Community management, blog editing and customer service. What do these jobs have in common? They all can be done remotely as is the case of Jacqueline, Will and Justin who are all part of a remote team at Piktochart.
Jacqueline is a TEDx speaker, avid traveller and tireless community evangelist currently preparing for a whole year on the road. Will, a quite fresh addition to the team, oversees their company blog and after leaving a stable job in his 30’ he has something to say about starting from scratch.
Lastly, transitioning from crazy investment world, Justin has been dealing with clients across the globe as Customer Success Guru over the past eight months.
Together they describe their perspectives on working in a partly distributed company, tackling productivity and give some sound advice on starting with remote work.
Are you more a digital nomad or rather a ‘stationary’ remote worker?
Will: I’m a stationary remote worker. I’d love to be more mobile, but my wife has a strong network of fellow creatives that are Nashville-based because of her location-dependent business (prop styling and rentals), so we stay here. Traveling with three small dogs is also less than easy.
Justin: I would say I am 80% stationary and 20% traveler. I’d like to travel more though!
Jacqueline: I travel as much as I can. For me, I find a lot of personal growth happens when I experience new places and explore new cultures. My role as Piktochart’s Community Evangelist ended up aligning well with my wanderlust. I host events, which we call #PiktoTours, in different cities as a way to connect with our user community. I also travel on my own and enjoy working from new cities. Throughout 2015, I was in 10 countries across 4 continents and flew on 46 flights!
How did you get into Piktochart?
Justin: I was looking for remote customer success/account management gigs with companies based in Asia because I wanted to have the freedom to occasionally travel. I stumbled across a write-up about Piktochart and an AMA with founder Ai Ching Goh on the Tech In Asia blog, reached out to them and haven’t looked back since.
Will: Piktochart was one of the remote jobs I applied for back in the summer/fall of 2015 after I quit my job as a teacher. I tried working solely as a freelancer for a while, but I found that I work better as a part of a larger team contributing to a bigger picture. Piktochart’s company values really resonated with me, and I knew from the first email exchange I had with Marta, our marketing team lead, that I was applying for the right job with the right company. I’m happy it worked out.
Jacqueline: I found Piktochart through a site called Jobbatical. I was looking for something really exciting and different, and I was lucky to come across their listing on the site. The full story can be found in this recent Jobbatical feature!
Have you worked remotely before?
Justin: I actually haven’t. At my last job, we had the option to occasionally work from home, but never on a full time basis.
Jacqueline: I started as a full-time entrepreneur in 2010. Before that, I would often freelance in addition to my traditional day job. Having experienced both settings, I find I am more comfortable in a remote environment than a traditional office environment. I like the idea of having work-life balance and integrating work into life seamlessly. Yoga classes at noon aren’t off limits, and ideas that strike at midnight can be worked on without feeling like I’m doing extra work. I never fully feel like I’m “off work” but I also never feel like I’m on the clock.
Will: I’ve worked as a freelance editor and full-stack marketer off-and-on for about the last 5 years, but I’ve never been part of a company that’s either partially or completely remote before. That being said, I did my homework and read up on what some of the more “established” remote-friendly companies like GitHub, Zapier, Automattic, and Help Scout were doing and what processes and tools were working for them. That’s why I applied for a remote job. This is a style of working that works for me and my family.
What was your path to remote work like?
Justin: I just knew that I wanted the freedom to choose my own hours and travel and work from random (and hopefully exotic) places. The idea never really crossed my mind until I actually started my job hunt and narrowed my focus down to only remote work.
Will: I started working as a freelancer in May 2015 and tried to use some of the tools and techniques I had read about on company blogs and in Medium articles. As much as I enjoy the relative freedom of freelancing, I also appreciate the stability and team aspects of working for a company. A combination of working remotely from home while still being part of a team seemed like a great fit for my personality and work style. When people ask about my life goals, I tell them that all I really want is to be able to drink coffee in the morning with my wife and to walk my dogs whenever I need a break. Remote work is a perfect fit for that.
