Remote work helped me follow my passion and focus on personal life
Rhys is a photographer, graphic designer and front-end developer from New Zealand.
1. Hey, can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Rhys and I’m currently a front-end designer/ developer for a Swiss-based software company. I’ve just recently moved back to my home country of New Zealand, with my wife and two children, after living overseas since 2004.
I’m married to a research scientist which means we move around a fair bit. We’ve lived in Australia, Sweden and Norway, plus we’ve visited numerous places in between. I’m an avid photographer which means living-in/ visiting these new places has been a real treat for me, as it has enabled me to develop my photography skills. During our 9 year stay in Tromso, Norway, while we learned the language, had two kids, climbed mountains, went on four week midnight sun cycle tours and such, I really honed in on my love for astrophotography. Specifically Northern Lights photography:
2. What motivated you to choose remote working?
My wife. With her career being the way it is, she has had to travel to numerous places for work.
Had I not been a remote worker, I would not have been able to follow and our relationship would have struggled greatly. However by biting the bullet and choosing remote working, specifically in fields that are very receptive to it - graphic design and web development - our relationship has flourished.
Another thing that sticks in my mind from around the time I decided to try my hand at remote working, New Zealand had very little job prospects in the fields I enjoyed working - graphic design, web development and photography. There was nothing for recent graduates without first having a minimum of 3 years commercial experience and how am I meant to get that if no one will give me a job. Instead, I was working the midnight shift at a local food supply warehouse driving forklifts to make ends meet. This was most definitely not my idea of a good time, I had to change my situation and remote working allowed me to do so.
3. What were your initial months like? Did it live up to your expectations?
The first few months were incredibly jarring and freeing in equal amounts.
I found the lack of human interaction isolating, but managed to counter the isolation with walks during lunch or having a coffee with my wife at her place of work. This isolation was heavily outweighed, however, by the freedom I gained around “how I worked” and “when I worked”. It’s especially true if you have children who need to get to school or to swimming lessons at certain times during the day. I can easily work around these and still be on call if work desperately needs to get hold of me.
What I also found out was a need to define very clear working hours, in my timezone (NZ), so I didn’t have people from work calling me at 1am (1pm CET) asking me to do something for them. This happened a few times until I twigged to what was going on. I very quickly setup my calendar in a more rigorous manner and enabled scheduled silent mode on all notifications. This has also helped me stick to a “working hours” schedule and not work into my evenings.
4. How did you find remote working roles?
The majority of my remote working roles have come via word of mouth. My first real job out of tertiary education was for a small software company in Australia. I worked in-house as their webmaster and graphic designer. After a couple of years they were acquired by a massive international software company, which chose to keep me on board and placed me within their marketing department - remotely. This freed me up to move around the globe, which we promptly did to Umeå, Sweden.
The people I’ve met in every role since tend to stay in touch and have kept me locked away somewhere in the back of their mind. When they need my skill set - graphic design, web development or photography - they look me up and ask if I’m interested. I tend to give every enquiry a good amount of thought. I’ll get on a call with them and chat about the position, discussing things from expectations, pay, company culture, work load, etc. After about an hour of this, I’ll have a clear idea if it’s worth exploring more or not.
5. What have been the best, good and worst aspects of remote working for you?
The best has got to be the flexibility. Being able to structure my day around how I want to work, where I want to work and what needs to be done.
For example, if I’m not enjoying my home office, I’ll pack up my laptop and head over to a coffee shop. I’ll spend a couple of hours there working on a coding problem and chat with some of the locals. I feel immensely more connected to the community around me versus working in an office space.
The good is the autonomy. This bleeds into the flexibility point I mention above, but is worth fleshing out. I now get to decide when to work - so long as the work gets done by the set deadline, I’ve found workplaces don’t really mind.
It can be a double-edged sword however, so you need to be strict with yourself. Set yourself goals for each day, week, month and quarter. If you nail those and the client is happy, then great! More on the tools I use to manage this below.
The bad is the isolation. While it’s great being away from the distraction and noise of an office space, it can also take a huge toll on your mental and physical health.
I’m still working on ways to combat this and it’ll be different for everyone. For me a few things I’ve found that work are; renting a hot desk at a coworking space, going to a local cafe for a few hours, meeting up with friends during the day or going out for a run for an hour. Just getting out and getting some fresh air can help immensely.
