What Technological Innovations Can Make Remote Working Go Mainstream?

I believe that remote working has been fairly mainstream in most metropolitan cities over the past 5–7 years. Some of the leading challenges are related to companies’ remote working policy or a limited number of available places welcoming remote workers.

I’ve spent years working from a number of coffices and wrote a cofficers guide for freelancers and telecommuters.

technological innovations

There are some technical innovations already available but not as affordable or applicable for coffices. Here are some of my top picks – along with those that I haven’t seen on the market yet.

Portable Noise-Canceling Headset

There are hundreds of headsets available out there – yet, I’m still on the hunt for a portable, comfortable, and affordable one that won’t annoy a prospect over a call.

Jumping on a call is always a chore for everyone who happens to be in a loud area. A small headset that reflects the noise and produces crystal clear voice quality at an affordable fee would be a dream for any cofficer who has to contribute with voice communication as well.

5x More Powerful Laptop Battery

Some business laptops are getting better in battery life. Yet, that comes at a price.

You either end up with an 11″ screen that isn’t suitable for pixel-perfect design, or a large notebook with an external battery that weighs a ton.

On top of that, some activities require powerful CPUs or video cards that can easily kill even the most well-optimized hardware devices out there.

Being able to take a flight overseas and spend 15 hours on your laptop without breaking a sweat would be more than ideal. Plenty of journalists and bloggers struggle during long conferences. Professional video editors can hardly imagine running a portable station that would last more than a couple of hours.

Wide Coverage 4G Modems

OK, Internet connectivity is pretty much a solid requirement for most remote workers.

There are three main problems that people face when working from a coffee shop:

  1. The local Wi-Fi may be unreliable – slow, crowded, you name it
  2. The venue may be in a shopping center or underground – thus receiving low signal to a mobile phone (tethering from the phone being no longer an option)
  3. A trip abroad may target a place with an extremely expensive phone plan and a limited coverage area

Being able to work from a beach or in any coffee shop with a reliable 4G modem would be very much preferable. I use both my phone and a 4G modem locally and they fail in certain areas – especially outside of the big city.

Skyroam is an interesting alternative that covers a good number of countries. It may very well be a good solution when traveling.

Notebook Lockers

Spending several hours in a coffee shop will likely result in a restroom break. Leaving your notebook unattended is not preferable yet carrying it over to the near restroom is inconvenient.

Some notebooks support different forms of lockers – such as the Kensington cable lock. Those have some limitations in terms of size or reliability – and there are ways to squeeze a notebook around then if you browse some YouTube videos.

A locker system that’s portable and extremely reliable would be a safe bet for remote workers. An example would be a strong magnet that doesn’t affect that machine and can be tapped under the table with a fingerprint. It would be the size of a large coin and make your laptop entirely stuck on the table until unlocking it yourself.

Projection Virtual Keyboard

Virtual keyboard

Virtual keyboards already exist although they’re far from common. Their reliability and the typing comfort is arguable, along with their cost.

The main benefit of using a virtual keyboard would make a large notebook obsolete. You can use your phone or a tablet and avoid carrying a heavy backpack on the way to a coffice. Also, this would let you spend some time working at all times – waiting in a line or for a dentist’s appointment.

Virtual External Monitor

In addition to the virtual keyboard, a virtual external monitor would be really awesome. On one end, you can still use it with your phone – limiting the constraints of the small screen size. On top of that, many of us utilize a second monitor at work.

If you sit near a wall, you can easily project your screen right next to you. Some privacy concerns may arise and projecting on the desk instead may be more preferable. In practice, using your keyboard holder or a small and tiny stand used for projecting would still work perfectly – being a lighter and more portable alternative.

The Bottom Line

There are additional utilities such as self-charging stations (already available), self-walking suitcases following your watch, Moleskine notebooks storing data in your iPad and the like. Google Glass was also an interesting experiment and I expect a competitor to follow with a more refined model soon. But the more affordable and common new gadgets become, the easier would it be for remote workers to become productive in the coffee shop next door.

Mentorship Is Overrated In Early IT Days

Mentorship is overrated, especially during the first years of one’s technical career.

But Why Is Mentorship Overrated?

Mentorship

Not because mentors lack the skills or experience to help out. There’s simply too much emphasis on the need for mentorship for one’s successful career.

Great mentors are highly experienced, somewhat successful, and extremely busy. This effectively reduces the number of “available” mentors across the board. So, it’s safe to say that for every great mentor, there are probably 1,000 or more potential candidates who may benefit from their services.

