Working remotely from the capital of Sichuan

Erin McGee, 6 min read

Working remotely from the capital of Sichuan

If I look outside, I can see a few interesting things.

A man rides a three-wheeled bicycle, cardboard stacked up on the back like a metre high Jenga tower. Not far from him, a woman carries a bamboo pole across her back, a basket filled with cherries on each end, ringing a bell as she walks down the alleyway.

If you’re thinking to yourself: where on Earth has Erin found herself? Wasn’t she seen last drinking tea in the Yarno office, in North Sydney? Well, I’m here to answer just that.

In short, I’ve been living in the capital of the Sichuan province, Chengdu, China for about the last year. I wouldn’t be totally lying if I told you I came here purely for the abundance of spicy food, pandas and all the noodles my heart and stomach could desire – but it was a little more thought-out than that.

Since moving home (to Sydney) after spending my childhood years in Singapore – and getting distracted by avocado on toast for the better part of my teens and early 20’s – I decided I’d pick up my game and begin to study Mandarin as part of my undergraduate degree.

I loved it – and wanted to continue studying. Then, like it always does, life got in the way for a couple of years and I was having too much fun at Yarno to think about disappearing to China.

However after visiting Chengdu to see an old friend last May, I couldn’t ignore it – this was somewhere I wanted to be. I came back to Sydney and to Yarno fidgety as hell – and I applied for a year of Mandarin study here in Chengdu.

At the time, beneath all of the excitement, I felt pretty sad. I’d accepted that I’d have to close one chapter to start another.

When first considering the move, I’d looked into working in the tech industry over here – but soon after learning about Alibaba’s infamous 996 work culture (one that requires employees to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) that makes even Silicon valley ‘hustlers’ look lazy, I was apprehensive about jumping into full-time work. If I wound up working 72 hours a week, I doubt I’d reach any of my Mandarin goals. Plus, I was pretty used to Yarno’s output-based, flexible approach to working.

It also seemed that by that point I was too much a part of the furniture, and I was overjoyed when I learned that the Yarno team wanted to keep me around, working remotely part-time with my studies.

So off I went, laptop and tube of Vegemite in hand, to conquer whatever craziness China could throw at me.

It’s been a ride, that’s for sure. Living alone in a country so foreign takes some getting used to, not to mention getting used to working fully remote.

So, how’d it go?

In short, great! It sure wasn’t easy, but with the right team it’s not only possible, but incredibly rewarding too.

I tested a few strategies for success, worked through some challenges, and ultimately had a wonderfully productive year with the legends of Yarno’s Team Content.

So what I thought I’d do for you today (yes, it’s about to get useful – congratulations on making it this far) is lay down a few key themes that I’ve learned play a big part in successfully working remotely.

Finding your space

In the past, when I’d work from home, I’d literally work from home. It was only ever a day or two a week, and that was manageable (and comfortable – slippers all day anyone?)

However, when the occasional work from home day turns into a full-blown remote endeavour, you’ve got to be a little smarter with your environment decisions.

A few tips from me:

  • Make a distinction between home-space, and work-space within your home

For me, this was creating a mini office in my apartment, where I would go through my pre-work rituals as if I were going to leave to the office (of course, this was after I did many a WIP in my pyjamas – not the finest idea I ever had)

  • Trial different spaces to find your most productive environment

After spending a few weeks in my makeshift mini-office, I got cabin fever. Bad.

I realised that personally, my home is my home – not my workplace. And so I set out to find a better balance of environments to avoid going stir-crazy. This meant scoping out the quiet cafes in my area with speedy WiFi and delicious snacks (using my VPN at all times of course).

Team support and culture is #1

Really, it’s never felt more important.

When you’re working in an office, it’s easy to be complacent with the sense of teamwork or culture that comes from coffee outings, lunches and after work activities.

But as it turns out, culture at Yarno runs far deeper than that.

There are times when remote work is isolating, and you’re left wondering if you’re really still a part of the team. Luckily for me, these moments were few and far between. But it did highlight the role that culture plays at Yarno.

My fellow content writers, Joel and Liam, lived our team values daily – they looked out for me, stayed up to date with what I was up to, and did their best to make sure I was putting enough time into my ultimate goal (learning Chinese).

And as for the wider team – everyone was awesome about me working in a different location. In fact, I even felt like I’d known our newest Yarnoers long before we’d met in person. Lachy even made arrangements to have me remotely join our last group mindfulness workshop (from my yoga mat in my lounge room!).

But mostly, it’s the little things. You don’t realise how much they matter, until you’re far from the action.

What do I mean by the little things?

  • Inside jokes and sharing memories
  • Hearing about everyone’s good news stories in our team WIP
  • All of the gif reactions (seriously) from the dev team
  • Having a teammate check in randomly, just to see how you’re going

Deliberate communication

We talk about creating a culture of over-communication – of giving each other all of the relevant information and more, so that we can do our best work as effectively as possible.

Communicating deliberately is another thing that can get forgotten about when you work side-by-side with people. Those micro-conversations about projects over a cup of tea, or asking a quick question across the desk – how do you fill those gaps when you’re not in the same physical space?

As a solution (and to generally level up our processes) we’ve jumped right into the Asana software platform. It’s a place that holds all of our projects – from OKRs to customer projects to our software development roadmap. And through using Asana, we’ve been able to deliberately communicate the important information to the people who need to know.

But for anyone working remotely – a few pointers on communicating:

  • Set up your schedule so you’ve got time allocated to update your team on your projects
  • Communicate daily on what you’ve achieved and what you’ve got coming up
  • Speak up often and early about what you may need help
  • If you’re dealing with a time difference, make sure you’re prepared for the week ahead – and of course, communicate that too!

Setting expectations

This is absolutely the most challenging part of working remotely for me, and the part I still haven’t quite nailed down.

When you work remotely, there’s often this overwhelming feeling of needing to do more, work harder and unfortunately, the line between your personal time and work time gets blurred – particularly if there’s a time difference involved. I have a bad habit of lurking on Slack at hours I shouldn’t, responding to messages straight away, and working when I said I wouldn’t be.

So my tip for this one: set expectations, and then stick to them.

Set blocks in your calendar so your team knows exactly when they can schedule meetings with you, turn off your Slack notifications between certain times, and let your customers know when they can expect responses from you.

Sure, there are extenuating circumstances that mean you’ve got to put in extra or work at an odd hour or two. But for the most part, you’ve got to honour your own life priorities and manage the balance, as it’s hard to work back from working too much.

Would I do it again?

Heck to the yes.

In fact, I’ll be continuing to work remotely as I relocate to (literally) the other side of the globe to chilly Helsinki. And I’ll be using all of the tools and strategies I’ve learned in the last year to keep Yarnoing as best I can.

As always, if you’ve any burning questions about remote work or spicy noodles, be sure to get in touch with me by email or on LinkedIn – I love a chat!

Erin McGee

Erin is Yarno's trusty wordsmith and resident spreader of good vibes. You'll find her chatting up a storm in Mandarin, yelling kiai's at jujitsu and eating dark chocolate at 2pm sharp.

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