- Business owner Paul Meissner FCA shares his insights on running a successful business remotely.
- Many of us have dreamed of getting away from our busy schedules but work and family commitments get in the way.
- Working from exotic locations while spending time away with the family must be on everyone's wish list.
By Paul Meissner FCA.
After seven years of running a 100% cloud-based accounting firm and working from some exotic locations (while on holiday), I dreamed of more.
Remote working is a concept that is common. Many of us, while on holiday, log in and do the odd bank reconciliation or email between mai tais and sightseeing. What if you wanted to take the family overseas for an extended period – say two months? Could you run an accounting firm? Would clients and staff mind? And how do you actually do it?
Ever since our honeymoon, my wife and I have wanted to live overseas. We were sitting in a cafe and saw a young boy running along the beach. He didn’t look like a local, but had a tan, curly blond hair and was enjoying life at the beach. Ever since then we had hoped to give our kids that opportunity.
Fast forward three years and we now have two beautiful kids. With a frigid Melbourne winter in 2015, we were jolted into action. Over dinner one night we discussed just going.
For the first time I was faced with the serious questions around a trip like this. Would my clients leave? Would my staff leave? Would I have internet access? Would I be motivated to work or would it feel like a holiday?
While my wife researched the logistics of the trip, I was left to figure out how I would maintain a robust contribution to the firm while I was away.
From there it just snowballed and the next thing I knew, we had booked our tickets.
A family adventure
For two months, our family relocated to Europe. We spent one month based in Sardinia, Italy, and the second month on the Greek island of Paros. It was a rewarding trip that brought our family closer together, allowed us to spend time together without the distractions of home and gave our children experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t get. Seeing my three-year-old son play and communicate with other children, despite speaking a different language, was a wonderful thing.
While there were many benefits there were also difficulties, including being away from a work environment with people to chat to and missing networking opportunities. I hadn’t expected to miss these things so much. But two months provided the right mix of family opportunity and fun, while not being (physically) away from my business world for too long.
Managing staff from afar
One of the key concerns I had when planning this trip was the impact on staff, and how they would react. Would they be productive? Would I have visibility of their performance?
While I was away I made a conscious effort to call the office every morning and connect with the staff. I would ask three simple questions on every call.
- What have you been working on?
- What are you working on next?
- What issue(s) can I resolve for you?
There is a project management concept in software development called Agile. The fundamental concept of Agile is to break down a project into small tasks and allow staff to make decisions while combining frequent, short meetings where the team re-focuses its efforts to ensure project outcomes are achieved.
This concept – as I have discovered – fits really well in professional service firms. It also provides a sufficiently robust management structure to allow you to throw away the timesheet. Yes, I said it. Throw it away.
What does this have to do with remote working? When I returned I asked my key staff how they felt the two months had been. Had they missed me and did they feel that they had the support they needed to do their jobs? I was amazed to hear that they felt they had more contact with me. When I am in Melbourne I am mostly in the office, but on any given day I can have family commitments or client meetings that pull me in many directions, so my physical office hours vary.
I realised that it wasn’t that I had more contact with staff while I was away, but that the consistency and reliability of the contact made them feel more supported.
Since returning from Europe I have maintained the same consistency of staff contact and it has been a great outcome of the trip.
Five tips when planning a remote working escape
1. Find the best time of the year for your business
A trip like this needs to fit in around the demands of your business. While you are still working, it isn’t advisable to miss the busiest time of the year for your business. For me, in accounting, this time was mid-August to mid-October. The post-30 June rush had abated and businesses hadn’t yet started to think about their annual financials.
2. Plan your daily schedule
I found that having structure to my day was paramount in giving staff and clients confidence they could reach me. Being on the other side of the globe didn’t allow me to work a standard 9 to 5, but setting my own hours – and sticking to them – gave me focus and made it very easy to set up online meetings. Having a routine also helped set expectations for the family.
Technology is a massive part of our lives, especially when planning for a remote working trip. Cloud-based accounting systems (we use Xero) and workflow management software is a must. Without online connection to your data and that of your clients, you may as well put the suitcase away.
There was some specific technology that I found useful for my trip. Given that mobile international roaming charges are astronomical, I needed a way for clients to call me while I was away. Through Skype, you can get a local telephone number that also allows voicemail messaging. A simple diverting of my mobile to my Skype number and when people called my mobile it would ring through Skype. If I wasn’t online, the person could leave a voice message that could I listen to from Skype.
Given the time difference, it was hard to arrange a time to contact people. I set up an online scheduling system whereby people could select a time that suited them and it would put the appointment in my calendar. The best thing was that I could set my own hours in the local time. Not having to constantly do a timezone conversion saved plenty of miscommunication. The solution I used was youbookme.com.
Itravelled with my iPad Air2 and a handy app called Duel Display (dueldisplay.com). I simply connected the iPad to the Macbook Air with its charging cable, opened the app and it connected. By using the cable, rather than wi-fi, the iPad screen was very responsive. It was just like having a second screen back in the office. Having the second screen set up, even while travelling, is great. You do get some strange looks – but hey, I was working at a beach café.
4. Get internet access
Having my mobile calls diverted to Skype allowed me to get a local SIM card for my phone. With all the apps on my phone (mail, social media, banking, etc), being connected to the internet is a must. We booked places that all promised wi-fi and despite thinking every café would have wi-fi, I lost track of how many times I was without it.
Having the data SIM in my phone allowed me to work anywhere, anytime. In Greece, I was in and out of the Vodafone store in 15 minutes and connected to the internet. The cost was reasonable (what isn’t compared to Australia?), with 10GB of data on a rechargeable SIM for 30 euro.
5. Allow time to travel and get settled in
This is the one thing I wish I had known. I was so focused on the trip not being a holiday – “Yes, I’m at the beach. But I am working. No seriously.” – that I didn’t allow travel time to get over to Europe and settle in. For the trip back, I put the out of office on and told people that I was uncontactable for a few days which was more manageable.
Paul Meissner’s remote working escape daily schedule
- 5:30am (1:30pm Melbourne): Wake up and check emails. Providing nothing major had happened I could relax.
- 6:30am (2:30pm Melbourne): Head to the beach café. Leaving home was a physical and mental trigger that I was heading to a place of work.
- 7am (3pm Melbourne): Call in to the Melbourne office to connect and go over the workflow.
- 7:15am–10am (3:15pm–6pm Melbourne): Client calls made now (this corresponds with the end of the Aussie work day).
- 10am–1:30pm (6pm–9:30pm Melbourne): Relatively uninterrupted work time with the occasional scheduled client call.
- From 1:30pm: I was free
to explore the sights of Italy and Greece with my family.
Paul Meissner FCA is the founder and managing director of 5ways Group Chartered Accountants, a creative cloud accounting agency based in Melbourne.
This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Acuity magazine, which can be read in full online for free here.