When Siobhan McKeown put out a call for testimonies for a new book she’s writing on remote work, I immediately raised my hand. Not that I doubted she would get an overwhelming response, but because I think Siobhan is pretty fantastic and because I thought I could contribute something unique to her research. In the subsequent interview, she shook loose quite a few memories.
Little known fact: my first gig upon leaving the US in 1996, before getting involved with web development, was as a ghost writer. I had been working as office manager of a SoMa startup, and when I told my employer that I was giving notice to move to France, he told me about a personal project he’d been dreaming about, and made me an incredible offer. He wished me a bon voyage in the form of a clunky old PowerBook (which I thought was quite fancy at the time) and a handsome weekly paycheck to research and write an online travel log, based on his and his wife’s extensive notes on years spent traveling the globe.
It was a rare and unfathomable opportunity for me and for the time, made possible by the existing technology and my employer’s generosity, trust and sense of forward-thinking entrepreneurism.
I had no idea what I wanted back then, but I knew it couldn’t be found in a traditional job, in a traditional setting. Finding it—living it—would be a matter of continually saying “yes” to the unknown. I had no concept of “remote work” or “digital nomadism”; I went where opportunity, a sense of adventure and a promise of independence took me.
That project never got off the ground, in fact it was the best paid complete and utter failure I’ve ever had. A lot of that failure was likely due to the remote aspect of the work. When the laptop broke down (twice), I had to send it back to the US and wait for repairs. There wasn’t the abundance of Internet cafés that there are today (or that there were just a few short years later). I lacked structure and experience and an overall plan about how to tackle such a project. Just because I wanted independence, didn’t mean that I was quite ready for it. The experience primed me for what came next.
My professional origin story generally begins in 1998 when I started my first web agency. Technically that set up didn’t qualify as remote working; like any agency (in those days) we had offices that I shared with my two associates, interns and, later on, our two employees. When I went freelance in late 2000, I stayed in those offices for a while, then found a new office space that I shared with a few other freelancers for the next several years.
All of my clients then were local, with their businesses in or around Lyon. Every once in a while one of them would ask if I could come work in their office for a day, or two, or a week. My answer was always, “(oh hell) no (um, thank you).” But I had face-to-face contact with every one of them at some point. We would have a meeting over coffee or lunch. I would get a tour of their office, business or factory. There was only one exception from those early days, a client entrusted to me by a colleague who I never met in person. But it was otherwise unheard of.
I’ve often chalked this up to French culture, but in retrospect I wonder if it wasn’t just the era. Were things so different elsewhere?
When I moved to Paris in 2005, I worried about the effect it would have on my client relationships. I had new projects lined up, but the idea of getting fired, whether I needed the work or not, made me miserable. To my surprise, nobody fired me. Moving away wasn’t such a big deal after all. This is when the notion of “remote” work started to set in.
For that next Paris-based phase of my career, I toggled between a home office and rented office space, and oddly, except for the clients I had retained in Lyon, the majority of my new clients were local too. Or maybe not so odd, I mean, how do we choose who we want to work with? Like anything else, we tend to go with personal recommendations and people we meet. I wasn’t known outside of Lyon yet, so it was natural to start building my new network right where I was, with the people around me.
Over time that network grew. Paris has a kind of turnover that I hadn’t known in Lyon, much more people coming and going, and so crossing paths. It made the network infinitely broader. But still, toward the end of that time, I can recall only two people I worked with who weren’t local and who I’d never met in person. And then I moved to Normandy.
You can’t get much more remote than the tiny village in the lower Manche where my husband and I moved in 2011. We are literally surrounded by cows and cornfields. The nearest train station is a 20-minute drive, as is pretty much every other convenience. I did attempt some local networking here in the beginning, and even worked briefly with our real estate agent, who lives close by. Mostly though, since moving to Normandy my network has been maintained and perpetuated via social media, traveling to conferences, through referrals and previous contacts.
Last year I sat down to calculate what percentage of clients I had met in person. I was expecting the number to be much higher, but I still came up with a whopping 50%. Half of the people I had been working with for the last few years, I had only ever exchanged phone conversations or emails with, maybe a video conference, but had never met in real life.
The notion of remote work evokes proximity, and as I’ve physically moved further and further from the people I work with, I’ve also become less reliant—or maybe dependent—on having physical contact with those people and their work environments. Although I don’t think that’s a defining characteristic of remote work, I do find it interesting.
Siobhan asked me if I thought there were advantages to a face-to-face meeting. I replied that maybe the only advantage to meeting in person was potentially to get a better read on someone. I said that maybe my “bullshit meter” worked better in person, reminiscing about a couple of specific projects.
After giving it some more thought, I don’t think this is true. I don’t think that getting a read on people is a matter of seeing their faces, shaking their hands or sharing a cup of coffee. Over time and with experience, we learn to pick up on cues, or “red flags” as we often refer to them. They are everywhere to be found: in project requests, answers to questions, ways of stating problems, ways of reacting to a bid and more. The hints are there if we are listening for them, and above all, if we are prepared to walk away. If I’m honest with myself, the times I didn’t pay attention to those red flags were the times when I had decided well in advance that the reward would be greater than the risk. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I got it wrong.
Big thanks to Siobhan for stirring up new thought as I continue my trip down memory lane. Very much looking forward to reading the new book!
Feel free to share your story or thoughts on remote work in the comments below smile