Jacqueline: To me, working a traditional 9-5 job never made much sense. I always felt like those around me in the United States were missing out on small things that add up to make a great life. I’ve always been someone who values hard work and paving my own path, so entrepreneurism made perfect sense to me. When my co-founders and I started building our tech startup in 2010, I felt like life as a founder was exactly what I was meant to do. After raising 2 rounds of capital from investors, growing the company, and learning a lot along the way, we decided to shut down the startup in 2014. I knew my next role needed to have an entrepreneurial and location independent element, or else it didn’t quite fit with my values and strengths. Working remotely and being able to be creative and experimental are two ingredients I look for in the perfect job.
What are some of the challenges that you face as a part of a distributed company?
Justin: Some challenges are due to the fact that most of our team is in Penang, Malaysia so while I’m asleep, they’re working and vice versa. It’s sometimes hard to coordinate meetings and I’m always having to play a bit of catchup in the mornings when it comes to Slack messages. Also, since it’s just me tackling customer success right now, timezones are always a bit tricky when I’m trying to talk to users on the other side of the globe.
Jacqueline: Because we have 5 million users spread across the globe, my role is best for someone who thrives in an ever-changing environment. Whether it’s a breakfast meeting with a user in South Africa or hosting #PiktoTourMelbourne at a co-working space in Australia, I’m always looking for ways to connect with as many users as I can on a startup budget.
I don’t face many challenges that can’t be quickly overcome with the support of our amazing team. If I had to point to one, it would be that we are assembling our community initiatives as we go, and that’s a challenge. It’s sort of like building an airplane mid-flight. We have to adapt to the changing landscape of how people communicate, incorporate tried and tested loyalty principles, and always be listening to what users are saying about us online. It’s a lot of work. We couldn’t do it without an amazing team. Everyone plays a vital role.
Will: As the editor of the blog, I’m part of the marketing team. Half of our team is distributed across five different time zones with up to a 19-hour time difference. Trying to find the time to speak to everyone has been a hurdle, but Slack and other non-immediate types of communication have been awesome.
There’s also a different social culture. Culturally speaking, there’s a *big* difference between the “always-on” mentality that’s pervasive here in the US and the “work is not life; it is only a part of life” mentality that my co-located workers have. Finding a balance between the two while still being surrounded by the former has been an interesting experiment, and I think moving more towards the latter will be much better for me in the long run.
How do you tackle productivity when working remotely?
Will: This is the other hurdle that I’ve come up against when it comes to working remotely with a distributed team. It never fails: on the days I say to myself, “Today, I’m going to write that next post,” 17 other things are either waiting for me when I wake up or ping my inbox or Slack window that are more pressing. They’re always things that are “only going to take a minute,” but before I know it, half of my day is gone.
I’m experimenting with two different ways to approach those interruptions right now. The first is a process I’m adapting from Shawn Blanc. I’m trying to break down the work I need to do every day into real, achievable steps (i.e. “write the two middle sections of the post on X” as opposed to “work on blog post”) and then write down the three most important things I need to do every day on a 3×5 notecard. Then I have a physical item to refer to during the day instead of only having my StatusHero scrum on a buried tab.
The other tool I’m trying out is called the Pomodoro Technique. My attention *occasionally* lets me do a deep dive into a project for hours on end, but I’m more likely to be productive in shorter spurts. The Pomodoro Technique lets me tell my brain exactly how long I’ll need to focus on something before I can take a break to check Slack (or Tweetbot!) or take a walk around.
Jacqueline: Interestingly, I find I battle productivity when I’m in an office environment more than I battle it in a remote environment! For me, sitting next to team members and not chatting with them all day is a challenge. On the other hand, I feel nervous when I want to be heads down with earphones in that I’m being rude to others in the space. When I was working from Piktochart HQ in Penang for my first month with the company, working in an office was a challenge I anticipated. I was a bit worried to return to an office environment, even temporarily. Luckily, we have a great team with many independent workers, so it wasn’t like the traditional office environments I’d worked in here in the United States.
Changing up my environment as often as possible works for me. It would drive me crazy to work each day in a home office set-up. I like to find interesting coffee shops, take my Karma wifi hot spot to the park, or head to a the lobby of a gorgeous hotel with plush couches. I like to work in airports, museum lobbies, beautiful co-working spaces, and bustling lunchtime cafes. For me to get my best work done, it’s important that I’m in an exciting environment that makes me feel happy to be alive. I find that it drives gratitude and happiness.
