Hailing from a small English town, Cat Searby works for ustwo.com, a digital product studio and creators of the puzzle app Monument Valley. Joining originally as their first studio manager back in 2007, Cat now deals with a whole host of behind the scenes tasks related to business systems, finance and global operations.
Working remotely for 6 years from a French village Morzine while skiing and mountain biking in her time off, Cat makes a perfect candidate for a chat about remote work.
How does someone working for a London agency find themselves in a little French village?
Growing up I spent a lot of time outdoors, climbing trees, riding bikes, fishing and making dens. After living in London for three years I was desperate for a countryside escape so me and my dad booked a holiday to Morzine in the French Alps.
It was action packed, we went white water rafting, mountain biking, hiking and got our fix of fresh air, sunshine and excitement.
I was blown away by beauty of Morzine, a little chocolate box town full of flowers, surrounded by mountains, pine trees, lakes and waterfalls. At one point I was so overwhelmed by the beauty it brought a tear to my eye and I started wondering how it could be possible to live somewhere like this.
What did your path to remote work look like?
I went remote in 2010, by this point we had about 70 staff and two studios in London and Malmo.
My role was to look after daily operations, so the founders and everyone else could focus on their tasks distraction free. By this point I was less involved in the hands on management of the studio and everything was digital and everything was online. I was remotely supporting our Malmo studio from London and it was working well. I figured If I could support Malmo from London I could support both from France.
They said if I wanted to change my role because I wasn’t happy they could look into it, if I wanted more money they could look into it, but if I wanted to be based elsewhere there was nothing they could do.
I pitched the idea to my boss with an extensive document detailing my entire role broken into tasks. I explained how each could work remotely and for the few that wouldn’t, I had solutions.
Some of the best advice I have been given is “If you want something passionately enough, you can make it work.” I was confident this would work for both, me and ustwo. The good news was they didn’t want lose me and so we agreed to a one month trial.
I have now been working for them almost nine years and six of those have been remote, based in the Alps.
What is life in Morzine like?
Moving here was the best thing I ever did.
I fell in love with the mountains and I have a fantastic life in Morzine. Every day I wake up blown away by the breathtaking scenery. Last night we had dramatic thunderstorms and today low clouds are nestling gently on the trees.
In summer my weekends are spent downhill biking and in winter skiing. Some mornings we get up early and ski tour in the darkness as the sun rises. Nothing like climbing a mountain before work to get the blood pumping. The powder on some of the runs last winter was phenomenal, my friend’s all mountain powder skis really got put to the test whilst we were almost gliding whilst turning side to side through the powder. I can’t wait for this winter to do it again.
Morzine is such a great geographical location. Geneva over an hour away, we are right on the border of Switzerland and can reach Chamonix and the Mont Blanc tunnel for easy access to Italy in just over an hour.
There is an amazing community of like-minded people here who inspire and encourage me, united by our passion for the outdoors and extreme sports.
I missed the culture, creativity and inspiration of the city and so I began organising outdoor pop up film nights via futureshorts.com which have been warmly received.
Do you have a daily routine? How you deal with working across timezones?
I used to check my emails constantly, afraid that by not responding (even out of hours) and being remote people would assume I was skiing or slacking.
I soon learnt that being remote has to operate on trust and mutual respect and your output speaks for itself. I honestly think I am more productive and focused when working remotely. Now I have a good balance and the business itself has changed too and doesn’t expect email responses at weekends, so there is a respect of work and play boundaries.
I plan my day around London working hours as standard, it is our largest studio and the business operates centrally from there.
Sweden is only one hour ahead, so that isn’t a problem. When working with Sydney, I start and finish a little earlier, and I alternate that with the days I have a call with New York where I start and finish a little later. It isn’t a problem and is easy to manage.
Slack as a tool is incredibly valuable to us and I find it helps massively with our distributed team communications.
You’ve been working remotely for several years. What has been the biggest challenge so far?
It wasn’t always easy, particularly at first. It was quite a dramatic lifestyle change and I had naively (or boldly) jumped in head first.
I struggled being so isolated from my colleagues and friends and I missed social interaction. After being slap bang in the middle of Shoreditch it was quite a change transitioning into a small alpine town in a new country.
I tried various techniques like going for a walk before and after my working day, having a shower and changing clothes once my work day was ‘finished’ to give me a separation… It all sounds quite silly now but I think it helped.
Over time I made friends so I had people to socialise with. This made a massive difference. The real change was when I started to organise drop in office share and co-working events via workatjelly.com at a restaurant that was closed during the day.
This was great for networking and meeting other freelancers who also worked from home and missed social interaction. That has since developed into permanent desks in a local office and I love it. I gradually built a fantastic life for myself in this inspirational place.
I am very grateful ustwo had the forward thinking approach to support remote work in its infancy. A lot of people say I am so lucky to have the life I lead but it all boils down to hard work, trust and determination. Fortune favours the brave and I’m glad I made the leap.