At With Content, we’re fortunate that all of our team members (with the exception of a freelancer or two) are based in Southeast Asia. This means that our working hours overlap comfortably without any of us needing to come online at odd hours.
It’s a whole different ballgame at product design agency Melewi, however, whose members reside quite literally a world apart – as far as Denmark and New Zealand!
And yes – they’re a completely distributed company, too.
So how do they actually work together?
Melewi’s CEO Peach Nacion-McAndrew, who started out as a part-time assistant at the agency, gives us the full breakdown in this blog post.
Tell us more about Melewi.
Melewi is a digital design agency registered in Singapore, so we’re technically a Singaporean company. However, our team members and clients are everywhere else in the world. So we don’t really have a home base.
It’s been around for a while now, but I’ve been part of Melewi for maybe five and a half years now.
How did you decide to be a remote team?
It wasn’t really an intentional decision; it just happened.
Our founder started as a freelance designer, and was working remotely because she loved to travel. As she got more work than she could handle, she realized that she could also get people on board and they could do the same thing as she was.
So we got the first designer and then we just grew from there. Ever since, we’ve just been working remotely.
Do you think a fully distributed setup suits your team?
In the beginning, there were a lot of technical issues and problems with winning clients, because these clients pay us thousands of dollars, but they technically don’t really “see” us. Most of the time, they wouldn’t know whether we are a legitimate company or even real people.
However, it’s always suited us to work in this manner, so we just kept going.
We got a lot of clients in the beginning who always asked when they’ll get to see us or have face to face meetings with us. Eventually, they all just got used to seeing us on Google Hangouts or Skype calls.
Having said that, it really depends on the type of company they are as well. If they are a small startup, it could be easier for them to understand the remote setup. But for companies like McDonald’s, we had a lot of issues with them in the beginning because they always wanted to see us in their offices.
So we started out with meeting them three times a week in their office and then we told them, let’s just do two of those plus one online meeting, until we were finally able to convince them to do everything online.
How big is Melewi right now?
Right now we are a team of seven in different countries – Singapore, New Zealand, The Philippines, Greece, Bulgaria, and Denmark.
How does your team manage being in different time zones?
We have this simple rule for our team members that helps both us and our clients a lot: anywhere you are in the world, you are required to be online with the team from 2pm to 6pm, Singapore time.
It works well for us here in Southeast Asia because that’s in the afternoon. For the people in Europe, that’s early in the morning, but it works for them too because they get free afternoons.
You mentioned that you started off remote work sort of as a happy accident. Do you think that there’s a chance that you’ll be setting up your own offices one day?
No, definitely not.
Why change something that already works as it is? Plus, I think setting up an office will just be more challenging because then it limits us geographically in terms of clients and team members.
For instance, if we set up an office in Singapore, we might still be able to reach international clients, but our talent pool will only be people who live in Singapore, or we’ll have to hire foreigners to go to Singapore. Whereas now, we have the freedom to hire anywhere in the world as long as they agree to our stipulated working hours of 2pm to 6pm Singapore time.
I also don’t think anyone in the team would like the hassle of going back to an office setting.
Is this the first time you are working remotely? Do you have experience with remote work previously?
I first experienced remote work back in 2012. I was pregnant, and I had just lost a business and broke up with the father of my baby. So it was a really bad situation for me.
I didn’t know what to do, because most of the companies out there do not really hire pregnant women. If you’re six months pregnant, and you show up at an interview, you just get turned down.
Then I heard about online work from a friend, and started exploring oDesk, doing odd jobs here and there—mostly copywriting and SEO stuff. But they were paying peanuts, which then meant that I had to work long hours, up to 16 hours a day, just to be able to earn enough money for our needs.
A year later, Melewi’s founder Melissa found me on Upwork and invited me for an interview. And that’s where our working relationship started. I started out as a part-time assistant until I transitioned to a full-time position. Now, I’m running Melewi!
What does your typical workday look like?
When I wake up, I prepare my coffee and go straight to my emails and personal tasks. Whatever personal errands I have to do, I also do them all in the morning. After lunch, my entire afternoon is spent with my team—meetings, client work, or reviews that need to be done.
I usually end at around 5pm to 6pm, depending on how many projects we have.