Justin: I try to stay productive by knowing what times are best for my concentration. The lull after lunch is by far my least productive time slot. I try to save my “busy” work like answering emails and scrolling through Intercom messaging etc. during that time.
What does company communication and team collaboration at Piktochart look like from your point of view?
Jacqueline: Our communication and team collaboration can be described in one word – evolving. I am so grateful to be part of a team that is constantly trying new ideas and getting rid of things that just don’t work. I’ve been in environments where innovation is stagnant or things take a long time to change. At Piktochart, we embrace change. The things that I find help us most with communication are Slack and video recording important meetings to share with the remote team. Our team is deliberate in making sure everyone is on the same page, and if they aren’t, trying to fix that quickly and efficiently. It makes focusing on the work at hand much easier when things like communication and collaboration aren’t an obstacle.
Will: It looks like Slack. 🙂 We’re still experimenting and trying a few different approaches, but being remote has never made me feel like a 2nd-class citizen at Piktochart. Because we try to practice being as transparent as possible, most of our conversations happen in Slack (so that they can be referenced when time allows). Most of our collaboration happens in Google Apps (Drive, Docs, Hangouts, etc.). There’s always room for improvement, but I honestly feel like I communicate more clearly, more honestly, and more often with my coworkers now than in any job I’ve had before.
Justin: Overall, I think Piktochart excels at communication and team collaboration. From Google Hangouts to Slack to Trello to Whatsapp, we are all super attentive, we communicate frequently and seek to give and receive feedback. Everyone is very flexible when it comes time for our weekly/monthly meetings but more importantly, everyone is respectful of work-life balance. Piktochart actually has a habit of reaching out using Officevibe to gauge how remote and local employees feel about the work culture.
What would be your personal advice for people who want to start working remotely?
Justin: Separate your workspace from your living space and keep the space clean and organized.
Will: The most important thing is your fit with the company. There are bumps along the way to starting any new job, but those can be magnified 10x from the other side of the world. Make sure you have a good idea of how you align with the company’s values because they’ll be the basis for every interaction you have.
Also, and I’m still learning this, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t fall into a daily or weekly routine right away. I’ve been full-time with Piktochart for more than a month, and I’m still getting my feet set under me. A new job is a big change, and going remote is a big change, too. Both of them together take a bit of getting used to.
Finally, speak up. Talk to the people on your team that are also remote. Talk to people OUTSIDE of your team that are remote. More than likely, you’re not the first or only person in the company to go remote. Someone else has wondered what to do about expense reports. There has been a time in the past that someone didn’t know who to ask about getting access to the Google Drive folders. If you speak up and ask questions, you’ll save yourself the time and hassle of stumbling around trying to figure it out on your own.
Jacqueline: First, I would suggest getting really clear on why you want to work remotely. I find some people think I work less because I work remotely and then they realize I actually work more. I enjoy working remotely because it’s the best environment and schedule for me to get my best work done. I know myself well, and it’s a fact that I would accomplish less in an traditional 9-5 office environment. Why do you work best remotely? What skills do you bring to the table?
Second, I am seeing more and more articles lately about how startups are noting “hire someone who has worked remotely before” as a tip for growing a remote workforce. At first glance, this might deter those new in their careers or those who have only worked in traditional environments. I’d suggest getting creative on proving you can work remotely. Demonstrate something interesting you’ve done outside a traditional 9-5 environment like freelancing, building an app, or learning a new skill on sites like Udemy or Codecademy. In essence, when no one is looking, what do you do with your time? Are you someone who needs to be watched or someone who takes initiative?
Jacqueline, on your Instagram you once mentioned Piktochart’s ‘wellbeing allowance for the remote team.’ What is this wellbeing allowance and how does it work?
Jacqueline: The wellbeing allowance is a new idea that just rolled out at Piktochart. The idea stemmed from trying to make remote workers and HQ office workers feel equally valued. At Piktochart’s HQ, we have amazing benefits that go above and beyond what I’ve seen at most startups here in the United States. In addition to a simply lovely workspace, the team has meals catered, a fully stocked pantry, and team outings like off-site lunches or movie nights.
