My Valencian rooftop “office” in 2008-9.
One of the Internet’s greatest gifts is the creation of truly flexible working environments and in the UK tech media scene we’ve got some of the best examples of extreme remote working out there.
I caught up with freelance writer and editor Jessica Twentyman, and PR agency Weber Shandwick’s head of content and consumer social media for EMEA, Mark Pinsent, to find how they juggled their workload with their rural European lifestyles and added in my own experience with my new career triangle between London, Singapore and Jakarta.
Making remote working work
Remote working has been with us for years. My colleagues from my Rainier PR (now Speed Comms) days, Stephen Waddington (Northumbria) and Chris Measures (Suffolk) still split their time between their rural abodes and London while continuing to deliver great work. I briefly experimented for nine months in 2008-9 in Valencia, but Spanish Internet options were too restrictive to make it viable. I even found replying to work emails from the top of Britain’s second highest mountain easier!
From the far flung corners of the world, this is how we extreme remote workers are faring. Enjoy.
Briefly describe where you live and where you were before
[Jessica Twentyman] Before, I worked from the spare bedroom of my flat in Hackney. Now, it’s the spare room of our cottage in a small village in central Portugal. When I look out of the study window, all I can see are fields and woods on the other side of the valley.
PR man Mark Pinsent takes a spin round the Bordeaux region vineyards.
[Mark Pinsent] I live with my wife and two kids in south-west France, about halfway between La Rochelle and Bordeaux, around 20 minutes from the Atlantic coast. Before moving to France, we were living in Berkshire, between Maidenhead and Reading.
[Chris Lee] I spend a few weeks in Asia (Singapore and Jakarta, where my girlfriend has a contract just now) and four to six weeks back in London. While out here we’re in either serviced apartments or hotels with great Internet so the set-up is great and the weather suits me.
What inspired and enabled the move?
Writer Jessica Twentyman
[JT] I can do my job anywhere – it’s as simple as that. My husband and I wanted more space and some land and nice weather, but our move here had no real impact at all on my work.
[MP] Our move was simply inspired by a desire to live overseas and good timing. My wife and I had always talked about living abroad and France was an attractive destination for us on a number of levels: we love the country, my wife is a fluent French-speaker, it’s not too far from family and friends or, indeed, work and, at the time, property was good value. I’d reached a point in my career where I felt living remotely from the UK wouldn’t be too much of a hindrance to my generating an income and with our daughter a few months old and a second on the way, it felt like “now or never”.
[CL] My partner is working on a project in Asia, so I can experience the exciting, fast-growing Asian business culture at the same time as the equally compelling and fast-moving UK tech scene. With Skype and great broadband I can work for Australasian and European brands across time zones without any drop in quality.
On a practical level, what challenges did you overcome?
[JT] Internet access here is excellent; our village is promised fibre-optics in the next six months. If that fails, I’m stuck – but it never has done. The only drawback is that, living in a valley, I get no mobile signal at home. With the price of accepting calls from overseas, however, I don’t really use a mobile phone for work anymore.
The view from Chez Pinsent
[MP] There haven’t been too many practical challenges from a work perspective. Connections back to the UK and elsewhere in Europe are good from Bordeaux and France is a fairly advanced country technologically. The worst I can point to is that the stone walls in my office (an old bakehouse) are a bit thick, which can sometimes interfere with my mobile reception!
[CL] Visas can be a mission for Indonesia. Singapore is far more open for business; you don’t even need to apply for a business visa as a UK national. Just rock up at Changi Airport and you’re given 30 days’ stay.
How often do you need to be in the UK?
[JT] I write mostly for the Financial Times, for Retail Week, Personnel Today and for reports distributed in national newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. I also have a Consulting Editor role at Imago Techmedia, where I work on editorial content around the IP Expo and Enterprise Apps Expo shows.
[MP] It really varies depending on the type and amount of work I’m doing at the time. I’m probably in London for two or three days every two or three weeks. My current role actually sees me in London less but with fairly regular trips into other European cities.
[CL] I do need to be in the UK as a great deal of my work is social media training and SEO training for PR agencies. I prefer to do these face-to-face, although I have been able to run webinar-style training over the awesome Google+ Hangout feature. I also have a mixture of work from strategic digital consultancy to content creation and social media audits. It’s a simple case of managing my time and pipeline effectively.
What does the average working day look like?
Casa Twentyman, Portugal
[JT] I try to start work by 9.30am, but that doesn’t always happen. Much of that depends on the weather and how long the morning dog walk lasts. I tend to do general admin work – answering emails, sending out invoices and so on – in the morning. The afternoon is generally for interviews and writing. But I tend to be pretty flexible, otherwise what would be the point of self-employment?
[MP] I’m fairly disciplined – or at least try to be – in keeping to regular working hours. I’ll see the kids off to school at 8.30am and start work shortly afterwards. This can be pretty handy when working with people in the UK as it means I’m slightly ahead of the game, given the time difference. I’ll try and spend a bit of time with the kids when they get back from school which may mean that I catch up on a few bits and bobs in the evening.
[CL] I’m six hours ahead of the UK, so that gives me a chance to go to the gym from 8-10am and do some copywriting or Australasian-based work by the time the UK logs on between 2-3pm my time and I work through until the early evening.
Any funny anecdotes from your time working remotely?
[JT] If I’ve got a really important, high-profile interview to do, you can bet that’ll be the time that a herd of goats goes past the study window.
Racing pigeons train overhead in Valencia.
[MP] I live in a little hamlet in the countryside. We’re well integrated into the community here but I don’t think many of our local friends have much of a clue what I do for a living! It’s unusual around here for someone ‘professional’ to work from home rather than an office and when that’s combined with regular international travel (and my being a charming, sophisticated Englishman, obviously) it’s lead to rumours that I’m some sort of secret agent. Clearly I do little to disabuse people of that notion.
[CL] I used to work from the roof terrace at the townhouse outside Valencia and the kids in the primary school at the top of the hill overlooking us thought that was ever so funny. I was regularly bombarded with shouts of “¡Oye! Mister Computer Man!” We would also get a flock of brightly painted racing pigeons fly over every evening. Pigeon racing is a big deal in Valencia. I use my travel blog Eudaimoniac.com as an outlet for my experiences on the road.
How do people in your profession view you?
[JT] I’m not sure I’m seen any differently. I have an 0207 online number from Skype, so I suspect lots of people think I’m still in London anyway!
[MP] Most people are a little envious, but in a lovely way. I very rarely meet people who find it unusual and plenty who admire it and say they’d love to do it themselves. The people who find it most confusing, funnily enough, are French people working in Paris. They can’t quite work out why an Englishman is based in rural France.
[CL] My colleagues are supportive as they know I’m a professional and I won’t let my quality suffer. Working in environment free of office distractions really helps my productivity. With Skype and social networks it’s like we’re in the same room anyway.
Would you change anything?
Yours truly drinking hardcore Javan coffee at the historic Cafe Batavia, Jakarta.
[JT] No I wouldn’t change anything. I’m working as much as I’ve ever done, but my costs of living are far lower. London is only a short hop away and I get back every 10-12 weeks for meetings. It’s the best of both worlds.
[MP] Nope. This is home and we love it. From a lifestyle perspective it’s pretty much everything we had hoped for.
[CL] So long as it continues to be workable I’ll keep at it. I like being in London anyway to meet clients and prospects, cool off, watch football and drink decent beer. I also have a medium-term ambition to set up a microbrewery so I make beer in my kitchen while at home in South London to experiment with flavours. By the time I’m back from a stint in Asia it’s bottle conditioned and ready to drink!