Remote Work

Remote Work

Following on from the topic of off-shoring as a company is that of working remotely as an individual. How do you get and keep a job which lets you live in the countryside, or even overseas? This is a question I have often asked myself, in the delicious anticipation of retiring one day – perhaps to a cottage by the sea, and far from the HEAT of Tokyo. By "remote" I mean far enough that it takes at least a day to get in to the office.

In my personal experience, there are certain jobs that logistically support the concept of remote work. Those that I have friends working in are those to do with content and research, electronic marketing, and technology. Of course, there are many more possible categories, but these are ones that I know of myself.

Content jobs are typically translation, editing, writing, some types of design website maintenance and possibly phone-based teaching. Research jobs include researching/producing reports from external data (internal data sources would probably require personal attendance at the office), such as market surveys from web data sources and phone calls, doing product comparison research, and compiling FX, PR and competitor tracking reports. The types of companies that need this kind of work done are market research firms, advertising companies, manufacturers, and services companies. Most of the content work is done on a piece-work with some contracts offering a monthly retainer, while most research work is done on retainer only.

Electronic Marketing jobs include e-mail direct mail (one-by-one approaches, not spam), call center work, Search Engine registrations and other web marketing work, fax and snail mail direct mail, phone sales, etc. Usually this kind of work is done for the Sales and Marketing divisions of companies and is done on a piece-work or per project basis. The client base most needing this type of work is Japanese firms trying to break into overseas markets.

By Technology jobs, I mean software development, server and communications monitoring, Web maintenance, hosting and managed services, and Help Desk work. This is probably the most reliable form of remote work, and is usually paid on a monthly wage basis, or for software development, also on a project basis. Just about every modern foreign company in Tokyo needs outsourced (remotely delivered) technology services – so the question is for you to find out whether or not the job is small enough for you to handle yourself and that some other company isn't already in there.

I have a number of friends who work remotely around Japan and also as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, the USA, France, the UK, and elsewhere. Most of these people are in the translation and phone sales/marketing businesses. They work both directly for the end-customer, and also for professional services brokers (such as translation agencies). One Japanese friend is a translator in Australia, and she services both customers directly in Tokyo as well as TV crews visiting her region. Another friend is a traveling webmaster and supports a number of web sites for customers stretching from Europe to Japan, from whichever place he lives in.

Despite the vast improvements offered by the Internet, email, VoIP phone calls, and web cams, the fact is that when things go wrong, or if a client needs an unscheduled emergency job, you still need a person in Tokyo to pull things together and/or to go make the necessary apologies. In return for having that person, or requiring your client to accept a lower level of security and convenience, you are going to have to offer price discounts. My Australia-based translator friend charges about 30-40% less than the going rates in Tokyo, but she does excellent work – making it easy for customers to come back. The webmaster charges a modest monthly maintenance fee for content, scripting, and host management services – thus while individual contracts are cheap, added up they provide him with the regular income needed to lead a transient lifestyle.

This talk about the possibilities of remote working may elicit a lot of reader reaction. Be it "Yeah, let's move to Phuket, baby!" or, "No way a Japanese company is going to let people work remotely." Actually, both reactions are reasonable. It is true that companies in Japan are indeed very reluctant to employ remote workers on a regular basis (versus a freelance basis). However, there is a way - and that is to develop an emotional bond with your customer/employer first, then to slowly start to educate them that being remote doesn't mean less committed.

Let's start with the customer - be they the end-user company or a broker in between. What I've found with Japanese companies is that generally need lots of confidence-creating good communication with their vendors - at any time, let alone in order to create remote working situation. Thus, if you are planning to work with a particular company, I suggest that you will need to plan to have had a relationship for at least 2-3 years, to build sufficient trust and work history. This is time consuming of course, but you need to think ahead while you're still based in the city (Tokyo, Osaka, or wherever) - not when you're getting ready to move 10,000 miles away.

Getting a new customer relationship started is just like any other sales situation: you can either try your luck by going straight in and doing a sales pitch, or working through an agency. However, if want to try to create your own strategic connection, which is to make friends with a business manager at the company, then you need to get creative and organized. Get yourself out to bars, events, clubs, and tradeshows that you think your target company would want to send a competent business manager out to. Once you find your manager, remember that you're really going to need this person later, as a Champion for keeping you in the company once you're no longer around - so choose well and invest some time into the relationship.

Once you're in to a company and have started supplying reliable services to them, you need to start the physical weaning process. Initially you should work in close proximity as the client so as to provide any input needed. You will probably have plenty of face-to-face time, meetings, drinks, etc. Then slowly, as the business moves in to a more routine mode, still doing meetings on a regular basis, but on fewer occasions - until you reduce face-to-face contact to just once a month, while still maintaining phone and email contact.

The next step in the strategy is to get your Champion to become your key ally - and here's where all your hard work in developing the personal relationship starts to pay off. You need to share with your Champion the person circumstances under which have caused you to move away and ask for his/her help to allow you to keep the account. This is a critical request, because it commits him/her to stepping forward on your account if a problem occurs. One of the nice things about Japan is that providing you really have been delivering good quality work, no kickbacks are needed. Instead, your Champion will be only too happy to have the same reliable vendor he/she has always had - especially if you can sweeten the deal by dropping prices a bit.

So how do you maintain client relationships when you're a zillion miles away? If you use a broker, then a lot of phone calls and e-mail are key. However, just as important is the issue of responsiveness. One tip is to try and use time differences to your advantage, i.e., preparing reports in London during Tokyo's evening, ready for fax delivery the next morning in Tokyo.

Maintaining direct clients is slightly more onerous. I find that you can't totally disengage yourself from physical meetings. Visits of 2-3 days per month to your client base will go a long way to retaining relationships and finding out what other work is in the pipe. It's too bad if you have to travel a whole day for such meetings - you need to do what it takes to get ahead. In particular, take time to socialize with your Champion. They need emotional reinforcement that the relationship and looking out for you is worth it. It doesn't hurt, either, if you know they like wine or candy, and to bring a small gift each time you visit with them. The act of giving a small gift may seem time wasting, but I guarantee that it will get you results in gift-centric Japan. Indeed, you will be creating an obligation, "giri", through such an act.

Lastly, one of the biggest hurdles to retaining remote clients is the temptation to get "busy" with something going on in the location in which you're living. Maybe you're moving house, have a sick family member, got a gardening project, or something else came up which has left you feeling exhausted or unavailable at the end (or start) of the work day.

My advice is to resist the temptation and stay focused. You only need to miss a single deadline, or seemingly disappear for a few days to cause your account Champion to start looking for another vendor. So, get yourself organized: get TWO clocks in every room you'll be in - not just the home office, and get a second cell phone so that the client can reach you whenever they need to.

Is the sacrifice of staying tethered to Tokyo worth it? Unless you're really ready to retire, your measure of success will be your ability to maintain a reputation incase you have to return to the City, and the size of your smile when you see your bank balance at the end of each month...