Since that’s virtually impossible to happen, people insisting on having a mentor tend to rant about having none, asking on forums for available resources, or get someone of their peers to help out (which leads to unpredictable results).

Developers Need To Take Action

It’s about making the first move and iterating upon that, over and over. With time, results will come, and the following experience will raise real-world questions.

Mentorship is only effective when built upon a solid foundation. If a recent graduate isn’t even sure what they plan to do over the next few years, a mentor won’t be of use.

A junior engineer with a year or two on the job has a lot more to learn before deciding on a possible career jump or the advancement into a consulting role, a senior software architect, or a technical project manager.

Mentorship was barely discussed a decade ago, or even 6–7 years back. It suddenly became viral and people mistakenly believed that every successful person was born and raised with a mentor alongside. Same goes for 1-on-1 trainers.

Mentors Can Be Invaluable Later In Your Career

As an already successful professional eager to step up their game. Working hard for a continuous period of time is likely to rank you higher, and land you great job opportunities. But a mentor can take you to the next level with some guidance, direction, and help you refine your action plan accordingly.

It may be rough at first, especially if you don’t have a vision for your own career. And this may lead to some trial and error until you figure it out. Once you do, work hard for a while, get to the point of being productive and satisfied, and look for a mentor who can push your boundaries even further.

Comparing Costs Between Hiring And Outsourcing Web Developers

With the exception of hiring contractors for a predefined short-term (3–6 months), employees expect a long-term offer.

The average tenure for software engineers varies – somewhere around 2 years.

Building An In-House Team vs Outsourcing

If you expect that a project will keep evolving rapidly for many years to come, building an in-house team is a possibility. Especially if you can continuously introduce new features, clean out redundant code, optimize for performance (activities that would easily occupy someone half-time, if not full-time).

The more resources you look forward to outsourcing, the wider the gap. Of course, there is an added cost when going through an agency – or even when working with a freelancer part-time. These folks pay taxes, probably rent, don’t have guaranteed paychecks, need to take care of health insurance, invest in marketing/branding for future leads, you name it.

I wrote the business breakdown of what goes into running a dev agency. The markup is easily 3–6 times higher for outsourced labor, the lower coefficient applied when you guarantee some work or when management overhead/QA are not needed.

There’s one more thing…

Comparing Costs Between Hiring And Outsourcing Web DevelopersHiring a full-time developer on-site may NOT work for you – if you aren’t tech-savvy. Or even if you are but lack programming skills.

Hiring Tips To Remember

Hiring a mid-level developer, often even a senior one, would require some guidance, sometimes help, occasionally a code review, making sure that the process works smoothly. For maximum efficiency, tech lead/software architect working with a project manager (in charge of estimates and deadlines).

It’s generally cheaper and less degrading if you hire a QA person. Asking developers to test all edge cases is far from ideal. It’s on par with writing documentation (from a programmer’s perspective).

On Building A Team For “Small” Projects

All things considered, building a complete team for a “small” project is often overkill.

As an example, we sell retainers for 40 to 200 hours a month. Fewer is impossible to manage internally. Over 200h/mo usually gets more expensive and arguably sustainable in the long run.

A median retainer (100 to 120 hours) gets you a half-time experienced developer with access to creative and front-end experts, a zealous QA team, an account manager making sure that everything runs seamlessly, DevOps guys when there is a need for server fine-tuning, an automated monitoring system built in-house, and enough resources to help out in cases of emergency.

The Cost Of Hiring And Managing Multiple People

Access to senior management is often helpful (we can advise on best industry practices considering our expertise over the years). Our marketing team also works closely with creative and tech folks on all things user experience, conversion rates, sales funnels.

That’s usually within $10K/mo which isn’t a terrible deal with the cost of hiring and managing multiple people with different skill sets, retaining them long enough, dealing with layoffs and ongoing recruitment, handling emergencies during holidays and sick leaves, and so on.

We’ve had clients pay us for 250 hours a month for several months in a row. We always end up reducing the workload with 50% or more or slowly transferring work to a new in-house team of theirs with a smaller, consulting and advisory plan instead.

Occasionally, clients get tempted by outsourcing to Asia – India, the Philippines, Pakistan. This week alone, I received 2 applications by mid-level Indian developers asking for $2,500/mo and one for a project manager (admittedly, a good one) looking for over $5,000/mo, all working remotely from India.