To attempt to provide the same benefit to remote team members, we rolled out a wellbeing allowance for remote team members. We each receive 100USD monthly to use however we’d like to treat ourselves. Examples include a massage, a gym pass, going to the movies, or lunch at a favorite restaurant. Each month, we are encouraged to use the 100USD how we see fit and file the expenses with the company. To me, this benefit is very thoughtful. It makes me grateful to be part of a company that deliberately spends time and money to make sure I’m taken care of.
What about retreats and events at Piktochart, can you tell more about those?
Jacqueline: We have an annual international retreat each year. Last year, we went to Melbourne in September. This year, our retreat is in August but the location hasn’t been announced yet. It was great to meet some of the people at the company in Melbourne for the first time! In addition to the annual international retreat, our HQ has done local retreats in the past. When it comes to other events, the HQ office team members do those regularly. The team plays badminton on Monday nights, screens movies at the office, or meets for dinner. We also host a tech event each month called WebCamp. We invite inspiring speakers and startup community members to our HQ office to gather and learn. It’s a great event and was a highlight for me during my month working from HQ!
Will, you did an exceptionally honest piece on Medium on quitting your job without having enough freelance work secured. What would you recommend to people in a similar position who wish to follow your route?
Will: Have a plan. Like, a real plan. Good intentions are great, but they don’t pay rent. Some people say that the plunge into uncertainty was what motivated them to hustle harder and get more work. That didn’t work for me; it paralyzed me. Had I been in a different profession (I was a teacher, so I had to tell someone by a certain date whether or not I’d be returning in the fall), I would’ve waited until I had too much work to do both jobs and THEN given my notice.
If you’ve already taken the leap and you’re stuck, JUST. KEEPING. WORKING. It’s about the numbers. I didn’t feel like I could be very picky at first when it came to gigs and clients, but after a while, I felt more comfortable being a bit more choosy. You will find a rhythm. The work you need is out there. Just keep looking and working on finding it. If you’re not spending time on client work, you should be spending time *looking* for client work. Keep the faith. It will get better. I promise. If you feel lost or hopeless, email me or hit me up on Twitter. You’ll make it through. 🙂
You’re also a podcast fan – can you name some great podcasts we should know about?
Will: I’m a fan of most of the shows on RelayFM. Myke and Stephen have done a great job curating a wide variety of shows and hosts, and they were a big influence on my choice to leave my job to do work I love. If you only listen to ONE episode of ONE podcast, make it this one. This is the episode where Myke talks about how his shoes convinced him to quit his job to be a full-time podcaster.
For fans of the more obscure, I have some friends that host a podcast about pencils called Erasable. I know that sounds super niche, but Andy, Johnny, and Tim have the rapport that makes a podcast interesting, even if you’re not as insanely obsessed with pencils and stationery as they are. If I’m not going to recommend my own podcast, I have to recommend theirs.
Finally, I can recommend both of the podcasts on ESN hosted (or co-hosted) by Brett Terpstra. Brett is a freelance/remote software developer who’s responsible for some popular tools in the productivity community (namely nvAlt and Marked 2). He’s also a guy who’s become adept at connecting with a variety of guests to talk about a wide range of topics on his show Systematic. He co-hosts a show called Overtired with Christina Warren of Mashable that covers everything from pop culture to technology to mental health (“from Swift to Taylor Swift”, as they like to say).
Justin, in your view, what are the reasons why people should switch to remote work instead of the traditional 9-5 office model?
Justin: Remote work is more beneficial as far as a work-life balance is concerned (the commute isn’t so bad either!). If you need to take some time off to go to the doctor or fly to Seattle to work and hang out with a friend, you can! It’s also important to just take breaks from your computer, unplug from Slack chatter and do something else for a while to clear your head.
Side note to all supervisors or team leaders or CEOs: Just because there isn’t a warm body in a chair at the office doesn’t mean your employee isn’t working.
And what are the qualities aspiring remote workers should look for in a distributed company?
Justin: Aspiring remote workers should look for a company that will be supportive of their every move – work-related or not and will consider remote employees as “real employees”. Also, I would look for a company who provided the same benefits to in-office employees (assuming it’s semi-distributed) like stipends for snacks and dinners to company retreats. I think benefits like these are huge because they makes us remote workers feel like we are part of a team even though we aren’t physically together in an office.