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Before 2020, the life of the digital nomad, working from wherever and having all the flexibility that goes along with it sounded nifty, new, and attractive. Now that most of us have had the experience of working from home for an extended time, it doesn’t suit everyone, but maybe it’s opened your eyes to something new.  

Companies have caught on too, they’ve realised you can hire anyone from anywhere, and not just from the talent pool where you’re HQ’d. This has only been accelerated due to COVID — 46% of big companies are more open to hiring remote workers, according to Monster's Future of Work report.

Take Pleo – we’ve had quite the growth journey: When I joined back in 2018 we went from 50 to 100 people during my first six months at the company, and we aren’t slowing down anytime soon. We’ve already hired 36 people this year!

When I’ve been building our people team the plan has always been to go from good to great.

We need to make sure that we’re always working with people who bring different experiences, different backgrounds, and different world views to the conversation. We need to challenge ourselves and iterate to become (and remain) pioneers.

Let’s face it: though I love Copenhagen, if you’re only hiring from 1.5M people your options are limited. That’s not how you build the best team in the world. You need the world to help you out.

Sometimes, the best people aren’t in a place to relocate (or it just isn’t possible at the moment), and we try to support this as much as possible. But other times, people don’t want to. This is why we as a company aspire to be remote-first.

Back in March 2019, I worked remotely out of South Africa for the entire month – and went to a great incubator – MEST – to speak about remote work, and the potential of this in Africa. I thought I’d sum it up here and give you some honest, down-to-earth advice that I shared with the guys there. 

The adoption of remote work has already been growing at a fast pace, and probably will continue even after this pandemic has passed, as flexible working becomes the norm.

These 3 stats indicate this nicely:

Businesses lose $600 billion a year to workplace distractions, and that remote workers are 35% to 40% more productive than their in-office counterparts. to workplace distractions, and that remote workers are 35% to 40% more productive than their in-office counterparts. Source: Remote Work Statistics: Navigating the New Normal 

Can you think of a business that wouldn’t want to save money and have more productive employees? Hiring remotely not only allows for a much larger talent pool, but it has its monetary and productivity benefits as well. 

The trend towards more flexible working and remote work has been on the rise for the past 5 years, with remote workers growing by 44% in the U.S. Souce: 10 Remote Work Statistics 

And in 2019 in Stack Overflow’s survey among almost 90,000 tech workers around the globe, 32% said the option to work remotely is one of the highest-ranking factors that would make them choose a job.

This last one makes it obvious that companies are willing to hire remote workers if the talent is there. 

So the indicators are there — more and more remote jobs are becoming available. So how do you get yourself ready for them? In my mind, there are a couple of things to consider...

1. Be honest with yourself

Over the past year, many of us have set up a home office for the first time and has countless Zoom calls.

This might be the norm for a little while longer, but it should get you thinking: Are you even the type of person who suits remote working? I’m sure most of us would immediately say yes for the sake of it, but you owe it to yourself to be smarter than that. Be introspective. Let’s look at some good things, and some bad things (stolen lovingly from some of our favourite remotes from Québec, Canada, Will and PA).

1.1 Good thing: the flexibility to work from wherever

You can work from wherever. Surf trip in the Canary Islands for a bit? That’s happened for kiteboarder Will. Group trip to South Africa to escape Danish winter? 12 or so of us decided to do that. Granted, when things are normal again...

So if flexibility is important to you this is a huge win.

1.1 Flip side: lack of face time with colleagues

The flip side of working remotely is that you have a whole bunch of virtual, awesome penpal colleagues. 

If you’re someone who requires regular face-to-face conversations with others, this could be hard for you.

This also means you’ll be experiencing everything virtually, the good and the rough stuff — from hiring to training. Are you comfortable having tough conversations concerning things like a salary discussion over Zoom instead of face-to-face?

1.2 Good thing: the autonomy to set your schedule

Because you’re not in the office, you can manage your time accordingly. This means avoiding rush hour traffic, going to appointments when you need to, and being able to set concentration times where you aren’t interrupted and can just get through your work.

1.3 Flip side: self-discipline and motivation

For this, you need to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. Remote-work comes with a lot of trust. It’s your responsibility to stay motivated and to get through your workload as normal. This can be hard for people easily distracted, or who rely on others for guidelines or energy in the room.

It’s a very individual choice whether this will work for you or not. Be honest with yourself and see if it’s a realistic option for you, and the stage of career (and stage of life) in which you find yourself.

2. Are you qualified?

If you ask me, there are two things to look at when it comes to qualifications – academic studies and work-related qualifications.

Here’s the harsh reality: if you’re applying from a country unknown to the company, you might just not be considered qualified. I was talking as a South African to fellow South Africans, so the addressing the issue of being qualified comes from this point of view.

2.1 Academically

If you’re applying for a remote job, you’re competing with the rest of the world. This means that the company that you’re applying to probably hasn’t heard of your school, or your specific degree.

Let’s take South Africa, for instance, where we have a fourth year degree called honours – which doesn’t exist in most other markets. So unless you went to an Ivy League school or somewhere well known, let’s face it: your degree or school is probably relatively unknown.

“For example I went to well-known UCT in Cape Town and in Africa. But is that well-known to the world? At a global ranking of 229., I think not.”

In some parts of the world, education is expensive and it’s a huge accomplishment to graduate with tertiary education. It takes hard work and it’s achieved by the minority.

In South Africa for example, only 6% of adults between 25-34 years old reach tertiary attainment.

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2018, South Africa

To me, this is pretty simple. If you’re a South African applying to jobs within the country, you have your degree and university that are proof of accomplishment. Employers will use this as a sign that you are qualified above the majority of the country.