Talented folks are not stupid, they can work remotely and ask for competitive salaries, so abysmally low rates can hardly match decent code quality (plus management, business acumen, expertise in scaling platforms).

Cultural Differences Impact On Remote Teams

Cultural differences do have an impact on remote teams.

I personally believe that to be an upside since I’ve always been genuinely interested in different cultures across the world. My first remote job was for a company building two translation products and I truly enjoyed the experience for the very same reason.

I feel that it’s more common than not, considering the millennials’ passion for traveling and exploring different cultures.

 Stay As Far As Possible From

Then again, it is not for everyone. Some people can’t grasp that and don’t want to comply with the basic norms and moral standards. That’s one of the first tests distributed companies need to align on — you want to stay as far as possible from racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, or any form of discrimination whatsoever.

Certain behaviors may be fine in a small team or over drinks after hours. But a larger distributed team may cause some friction if you don’t understand everyone’s culture.

Disclaimer: certain customs may be different for various groups of people, I’m speaking from experience and there may be certain inaccuracies that need clarification.

Some examples on top of my head:

  • Americans and Eastern Europeans tend to swear a lot more compared to others. This may come off as a lot more offensive than you can imagine.
  • Some people are quite religious. Messing with that even indirectly may be considered harmful. Also, they may drop the occasional “God bless you” which may be interpreted in different ways.
  • Many Muslims take occasional prayer breaks throughout the day. This may be quite surprising to others, especially since the prayer times depend on the position of the Sun and the locality of the individual. It may very well fall in the middle of a meeting and you simply need to understand that.
  • Food discussions are safe most of the time, but not necessarily. Jewish followers stick to Kosher food, Muslims don’t eat pork (and usually don’t drink). We have vegetarians and vegans, gluten-free people or lactose-intolerant ones (did you know that 90% of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant?) On top of that, vegetarianism breaks down into other areas, pescatarians are vegetarians who eat fish, but not all vegetarians do; Jains in India don’t eat root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, or onions, and the list goes on.

Cultural References

Also, cultural references of local areas (food chains or supermarkets), movies, sports may get weird. For instance, I hadn’t heard of Tesco or 7-Eleven before driving through the UK and visiting the US a few times. I often see references of Indian actors or politicians on Quora, and I know nothing about cricket (and almost nothing about baseball or American football).

I won’t even touch on the metric vs. imperial system, currency exchanges, certain numeric gotchas (i.e. lakhs and crones in India) and the like:

Cultural Differences Impact On Remote Teams
A Screengrab fromhttps://www.zmescience.com/other/map-of-countries-officially-not-using-the-metric-system/

Bottom line, it could be quite fun, entertaining, and enlightening if you’re open-minded and into that. But it’s not for everyone so bear this in mind if you’re in an international setup.

Benefiting Your Clients As A Distributed Agency

Small distributed teams are often worried about working remotely when selling to their first customers.

Here are several tips you need to know.

A Client Shouldn’t Care

Technically speaking, a client shouldn’t care whether an agency is distributed or not. In a B2B transaction, the deal happens between both parties, based on a set of terms, requirements, and milestones (or deadlines). But there are some perks that I’ll explain further.

Given that the work has been outsourced (i.e. not everyone works at the same office all the time), communication must be streamlined anyway. Meetings are to be scheduled accordingly, the rest is aligned according to the work process.

A Truly Distributed Team

In a truly distributed team, meetings may be a bit trickier to happen. For instance, our marketing team is dispersed across North America, Europe, and Asia. Our editor is in Canada, several folks are in Macedonia and Bulgaria, and we have three more in the Philippines. We have some freelance writers in the US, too.

So getting everyone in a meeting is nearly impossible. That’s why internal processes happen in different manners, e.g. with weekly sprints and recurring assignments, or a pipeline-based model that relies on less internal communication.

Whenever meetings have to happen, it’s usually the client, an account/project manager, a technical/project lead, probably one or two more people tops. The account manager is in charge of syncing everything else internally.

