At PSPDFKit, we strive to hire the best people for the job, regardless of where they are in the world. We’ve written about our hiring process and how we use retreats to offset the challenges of being a remote team. Here, I want to tell the other side of the story: my experience making the most of remote work.
When you work at PSPDFKit, it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as the work gets done. There is also great flexibility in when you work. Swapping evenings and weekends for the regular 9 to 5 is fine as long as there is some reasonable overlap with the working hours of everyone you need to collaborate with and everyone knows when you’ll be available.
After spending a few months settling into work at PSPDFKit, I decided to seize the opportunity to leave London behind and see more of the world. Over the past year, I’ve traveled to and worked from a number of places, such as Japan, Thailand, various European cities including Barcelona and Amsterdam, and even the mountains in the Austrian Alps. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this post from sunny Malta.
Over the course of this post, I’d like to demonstrate how working remotely can work out well for both the individual and the company, share some tips I’ve learned along the way in case you’re interested in trying out this lifestyle, and show you a few cool places I’ve worked from.
Working Remotely Works
The vast majority of our communication at PSPDFKit is asynchronous: We use Slack and GitHub all day. Communicating asynchronously to avoid distractions makes it easier to stay “in the zone,” and having a written record of what took place pays off when trying to remember why a decision was made or what the solution was to a problem that’s come up again. Of course, video calls are always there when a problem needs some rapid back and forth or we want a face-to-face discussion.
Regardless of if work is performed remotely or not, the standard working hours of 9 to 5 aren’t always ideal for everyone. Creativity and focus don’t always have a schedule, and sometimes fun has a schedule that conflicts with traditional working hours. Plus, people may have other commitments too. The solution is to be flexible and willing to work at unconventional hours. This can lead to a healthier work-life balance, as it allows people to make the call as to whether work or something else is more important at a particular time.
As for the company, the benefit is clear: Happy workers do good work.
As for myself, my main concerns before working remotely were: how I could stay focused, where I would find productive working environments, and the challenges of time differences.
Finding the balance between working and seeing interesting things in new places was a challenge at first, until I grew comfortable with not trying to see everything. I work the right amount and do a realistic amount of sightseeing in the remaining time. This can obviously be trickier if you run your own business, as you need to decide for yourself how much time spent working is worthwhile.
Since working is a priority that requires a large chunk of time, don’t rush around trying to cram in all the top sights or unique experiences a place has on offer! You’ll need to slow down drastically when compared to how you’d do travelling while on holiday. There is no magic number of days you should stay in one place, but in general, longer is definitely better. Longer stays help me feel at home and make me feel less rushed to see the unique sights in a new place.
The truth is, the world is big and there’s too much to see. Personally, I find travelling less enjoyable when moving quickly and trying to visit all the recommended sights and places. That’s why it’s tough, but necessary, to narrow it down to the best things for you.
While swapping weekdays for weekends is possible, I realised I am more productive when I stick to a weekly routine, taking at least Saturday or Sunday off — ideally both.
Setting Up an Ideal Environment
Working productively in unfamiliar settings isn’t a problem for me at all, but the nomadic lifestyle may not be for everyone. If you have difficulty working away from your desk in your office, it might not be a good fit, although you might be able to establish a workplace in a new setting.
If you’ve just arrived in a new city or country, it’s sometimes difficult to find a place with good Wi-Fi. Save yourself the hassle and make sure you have a SIM card that allows tethering and offers a fast connection and enough data allowance. This is especially true in Japan, where cafes with Wi-Fi are less common, but luckily there’s solid LTE coverage nearly everywhere there. Using your own connection is also more secure, which is beneficial when running server processes in development mode on the local network.
I use Airbnb for the majority of my stays. In my experience, if you find that there’s anything that could be done to improve the environment for your work, it’s always worth asking the host. In one place where I stayed, my host rearranged his furniture for me and moved his desk into my room, which was both really kind of him and very helpful.
If you feel comfortable working in new environments, experiment more! If the weather is nice, why not work outside? It’s much more pleasant and it combats vitamin D deficiency. 😎
Working in time zones far away from your colleagues can be a great challenge. Most of us at PSPDFKit are located in Europe, so in order to contact people and be contacted, I need to work with a reasonable number of hours overlapping with European time. This makes going to distant countries more challenging, but it isn’t out of the question. For example, Japan is 7 or 8 hours ahead of central Europe. With “normal” working hours, this would result in only a couple of hours of overlap. I overcame this by working in the evenings, which worked out really well because it freed up my time in the day to see the local sights. The Japanese mornings were also great for some types of work because there was nobody else on Slack to distract me. Places like eastern Australia and the west coast of the Americas are considerably more difficult and probably can’t work beyond a few days, so I’m saving these places for when I go on actual vacations.
I spent a week conveniently “skiworking” in Austria, so it was easy to hop on a train to Vienna at the end of the week for our winter retreat. My days roughly followed a pattern of skiing for an hour or two before settling down to work in a cafe or cafeteria up the mountain. It’s not so different from a morning run or a session in the gym. I skied back to the village at the end of day, and then I picked up work again in the hotel after dinner. The caveat is that skiing is expensive, so it might be a better idea to take some vacation time and just focus on skiing.
(Note: These are staged photos. Working on a ski lift or on an exposed peak at 3,000 meters is not recommended. 😜)
Japan has a lot to offer, from energising neon cityscapes to peaceful shrines and islands. While the cultural and language barrier may be high, the country is so well developed that it was a very easy place to live. I spent nine weeks in the country in the spring, which is when the weather is mild and the cherry blossoms are out.
It was also fun to travel out to Hiroshima and Fukuoka by Shinkansen and stay in a traditional ryokan (guesthouse).
As I mentioned earlier, I’m currently in Malta. I wanted a short trip before this year’s winter retreat, and I decided on Malta because it’s not too far away and it’s warmer than most of Europe at this time of year.
To me, remote work for PSPDFKit really is the best of both worlds. I have a huge amount of freedom and control over where and when I work, but I also receive regular paycheques, which makes the work dependable.
Thanks to PSPDFKit, my life is pretty awesome right now. I’m learning a lot working with an immensely talented team, I’m making ambitious products, and I find it truly liberating that I can be anywhere I desire. As long as I have my MacBook and can connect to the Internet, I’m all set. With remote work, you have the chance to work with the best people and the most efficiency, and everyone can have a good lifestyle.
There are lots of people sharing their experiences with remote work and the digital nomad lifestyle. I recommend Natasha Murashev’s The Secret Life of a Digital Nomad talk from AltConf 2016 to learn more about this.