Today we’ve got some amazing perspective on the challenges of remote working as a team from Jon Lay, the founder of design agency Hanno.co. He tells us how his team moved from wanting an office in London to pursuing remote working and a semi-nomadic lifestyle.
Can you give us a brief history of your design agency?
Sure thing! So we officially formed Hanno at the beginning of 2012 as a remote team doing the typical web design projects for clients. I’d been freelancing before that, and those clients became Hanno’s clients. There were two of us back then, which became three a year later. About a year and a half after we formed the company, we got our first taste of nomadism when we travelled to Spain.
Since then, we’ve grown to 7 shipmates, working in 6 different countries, though the exact locations change quite often! Most of us are nomadic for at least part of the year, even if it’s not a full-time lifestyle choice. We’ve moved away from the sort of web design we did at the beginning, and we’re now a product design team which works with clients (mainly startups) globally, who bring us in when they need a squad of designers to help them build their web products and in-house design skills.
How did it get started?
As I’m sure plenty of us do, it started off with freelancing on the side. I started learning really basic web design while I was at school, and then kept this up while I studied for my law degree at university. Back then, I didn’t have the pressure of making it work as a full-time thing, which was convenient, and I loved the work I was doing. But I was really inexperienced and spent most of my time dealing with your typical first freelance web design projects like little marketing sites for small businesses. They were time-consuming and on low budgets, and as much as I enjoyed the work, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to turn down the job offer I’d accepted at a big city law firm in London and jump into something that was so uncertain.
But I gave myself a year to see what we could achieve, and started working some crazy hours to try to build things up. First, I met Sergei and we started working on a few projects together. Then Arnas began to help us with illustration and identity work, and we gradually built things up from there, and we officially formed Hanno at the end of that year.
Now, thankfully, we’re a whole lot more stable and sustainable than when we first started out, and we’ve managed to build a way of working which doesn’t tie us down to a single location and force us to work 18 hour days. Which is progress, I think!
I actually documented the whole of my first 4 years(including how much I earned at each point) on our team blog last year, if you’re looking for the full story.
Why did you choose to go remote?
The funny thing is that we’ve been remote almost from the start, since Sergei was in Russia for the first 2 years we worked together. I’m also profoundly deaf, so I quite deliberately went about setting up the sort of company I’d be able to communicate in. I’ve always been comfortable communicating in writing, so it was really natural for me to communicate with clients and with Sergei like this.
But despite that, we were all determined to get a ‘proper’ office in London someday. Now that our team is based all over the world and we’re doing things like taking team trips to Hong Kong, this seems like a ridiculous ambition. But a few years ago we had serious office envy and couldn’t wait to go down that agency route and get big enough to be able to pay for one of those trendy offices in London to work from. Now, we have offices like this:
At the time, there were 3 of us working full-time–myself and Matt in London, and then Sergei working remotely (from the middle of nowhere in Russia). And we even got as far as to start viewing serviced offices in London at one point to try and find one to rent. Even though I’d built up a fantastic working relationship and friendship with Sergei, for some reason neither of us really considered the possibility of going all-out with the remote ‘thing’. He wanted to somehow engineer a relocation to Europe, and I was totally happy with being in London. Both of us were determined to eventually be able to sit down and share a beer together, and that was the only way we really saw it happening.
But then, a few things changed. I was in a long-term relationship which came to an end, tying me to London a little less strongly. Then a few months later, a ‘trigger’ in the form of a startup emailing me out of the blue to ask if I’d want to move to Spain to live and work with them, planted a little bit of a seed. It was that combination which really made us go totally remote (and partly nomadic) and stop thinking about offices.
I think a lot of people who have gone nomadic would say the same thing: their decision to commit to this lifestyle came down to the circumstances being right, and then some sort of trigger which made them take that jump.