Certain Client-Facing Benefits

On the upside, distributed companies bring certain benefits, especially when they cover a broader set of countries/cultures:

  1. Uptime monitoring and management — instead of running a 24/7 support team, a distributed agency may cover for most incidents or unexpected events with a pretty decent overlap. The agency’s business hours are quite broader than those of an on-site 9-to-5 team.
  2. Cultural assistance — some of our publishers target specific demographics or religions, and having a distributed team has set us up for acceptance and understanding cultural specifics across the board, what’s appropriate and what not.
  3. Multilingual development — we often step in for teams in the US/UK building multilingual platforms. What we consider “common sense” (having been raised and born with) is often counterintuitive for native US and UK developers, which often causes problems for international platforms. Aside from understanding time zones and cultures, we speak a number of languages, including Bulgarian (Cyrillic) and Arabic (a right-to-left language) which cause some interesting problems unless you know where to look for.
  4. Communication and QA — related to the multilingual point above, multinational clients often have to deal with content, activities, vendors and 3rd parties across the globe. We have occasional meetings with Russian project managers, QA Arabic content for our Dubai-based partners for a client, and review original specifications in German for our automotive clients as an extra check as occasionally, essentials are “lost in translation”.
  5. Day-to-day sync with vendors and partners — our clients also work with other vendors around the world; creative teams, ad performance companies, booking platform providers, QA teams, support staff, regional managers, consultants. Occasionally, there’s a good match between someone in an odd timezone here who happens to live nearby someone important who has to participate in a project.
  6. Holiday availability — if your office is generally closed for Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Diwali, ours isn’t. Which can be truly instrumental for handling different emergencies or simply stepping up for a quick fix while nobody else is around, without asking for taking shifts on a major holiday.

I’ve elaborated on these in a video on YouTube:

There’s a lot more to that, of course, but while distributed companies have to be on par with their on-site counterparts, there are also the added benefits coming as a result of that collaboration.

Advice For Service-based Businesses Working On One-Off Contracts

A common problem for small companies, especially service-based businesses working on one-off contracts is having a sole founder relying on irregular contracts needing to hire help. 

My advice is:

Switch to a Recurring Revenue Model ASAP

Recurring revenue is, by far, the best way to manage growth in a predictable manner and scale accordingly. Could be maintenance contracts, creating copy on a monthly basis, marketing or SEO campaigns, sorting out paperwork or whatever your business does.

Building (or outsourcing) a product may be a good alternative, too. Think about repetitive tasks that can be streamlined and offered in a maintenance package. Or consider investing in a custom product that you can charge for on a monthly basis.

Finding At Least 2 Lead Sources That Work Reliably

The other option is finding at least a couple lead sources that work reliably. A marketplace, a partner sourcing leads, a freelance network — all of those may be a good fit.

It’s an alternative form of recurring revenue after all. You can hire a salesperson or invest in marketing (which usually takes longer) once you’ve established a successful channel worth investing in.

Start With Freelancers or Contractors

In terms of handling the workload in the meantime, start with freelancers or contractors. Build a network of reliable experts available for hire, discuss hourly rates upfront, and loop them in before closing a project.

Once you can continuously book someone at 30h/week or longer, consider hiring them or look for a full-time employee who can join you in the long run.

You may consider bringing in a co-founder or come up with a profit share strategy. This would keep people engaged on a partnership basis.

Keep Your Revenue Distribution Balanced

Last piece of advice — be careful with clients who bring more than half of your revenue. Losing them would effectively mean shrinking your business in half unless you have a safety net or pending leads in the funnel.

This will probably be the case at first, but in the long run, try to distribute the risk across multiple clients and design a pricing model that leaves sufficient profit margin for rainy days, expansion, marketing, and other activities you need to invest in while scaling.

Reaching Out To New International Audiences

There are plenty of ways – some traditional, others – creative.

  • Are you selling services or products, digital or physical, B2B or B2C?
  • Do you target a single country or worldwide?
  • Demographics of your target audience?
  • What techniques do competitors use for selling?

B2C

For B2C (cheap digital products/services) digital marketing and advertisement work well. Influencer marketing is a good investment, albeit long-term (takes a while working with multiple influencers on targeted campaigns).

B2B can also benefit from those – but focused on inbound generation and sales calls instead. You can hire someone in-house who handles all international deals.

Hire A Local Sales Person

Selling more expensive products in a specific country (say, the US) may justify hiring a local sales person there. Attending conferences, trade shows, meetups – and meeting prospects locally.

Social media works in all cases, along with a well-maintained blog. The latter takes a while and is contingent on your content strategy and keyword research.

Personal branding online could help you land podcast appearances and other interviews. Being able to position yourself in the right media outlets (that your prospects read) may yield good results.

Consider partnerships, too. This is extremely valuable if you team up with a business managing a portfolio of “ideal” clients providing other services (complementing yours).