In Denmark, however, at 40% the chances are high that you have attained tertiary education. On top of this, it’s not only free but the government also supports you financially during your studies.

In that same report, you also see that Denmark is the country that spends the most of its wealth on education (7.9% of their GDP). So education is more of the norm, and less of an accomplishment there, if you’re looking at it from purely a statistical point of view.

If you’re used to being one of the accomplished minority holding a degree that holds a lot of value in your country, be aware that your studies may seem less valuable to an employer abroad who is lacking the context.

2.1 Work-wise

The second part that I think people often forget to think about is whether you are actually qualified from a work point of view. If people are applying for remote jobs – they can be from everywhere.

Unless you’ve been working for a massively famous international (hey Google) then people might not recognise the company that you’ve worked for. They also might not understand the context of your company within your environment.

Take Africa, for example. There’s incredible work done here in the fintech scene (super inspiring stuff). This is to solve problems like transferring money to people who have no bank accounts, which is such a fascinating scenario and the solution is very clever.

But this could easily be unknown to someone who isn’t working within the fintech space, or just doesn’t know much about the African tech scene. Even if you were the person who built M-Pesa, you might just have to explain what it is if you’re applying for work outside of Africa, for instance.

The big question I’d suggest asking yourself is a tough one: do you really feel that in your work experience that you’ve come up with pioneering solutions to solve problems? If not, you might not be qualified from a work point of view.

3. Does the math add up? (1 + 2 = 3)

Let’s assume after thing 1 (where you had to be honest with yourself and decide if remote work is even for you) you decided that remote work is definitely what you want. Here’s the next question: does what you want = what a company is looking for in that open position?

Chances are slim, if I’m honest. Loads of people are after these types of opportunities. This gives employers a great opportunity to be picky. If you really want this job you need to be a shoo-in and the obvious choice for the role.

So it doesn’t add up: how do you become qualified?

Once you’ve admitted this to yourself you’re in a great place to do the work you need to do to become the candidate that is the obvious choice. If you ask me, it’s pretty simple, hard work that will get you there. I’ll go into what you can change, as well as what you can’t.

What can you change?

Get qualified

If you think your skills aren’t up to scratch: get them there. A lot of the time actions speak louder than words here. I’d recommend starting a side project or taking on new responsibilities at work to learn by doing here, make your mistakes, and become good at your niche.

I’d actually suggest that learning by doing and showing results speaks better to your skillset than a six-week course filled with the latest buzz words. Buzz words aren’t showing how to do the job. Proving how good you with something you actually made does.

Join the community, now

If you want to work remotely, your network and community will end up being virtual-heavy. Start that now. Join your community niche – both internationally and locally. If you’re in customer success join a customer success Slack community and share knowledge. If there’s a MeetUp for your topic, join it. If there isn’t, make it.

Be involved in knowledge-sharing, find mentors, and learn all about the trends coming up. This will make you an interesting hire, who brings a worldwide view (one of the reasons remotes are hired in the first place).

Become an expert in the domain

With this community comes the trends. Learn them, try them out, experiment and share the knowledge that you find. Go deep into your expertise, and become a domain expert. Get yourself on a stage, host talks, do blog posts, speak to others.

This curiosity will also mean you can bring best practices to the company from different regions, and different mindsets. Different is good. Make sure you are – you need to stand out here.

Be humble

This one is not always obvious. But if you’re trying to get your dream work lifestyle (working remotely) that will come at a cost. This may also be that you take a side step in your career – perhaps you’ve been managing a team.

Consider applying for jobs for which you’re overqualified where you just do the job day to day and aren’t a manager. Apply at companies in high growth phases and you’ll have the chance to manage teams again. Be humble: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

What can’t you change?

Your nationality, passport, or country’s reputation. And with this, the thing no one would ever like to admit is: bias in hiring. But let’s face it, people have it. We at Pleo do everything we can to avoid human bias, and we like to be as open-minded as possible. But still, you can show it even if you have the best intentions at heart.

I’ve heard crazy things over the years, I think it’s important that you know they’re out there. Things like uncommon accents can throw people and they can bring up concerns on your communication skills. Things like one bad internet connection session can make people assume that your country and its connectivity issues will make it difficult from which to work. Firewalls is another example of it sounding too difficult to work together. The list can be long. Be prepared.

I’d suggest not to try to hide your background, and instead use it as a selling factor. For example, working in African markets gives you a great perspective on emerging markets: seeing huge growth, ambition, and the desire to prove yourself that I’ve seen way more here than in the established ones.

You’re going to have to overcome these biases, and probably work harder than someone who people have regularly worked with. Don’t get angry about this, get clever – it’s possible to overcome.

The last thing you can’t change is that some jobs are not remote suitable (yet). Apply for jobs that are popular as remote jobs. Don’t try to be the exception, follow the rule. This stuff is new and still seen as a bit risky to companies. You want to get this right and to get it to work for both you and the company.

I’m ready and qualified. Now what?

It’s on! Now what? Get ready for a lot of hard work. But the good news is that lots of places are hiring remote-only now. Companies are realising that hiring doesn’t have to stop because a person can’t physically come in for an interview or relocate.

Some handy places to keep an eye out for remote jobs can be places like AngelList, Glassdoor, Slack communities, remote sites – that sort of thing.

To land a remote job, do your homework, prepare. You got this.

Link to Loom recording out of MEST’s Cape Town incubator here. 👈

Jessie Scheepers

Jessie Scheepers

Head of People

Head of People