We didn’t end up moving to work with the Spanish startup, but we did decide to leave London for a while, inspired by what they’d done. So Matt and I headed to Valencia for a 6 week trip, with Arnas (who was freelancing with us occasionally) joining us for part of it. That trip was incredible. Despite everyone predicting that we’d lose all of our clients, we didn’t. We learnt a hell of a lot in 6 weeks. And most importantly, we met so many new friends and had the sort of experiences we’d never have had if we’d been back at home, or simply taking a holiday.
Matt and I with new friends on our final day in Valencia
That really opened up our eyes to how fantastic this idea of remote working and also working while travelling could be. It’s simply a totally different sort of experience from travelling for pleasure, doing the tourist thing, and staying in your own little bubble.
After that, we travelled to Norway, and I took a trip to Russia to visit Sergei. Things with the business started to take off, and it seemed crazy that just a few months ago we’d been thinking about getting an office and tying ourselves to one place.
Who were your inspirations and why?
We followed the ‘famous’ remote teams like 37Signals (now Basecamp) and Automattic very closely. Both of these companies gave me a lot of inspiration for what I wanted to try and build with our team at Hanno. Automattic is a great example of how to build a great team that’s flat, as well as remote. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a strong correlation between flat teams, and being remote/nomadic. I think it’s far harder to build a great remote team (much less a nomadic one) if you’re still sticking with an old-fashioned ‘top-down’ approach to building that team and ‘managing’ them. As a community, I think there’s a massive amount we can learn from companies who are operating this way, and we can use that to build stronger distributed teams.
As far as the nomadism goes, I’d definitely have to give credit to the Pickevent guys, who were the Spanish startup who first emailed us and planted that seed of an idea to move. And when we started figuring out how we could plan our trip, I was definitely inspired by reading about what the Maptia team were doing in Morocco at around the same time in 2013.
Obviously we’ve borrowed a ton from Buffer. In the last year or so, they’ve been by far our biggest inspiration and I have huge respect for the way Joel is guiding their culture in the direction of being as transparent as possible. Their approach to transparency has been something that has pushed us to be more transparent ourselves to try and match it. I actually feel that no matter how well their product does, the long-term impact of what they’ve contributed to the way we think about company culture, remote work, and nomadism will be even greater. We shamelessly copied their idea of doing team retreats, which is why 4 of us ended up in Hong Kong last year and ended up becoming far more nomadic afterwards.
Why did you pick Kuala Lumpur?
The Hanno team in Kuala Lumpur
I know, it’s a bit of an unusual location to pick. Whenever people come to visit me, I have to warn them that while the city is a great one to live in, it’s definitely not a Hong Kong or a Bangkok in terms of lifestyle. There’s a lot less for a visitor to do, it’s harder to get around (crazy traffic, and worse public transport), and there are far fewer sights and attractions.
With a Russian on the team, we were forced to look outside of Europe for destinations when we first came here on our team trip. While we were initially thinking about going to Thailand and finding a villa somewhere, right around when we were planning the trip in December 2013 the whole Thai political crisis was in full swing. That and the fact that you can’t get easy business visas on entry to Thailand put us off. So we picked Malaysia instead, which is right next door.
1/2 of the Hanno team’s favorite meal while in Malaysia
We had a fantastic month here as a team before going to Hong Kong, and then after another month or two in Hong Kong, I decided to move back to KL and use that as my base.
I freely admit that I’m not the most ‘nomadic’ of nomads–I’m not moving locations every few weeks, and I said the same thing when you guys asked me if we could set up an interview. But I’m comfortable with that. I see the benefits of slow travel, staying in a place for a bit longer to experience it fully and build real relationships with people in that place. And I also think that if you decide to be nomadic, travelling (i.e. moving) shouldn’t be the goal of itself. If you’re just blindly travelling to rack up air miles and add countries to your list, then that’s not really an accomplishment.
