Remote Working


Pieter Levels, of “12 startups in 12 months” fame, is most well-known for his 4th startup, Nomad List. That’s not to say that his other projects have gone south, though – far from it.

How does Pieter do it? The method he uses to push out product after product seems simple on the surface: build a minimum viable product to test a hypothesis, and see if it can achieve market fit in a month.

Behind the scenes, though, the pace of work is intense. “If I build a new feature or startup I do need 12 hour straight sessions for like 10 days. And then after I’ll take time off to relax,” he explains.

Yet, as you’ll see below, when it comes to his toolset Pieter prefers to be as minimalistic as possible:

“It’s on purpose, I’ve cut out a lot of stuff to just make me be as efficient as possible with the least amount of time. Adding more tools and software only increases complexity and that costs time.”

Fair enough. Let’s take a peek into his lean working setup.

Daily workflow

“I get in around 9:30, and usually zone out for an hour in front of my computer, but it looks like I’m working. I then zone out for another hour after lunch too. In fact, in a given day, I’d say I do fifteen minutes, of real, actual work.”

I did a double take when I read this – that didn’t sound quite right. Turns out, Pieter was just joking. Got me for a moment there!

Still, by his own admission, Pieter keeps a rather strange schedule. He usually heads to bed at around 4am in the morning, and wakes up in the afternoon. It gets weirder:

“I scream out my girlfriend’s name as she wakes up before me, and then she comes and wakes me up. Then I shower, I make coffee (with my AeroPress, I love my AeroPress). I add some milk. I don’t like breakfast, so I usually skip that for the first hour.”

Not exactly the routine you’d expect from an entrepreneur with multiple successful ventures under his belt. Somehow, it just works for him.

On to the work day. At his work table, Pieter usually starts off by perusing his huge A3-sized to-do list, which contains an equally massive checklist of tasks that he has already completed, and those that he needs to.

Seeing the history of tasks that have been struck off the list gives Pieter the motivation he needs to get going. “I kinda get an idea of what I wanna do that day, which is usually like three tasks at least,” he says.

How Nomad List maker Pieter Levels works

The next 4 hours are spent going through any notifications that he might have received overnight, doing some light work, and playing GTA V. After that, the real work begins in earnest:

“The real work can be from 4 hours long to 12 hours straight sessions. Mostly it’s short sessions and the rest of the day will be filled with small errands, like tiny bug fixes.”

12 hour work sessions might seem over-the-top, and Pieter is well aware that he can get obsessive when working on a project. He knows, however, that he can’t get something big done on his own without obsessively focusing on it for long stretches of time.

Pieter’s method certainly goes against the recommendations of productivity wisdom that we so often read.

Outside of these stretches of work, though, Pieter balances it out with “fun stuff.” “Work is spread out through the day mixed with doing fun stuff with my girlfriend like going for walks wherever we are, getting groceries, cooking dinner, making coffee, and so on. And I like it like that,” he says.

To him, work and life are simply one and the same:

“I don’t like work just stopping at a certain time. I love what I do so for me it’s not so much work but just my passion. And being able to mix that every day with seeing my girlfriend and friends, why not?”

The tools he uses

How Nomad List maker Pieter Levels works

As a maker, Pieter typically goes through the entire process of building, launching, and growing his startups, which makes his small toolbox all the more impressive. Here are the products and services that he uses.

For communicating with friends, family, and employees, he prefers Telegram over the myriad of messenger choices out there. There are three benefits that inform his choice: “it is light-weight, works on all platforms, and is lightning fast.

How Nomad List maker Pieter Levels works

When writing code, blog posts, and pretty much anything text-based, Pieter goes with Sublime Text 3 simply because it’s the industry standard for coders. According to him, most of the older developers use Vim, but ST3 for “is faster, intuitive, and modern.”

On the design-end, he goes with the widely-used choice: Photoshop. “I make screenshots, edit them, post them to Twitter, and do small design work in there,” he says.

Of all the products Pieter uses, his favorite seems to be task automation service Zapier. He uses it for getting certain tasks done quickly and efficiently, such as auto posting new questions from Nomad Forum into the #nomads Slack chat group, and doing his accounts.

Pro tip: Pieter uses a Zap in Zapier that automatically checks his email for invoices, and puts them into Dropbox with the right data. That way, he can easily enter them into his bookkeeping and accounting system.

Interestingly, Pieter opts to use Terminal on his MacBook to get things done, rather than clicking around in Finder:

“Stuff goes so much faster […] Also, there’s loads of apps for Linux that work on OSX, like NCDU which shows where your hard disk space goes for example.”