What are some of the greatest challenges you face when it comes to remote work?
First challenge is when to stop working. That was a big challenge for me in the beginning because—especially as a freelancer—I was directly accountable to my clients.
You need to make them feel like you are dependable, responsible and are there for them all the time. So whenever they send me an email, I have to respond, even when I’m eating dinner with my family. That was good for my reputation with my clients, but it was very hard to manage my own personal life.
The second challenge is managing disturbances from family members.
In 2012, remote working was not a big thing. People thought that I was just playing on my computer. They didn’t really treat what I was doing seriously, even though I was taking my freelance work very seriously, and they didn’t respect my boundaries—everyone would ask me what I’m doing all the time. They would even barge into the room and start talking to me even when I’m clearly talking to someone else.
It took a long time to make them realize that what I’m doing is serious work.
And obviously, personal temptations were a big challenge. It’s so easy to say yes to a friend when they say ask me to, say, go get a manicure or coffee. But then that messes up my whole workflow. So I had to learn a lot of self-control.
In light of these challenges, what are some of the things that you did to overcome them?
I had to create a routine for myself. Before, I would think that I was so free and could start working anytime. So I got out of bed at 9am, made my coffee, and leisurely started work at around 1030am.
But that meant that my workday would be longer! So I decided to stick to regular office hours. I pretended like I was really going to the office at 8am, when I would get my computer, and then switch it off when it reaches 5pm.
So that routine helped those around me to see that 8am to 5pm is when I work, which means minimal distraction from them. It also helped me to be more self-disciplined, to say no to friends who ask me out during work hours.
Do you have any tools that help you with remote work?
My notepad, phone alarm, and calendar. My notepad is where I list everything that I need to do for work. My alarm is there to remind me of any important events. And everything else is on the calendar.
How is your home office setup?
I keep it flexible, so I don’t really have a home office setup.
If I have a meeting, I make sure to find a clean background and be well-dressed. But I only have meetings for interviews, client meetings, and team meetings.
Other than that, I would be working anywhere in the house—right on the bed, in front of the TV, anywhere in the living room, on the kitchen table, really anywhere.
I used to travel a lot too, so even now I’ve never bothered setting up my own home office.
What do you enjoy most about working remotely?
The flexibility. Specifically, the flexibility to take a moment with my kid or look out the window and reflect. Those little moments when I do whatever I want, whenever I want to, knowing that nobody is going to call me out for it.
In a previous life, I used to work at a call center, where every single break was an issue. You only get two breaks of 15 minutes each, and for the rest of the shift you have to be reading and rushing and feeling nervous about taking too much time for anything—even going to the bathroom.
That’s why I value the flexibility most. Mothers, in particular, are able to spend time with their children and just watch them—those kinds of moments you’ll miss if you’re working in an office.
Would you ever consider returning to a traditional office job?
I don’t think so. It’s a no for me.
Even if I lose this job, I will find a way to find another remote job. Going to an office is out of the question, especially for us here in the Philippines, where traffic is a killer.
What is something about remote work that you wish people knew?
Maybe how hard it actually is, that you really need to take it seriously.
People think that remote working is really nice—you have a lot of free time and you can do anything you want. In reality, it doesn’t happen like that. Especially if you’re a freelancer, you’ll fill your time with lots of work so you can earn enough money for the times that you do not have the clients. So you don’t actually have free time to go to the beach. Or take a plane and go somewhere.
It’s not all fun and games. You have to make it happen by working really, really hard.
There are also other difficult issues like proving that you are financially stable. When you go to a bank, for example, to get a credit card, they don’t take you seriously because you work online. Ironically, during this pandemic, we are the people who are still able to do work remotely.
Any recommendations for those who are just starting to work remotely or are currently in the midst of switching?
My advice is not to give up, even though it might seem very hard to get a remote job.
Working remotely means needing to learn new skills that you may not be familiar with in your previous jobs. You have to let go of everything you’ve learned in the office, regardless of the rank you had. And you might have to start by taking low-paying work.
Most freelancers win their first projects by pricing really low—so low that it’s not worth your time, really. But you really need that first project to get recommendations or feedback.
A lot of people are put off by that. But anything is possible online, you just need to have the guts to get into it.