I picked my destinations quite carefully last year, using KL as a base to travel to other countries nearby for shorter trips. It’s very easy to travel in and out of, and there’s also a nice stability to my life when I’m here. Given how intense it can be when I take trips to other places, that’s something I really appreciate. And with at least one of my teammates in Bali at any one time, that’s a great spot to take trips to occasionally and means I’m not the only one of my team on this timezone.
I’ve managed to get some serious lifehacking in while I’ve been here, and being 5 or so hours ahead of my teammates has been great for me. In the last year, I’ve had way more time and space to think about how to make our team stronger and that has helped me make life better, and easier, for everyone on our team.
The cost of living in Kuala Lumpur is far lower than in London and being able to pay for things like apartment cleaning, taxis and eating out frees up so much time to build better balance in other areas of your life. There’s no way I could afford to live this lifestyle back in London.
As nomads and remote workers, we’re incredibly fortunate to be able to live like this, and it gives us almost an unfair advantage over others in Europe or the US. When you’re able to ‘buy’ more time for yourself like this, effectively outsourcing bits of your personal life, it in turn means you can have better work/life balance. That helps you to be healthier and more productive at work. And that leads to even better balance and more success. One thing I’ve realised is that if you take advantage of it, this lifestyle can give you a perfect virtuous cycle. You can get stronger and stronger as time goes by.
I definitely didn’t set out to leave London for good–the original plan was to head back home after visiting Malaysia and Hong Kong. But all of these benefits, plus the experience of spending time in places other than London, where I spent the first 25 years of my life, has been great. I have no doubt that I’m far better at my job (and many things outside of that) than I was a year ago, and I don’t think I’d have seen such a positive change if I’d been working from Hong Kong, Tokyo or Bangkok.
I’m just very grateful that I’m lucky enough to be in a position to do this right now.
What are some of the drawbacks of nomad/remote working?
There are plenty, as many of us know. Firstly, timezones are difficult. In our case, since we’re a product design team and many of the startups we work with are in California (50% of our clients are in the US), that brings with it a lot of challenges.
Let’s say we’re running a project with a client in SF and Arnas (in Bali) is working on it, with the rest of the team in Europe. It’s hard to find a single point of everyone’s day where the whole team, and the client, are all online for a standup meeting. When we have to, we can work around this when it’s needed by Arnas having a midnight call on Hangouts. But that’s not ideal, and it’s something we’re working on improving. I don’t think it’s very healthy to have people forced to do work calls late at night, immediately before they go to sleep.
We’re trying to improve this, but it can be tough. For us, the idea is that by growing our team a little bit, we can at least base our whole project team on roughly the same timezone. That should make it a lot easier to overlap with each other and reduce those timezone hassles. But there’s no doubt that if you’re remote and your team or clients are located in a totally different place, you have to work very hard to build a good balance for yourself, and avoid work becoming massively disruptive to the rest of your life.
Discipline is massively important, and a lot of people simply don’t have it. You can’t be a productive remote worker unless you’re disciplined about your routine. If you go into remote working with the idea that you’ll spend your day sitting at home in your pyjamas on Facebook, you’ll not last long. And if you think a nomad worker spends 90% of their day surfing, you’re going to be disappointed there, too. This life isn’t just a holiday. Disciplined remote workers get work done just the same as someone in an office does. All that’s different is that we choose where we work from.
There’s no doubt that without the restrictions of office life and routine, we can feel a lot freer and be a lot more productive. But the challenge is that without someone else setting this routine and tasks for us, we have to do it ourselves in order to get stuff done. That’s a skill like any other, and I think it takes time and determination to learn. I’ve found that the best remote workers are the ones who are driven to improve their routine and productivity day-by-day.
Isolation has always been a big problem with remote working, and obviously you’re trying to do something to help that with the whole community you’re building here. I think there’s also a danger of self-identifying as introverted, and telling yourself that you don’t need to get out there and meet people. Probably any freelancer has felt this at some point. Co-working spaces can help if you’re in one with the right atmosphere, but not all of them are good for that. I really disliked solo freelancing for this reason–you’ve no team support or backup. Sometimes you can get stuck into a rut where you have minimal interaction with anyone but your clients and family, especially if you’re working from home. That’s surely not healthy.