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The Employer Alliance recently stated that many Singaporeans (literally, hundreds of thousands) could re-enter the workforce, and hence ease Singapore’s manpower shortage, if more companies were willing to adopt flexible working arrangements. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also released figures revealing that more than 160,000 economically inactive individuals want to find work within the next two years, but are, for one reason or another, unable to do so. In other words, due to a reluctance on the part of employers in adopting flexible working arrangements to accommodate individual circumstances, Singapore continues to suffer from severe manpower shortage.

In some sense, it’s hard to blame employers for erring on the cautious side. ‘Face-time’ is still highly valued as a traditional marker of worker productivity by employers – workers who are seen less are generally perceived to be less productive. This is hardly a rational measure, but one that employers stick to nonetheless.

Despite the trend towards flexible work arrangements, companies are still unwilling to let all its employers have that degree of freedom. For example, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made abold move by ending Yahoo’s work-from-home program. Following suit, other giants such as Best Buy also stopped their work from home programs, and many have either applauded the move, or denounced it in its entirety.


The Debate: Pros and Cons of Working-from-Home

According to some, the end of the work from home option in Yahoo and Best Buy  creates serious repercussions for men and women between the ages of 40 and 60, as the typical teleworker is 49 years old, rather than the 20-something. Parents have also raised a chorus of disapproval, complaining that this has destroyed their chances to have a career as well as being a mother or father.

On the other hand, many have stood up in support of the move.  In defense, they point out that those who work in the office often have higher productivity, lower idle time, and take shorter breaks.  Yet, even they have conceded that telecommuting options should still be open under certain circumstances – whether it to save on office space, or to find candidates from a broader pool.

So it seems that the majority believe that flexible working arrangements have their merits, and should not be completely abolished. How, then, should employers abolish the undesirable effects?


Take a Leaf from the Apple Playbook

Apple seems to be doing phenomenally well with its “massive network of remote customer support agents” (i.e. At-Home Apple Advisors). The challenge they faced, as do many companies, is in training a diverse group of people, spread out across the world. What they did was to put their advisors through an intensive four week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. training program:

“The curriculum is broken into four, one-week sections that are a mix of live instruction and self-paced modules in iDesk. Then at the end of each week, everyone takes an exam. They have two chances to hit the grading benchmark (two advisors said this was 89 percent, one said it was 80 percent), before they are kicked out of the program. So immediately, workers have an impetus not only to pay attention, but to keep the job once it’s final because they worked so hard to get there.”

In other words, the sheer difficulty of passing the training program makes workers want to work hard to keep their jobs. Apple also employs some other (draconian?) tactics to make sure that their advisors are not goofing off:

 “For example, trainers deliver regular prompts to each person throughout live instruction. These can be questions, requests for input, or just a cue for the trainee to click on. One former advisor I spoke to said Apple monitors mouse movements. If your mouse doesn’t move in a certain amount of time, then you’re sent a prompt. If you still don’t respond within 30 seconds, the trainer might actually call your cell phone.

“In addition to these prompts, trainers can ask the class to turn on their cameras for group discussion at any moment, making it immediately clear if someone isn’t at their desk. Also, many of the test questions are worded in such a way that the trainee would only know the answer if they participated in all the past week’s activities.”

These are excellent methods of giving employees extrinsic motivation to stay on task. Additionally, Apple also works to keep employees intrinsically motivated through the use of team psychology (team-building exercises) and enforcement of company culture (an Apple ‘care package’ sent to each advisor).


The Key: Motivate Your Remote Workers

In sum, Apple’s remote working arrangements work remarkably well because they invest a lot of effort into making it work. In contrast, most companies simply grant their employees work-from-home time, and end it at that – no wonder their employees do not feel motivated to work hard!

The key to making telecommuting work, then, seems to be in creating a proper remote working program or scheme that suitably rewards/monitors the employees under it.


My Take

There are certain jobs where working from home is, well, pretty much an impossibility. There are others (largely digital-based work), though, in which it absolutely make sense for two reasons:

  1. Remote workers, being able to work at times when they are at their best, tend to work the hardest at home (sometimes, even too hard)
  2. Employees are treated like adults rather than children, and nobody wants a child in their company

Remote working is definitely a step forward, in my opinion. What do you think?


Most of this post originally appeared on Zopim’s Blog: Read this before Letting Your Employees Work From Home