.
11. Where can we follow you on?
You can follow me (@benbreckler) on Twitter for work updates and random thoughts and on Dribbble for visual and motion designs. Follow me on Instagram (@benbreckler) for snapshots and videos of my learning-to-surf journey and remote work adventures! Feel free to DM me if you want to say hi and share experiences. ✌️