I think it’s definitely something that’s solvable though. At a basic level you have to push yourself to be much more motivated to go out and socialize with people. But that sometimes isn’t enough by itself. What we’ve done at Hanno has also has helped a lot with this, and the isolation factor is a lot lower for us now. We now avoid having any of our team working by themselves on a project. Usually, we have teams of 3 working at the same time, with lots of Hangout calls, pairing sessions, daily standup calls, and always-on Slack and Sqwiggle connections. It sounds distracting, and it would be if it was done badly, but we’re trying to prove to our clients that you can get the same level of design collaboration working remotely as you could if you were sitting side-by-side in the office together.
We’ve still not been able to totally replace the need to meet up as a team once in a while, though. That’s why we did our trip to Asia last year as a team, and this year we’ll be doing 2 shorter trips of 10 days each, to Argentina, and probably Iceland. That helps to keep us all connected and to make sure we have a really strong bond as a team.
A big challenge is trying to build trust with our clients and our team. That’s obviously harder when you’re not face-to-face. One of the reasons we write a lot about remote working as a team is to win the trust of clients who might want to work with us. We have to prove that we’re going to be able to deliver the goods, even if we’re not in their office.
Again, that was tougher when I was a freelancer, and a lot of that was because of communication. It’s not about being available to respond to client emails at all times, because these days on our team, when people finish for the day, they don’t check their emails at all. I usually wrap up at 7pm (with a long lunch break in the middle of the day) and I try to never check my emails after 7pm, nor at the weekends. What does make a difference to winning trust and cutting down communication hassles is transparency. Buffer does it and we’ve tried to replicate that in our own way.
The best tip I could give anyone else running an ‘agency’ of sorts remotely would be to create a Slack channel and an Asana project for each of their client projects. Then, invite the client (and their team) to both of those. Then, make sure that all your internal communication about the project goes into that Slack and Asana project. The important thing we’ve realised here is that it doesn’t matter that the client is not going to read every message–that’s not the point. What this does achieve though, is win their trust. The relationship changes from an “us and them” one, to everyone being on the same team and working towards the same problems. I think that far more remote teams should try this–it solves so many problems. It’s pretty uncomfortable at first, but if you don’t do it, you’re making your life so much harder and creating far much more work for yourself.
None of these things are easy to overcome, especially when you’re working solo. That’s one of the biggest things we’re trying to achieve by working as a team at Hanno and building our company in this way. I think it’s also possible to achieve many of the same things if you’re part of a collective of freelancers, which would be quite similar to what we do. Our top goal is not to try to create a ‘nomad culture’ because that’s not necessarily a lifestyle which everyone wants, or is in a position to take up. Instead, we’re trying to build a team which has remote at its core, and as a consequence, allows people to relocate when and where they want, if they want. Reaching this point puts us at a massive advantage over other companies and is one of the reasons we can persuade fantastic people to join our team, and win great clients.
But while I don’t want to wave away the challenges and say that they’re easy to fix, they’re definitely solvable. There’s no doubt about that, and the number of people living this lifestyle are evidence that it’s possible. Jumping 8 hours ahead of London for most of this year made communication with the team a lot harder for me, for sure. But instead of just putting up with that, we worked to improve the way we communicate as a team and the way we structure projects. I think it’s a bit of a “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” thing, because we’re now communicating and working on a far higher level than we were a year ago.
I know that on a personal level, being forced to solve these problems makes me stronger as a person, and it has the same effect on our team too. I’m happier and more productive because I’m able to decide when and where I work, and I don’t rely on the crutch of in-person communication with my team and clients.
It’s just a better way to build a company and a happy and productive team. There’s no way I’d give this lifestyle up willingly.
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“Remote working is not just a holiday” Jon Lay talks about Hanno and his nomadic lifestyle