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Michael McKean at fRilingue
Michael McKean

This week, Michael McKean at fRilingue, a provider of language programmes in Switzerland and an outbound study travel agency, writes about remote work and provides tips based on his experiences.

Remote Work: My Experience so Far


It will probably come as no surprise to most that as technology brings the world closer together, remote work is becoming more and more popular due to the fact that there's increasingly less need for an entire workforce to be located in the same office or working space. Despite being one of the new buzzwords of the day, remote work has been around for a while and isn't simply confined to start-ups and business where employees are largely expected to work from a computer: teachers rarely stay in school to do their marking; lawyers needn't sit in their office to study a case; and tradesmen have been sent out across countries and continents to work on contracted jobs for decades.


All of the above are examples of remote work, however, what's now referred to as remote work covers a lot more than what used to be dubbed 'home office', 'working from home' or 'working away'; whilst all of these terms do fall under the remote work umbrella, remote work is term which has come to cover so much more than that. Remote work implies that you can work from anywhere and at any time. Unsurprisingly, remote work has its doubters, particularly amongst those who are set in the ways of the more traditional office environment and its daily commute, watercooler conversations and the cringe-worthy banter of the David Brent-esque managers. On the flip-side, there are some who are used to the aforementioned model, but who would doubtlessly love to escape it.


Perhaps remote work is just what these people are after.


It's easy to see why remote work is popular within our industry as the very name "Study Travel" implies that "travel" is an integral part of many job roles within the industry, which is of course true; between schools and agents visiting each other to the Study Travel Alphe comferences, you'd be hard-pushed to find anyone in this industry without at least one travelling employee; and with work-related travel, comes remote work


My first experiences with remote work came when I was released from the office to spend two weeks in Malta followed by two weeks in the UK visiting schools we either worked with, or planned on working with. During this month, my normal office duties were not put on hold, so for the first time in my life I began working remotely. I had daily meetings in either the morning or afternoon during this time so my day was broken up nicely between these obligations and my day-to-day office work.


Since this first experience with remote work back in October 2015, I've gone to on to work remotely from Brazil as well as various locations throughout Europe. In fRilingue, the culture of remote work came quite naturally as Philipp, our founder, is constantly travelling to fairs and to visit new schools and agents; Ljubisa, our CEO, used to work from Germany and more recently works from Serbia; whilst the rest of our office staff have always been based in Switzerland, so it was only a matter of time before some of the other staff started working remotely as well.


Since I started working remotely, fRilingue has now opened a second office in Serbia, moved our Swiss office from Fribourg to Bern and started a base in Russia through our Sales & Marketing Rep, Anna. We've also become more open to allowing employees to work from home on certain days and have allowed employees to work whilst travelling for short periods of time.


It hasn't all be easy, however, and like most new work practices remote work does come with its teething problems; both myself and others have experienced problems with work, motivation and communication along the way. When I was working on our new project in Brazil and the rest of the team were back in Europe, there were points where I felt out-of-the-loop and not totally happy with the work I was doing, which was noticed by my superiors. However, problems such as this are natural in the early stages and can easily be solved with good communication. At fRilingue, we're avid users of Slack for daily communication, and Trello for managing and keeping track of the tasks that need done.


More recently, we also began using screencast as "How to Guides" for training staff to perform new tasks and/or work with new programmes. For those unaware, screencast is a software programme that you can use to record your desktop and an audio narration whilst you perform a task. This is arguably better than training someone face-to-face, as once a screencast has been made it can then be stored and rewatched as many times and by as many people as needed, meaning there's no longer a need to waste time explaining the same thing multiple times to multiple people - simply explain it once, and it's there for all present and future staff to learn from.


Whilst screencasts are useful, we've still found that office meetings are essential for a team with one or more people working remotely. In addition to a 30 minute long meeting every Friday to summarise and discuss the week, we've now began holding short 15-minute meetings every morning, known as "stand-up meetings". In these meetings, everyone quickly summarises the important points about the tasks that they've completed during the previous day, their plan for the day ahead and any obstacles that they may face. The purpose of these meetings is to be as brief as possible and to just to keep the team up to date with each other's work, so we allow questions to be written down whilst people are talking, but ask that they be withheld until the end of the meeting. We also ask that questions that don't concern the full team be discussed privately with those they do concern after the meeting, either through Slack or through private or smaller Skype meetings. We also try to keep jokes and light banter out of these meetings.


That said, jokes and banter are still important, and I'm sure every company with remote work experience will tell you, is that it's essential to get together at least two or three times a year in a more out-of-work and informal setting. At fRilingue, we hold two yearly strategy meetings that usually take places in a location that's not the regular working environment for any of us (our most recent three have taken place in Istanbul, Berlin and the Swiss Alps), this way it also affords us some sight-seeing, social drinks and leisure time to catch-up with each other once the work is done. We also try to organise other get-togethers throughout the year when possible.


Working remotely isn't easy and it takes effort from both the management and employees. but to make it work you simply need two characteristics from each side: employees need to show motivation and honesty whilst the management need to have trust and confidence in those they are allowing to work remotely. Without these it simply won't work and for a company who hasn't yet used remote work but would like to try it out should do so gradually (paddle before you can swim, run before you can walk, use cliches before creating original metaphors etc.). It works for fRilingue now, but we didn't go straight from Small Swiss office to bases in four countries with a culture of remote work overnight, it was built-up over time.


All that said, once it's up-and-running and works well, from my point of view as an employee, remote work is something that would not only attract employees, but encourage them to stay with a company long term, as a workforce that feels trusted, free and has a good work-life balance is far more likely to be happier and stay together than one that's cooped up in an office with the big man looking over their shoulder all the time.  



Michael McKean is English Language Representative at fRilingue, which provides language camps in Switzerland and is also a study abroad agency.