6. What tools do you swear by while working remotely?
First and foremost a sturdy notebook and pen. Nothing beats the physicality of jotting down some notes or a sketch in a notebook. This has been the one staple tool I have constantly used over the past 15+ years. Usually these notes or sketches will be ingested by some digital tool later on, but initially it all starts on paper.
- Wavebox - For running the myriad of G-Suite apps used in my workplace. This keeps them all in one place and not inside a browser that I use for research and development.
- ClickUp - Collaborative task management with the entire team. This has eliminated the horrid email chain problem that we use to strike. Each task has comments, files, due dates, importance, plus whatever other data is related to each specific task attached to it. Truly a lifesaver for this remote worker.
- Things - Ad Hoc task management for things that come to mind that don’t warrant a full ticket in ClickUp. More along the lines of personal to-dos.
- Slack - Team communication.
- Hnry - My tax agents in New Zealand. Find a good one in your area, they have calmed my anxiety about filing tax a hundred fold.
7. Your most exciting/ hilarious experience since you started working remotely.
The most exciting has got to be the people I’ve met and places I’ve been.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to travel far, far away from the comforts of my homeland, to quite literally the polar opposite end of the earth. I lived in Arctic Norway for 9 years. Being a remote worker allowed me to explore Northern Norway and befriend some of the most genuine, caring, loving people I have had the pleasure to be with. They opened my mind to different ways of thinking, to slow down and enjoy life. For far too long I had been a part of the rat race, to move fast and break things. Up there it’s more; slow down and enjoy the coffee, what’s the hurry? I learned a lot from my time there and I look forward to returning one day.
Also there is nothing like exploring remote landscapes with your camera strapped to your back by cross country ski - it was absolute perfection.
8. What is your golden advice to a new remote worker?
Focus and execute.
It’s far too easy to let your mind drift to other things, like “that washing really needs to get done now” or “oh man I MUST watch this next Youtube video”. Just don’t do it - you have to be very strict with yourself. Remove all distractions from your working environment and use that environment strictly for work between your “open hours”. Or even rent a hot desk at a coworking space, sometimes I’ve had to do this when my home environment was too small or I got lonely.
Once you’ve honed your focus, execute all the things you have lined up for that day. If you miss some, don’t fret, just move them onto the next days list and keep the ball rolling. Come the end of the week, review what you got done and what you didn’t, then prepare a list for the following week. Taking an hour of your Friday to do this review gives you the clarity to focus and execute the following week.
9. How do you see your career shaping up and your goals?
My career continues to expand along a nice trajectory, along with my skill set.
Leaving New Zealand with my wife to travel was a great way to experience the world outside of my comfort zone. Dealing with really tough situations - like getting lost in rural Poland without understanding an ounce of Polish for example. The people helped us regardless, even though we could not communicate through words. Experiences like that (and I have many more!) has helped me refocus on what is really important when setting goals and where I want to take my career.
I would like what I create to benefit the greater community, be it through education or useful eye opening tools and not to benefit only a select few, who only have interest in pushing profit margins.
10. How do you expect remote working to evolve in the future?
I really hope the proliferation of Remote Working continues to grow. However, there has got to be more trust from employers. There is still a mistrust towards the remote worker only because they can’t see you, regardless of your output. I’ve been striking this less and less over the years, which I think is a good sign.
When I was working at a Fortune 500 company between 2004-2008 as a remote web developer and photographer, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive attitude towards remote workers. They genuinely cared about us and regularly checked in to make sure everything was going as expected. However in 2008 there was a management change and the attitude towards remote workers swiftly shifted. Seeing the writing on the wall, I found a different place of employment. I found out five months later all the remote workers were given an ultimatum - move into one of their offices or leave.
So sometimes attitudes shift from what once was remote-friendly to anti-remote, in the space of a handful of years. I hope this above example was an anomaly, but I suspect the evolution of remote working will continue to ebb and flow.
11. Where can we follow you on?
My website is: https://madebydusk.com - it hasn’t been updated for a while, which I attribute to 2018/19 being a massive upheaval for me and my family moving from Norway to New Zealand.