Telecommuting across the straits

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Allie (left) and Bernie (right) are freelancers who travel between Malaysia and Singapore on a regular basis.

oon yeohBy Oon Yeoh

Earlier this year I wrote about the benefits of telecommuting. In that article, I wrote about how firms can benefit from allowing some of their employees to work from home.

Although working largely from home and occasionally visiting the office is still a relatively rare concept amongst local companies, it’s actually a mild form of telecommuting. Some people actually telecommute between countries.

I recently spoke to freelancers who travel between Malaysia and Singapore on a regular basis. One is a graphic recorder who has clients in both countries and has homes in both places. The other is a graphic designer whose clients are in Malaysia but who lives in Singapore.

Bernie Quah does something quite unusual. As a graphic recorder, she creates large-scale illustrations of talks at live events. “It’s a performance that supports the content being discussed,” she says. It draws attention to interesting ideas and quotes that may be missed or forgotten post-event.”

The idea of setting up her own company, Sketch Post, sprung from her penchant for illustrating notes at conferences that she attended. After a few years of doing this, she became confident enough to offer her services to clients.

Allie Hill, meanwhile, is a freelance graphic designer who also does some copy writing and copy editing when necessary. “You could say I’m the general handyman for most design-related matters,” she says. “For simple jobs, I usually also do the writing and editing.”

Like many freelancers, she began her career working for a design firm. “Although I enjoyed working in a studio, after my daughter was born I decided to be more present in her life,” she recalls. “When my daughter turned two, I made the decision to turn my back on full-time studio work.”

Although both travel frequently between Malaysia and Singapore, their paths towards this unusual working style are rather different.

In Bernie’s case, when she started out, most of her work was in Singapore as the companies there were more familiar with graphic recording. “After a few months, the Malaysian media wrote articles about my work and interest in graphic recording grew locally,” she says.

Allie moved to Singapore when her husband got a job there. She did not intentionally seek out Malaysian clients but referral from friends back home led to her doing freelance work for a few companies in Kuala Lumpur. Having clients located in another country is not exactly the most convenient way to work but she doesn’t mind the commute as she has a good relationship with her current clients. “I would rather have great clients who are hundreds of miles away than difficult ones who are nearby.”

Both also have clients in other countries but they deal with them differently. Bernie, who is single, is happy with the jet-set lifestyle and often travels to Thailand and Hong Kong for work. Allie, in contrast, has a young daughter so travelling beyond Malaysia is not practical. For clients in other countries, she deals with them through e-mail and Skype.

Frequent commutes means travelling light is crucial. Bernie brings a camera, marker pens and some clothes tucked into a carry-on bag. “I have a Wacom tablet in each home so I don’t have to travel with one anymore.” Allie’s essentials are her laptop, sketchpad, and a make-up bag. She also carries her “Malaysian wallet”, which contains Malaysian currency, her IC and ATM card.

While most of us might shudder at the ideal of traveling so often for work, there is much to like in their extreme telecommuting lifestyles, according to these two ladies. “I’m never bored,” says Bernie. “Many of my peers complain about having the same routine. Mine changes all the time but with some level of familiarity. I have the best of both worlds; my lovely family in KL and the freedom of mobility that Singapore provides.”

Allie considers herself fortunate to be able to work where she likes, when she likes. Because her relationship with her clients is good, they don’t mind her occasionally bringing her daughter to meetings. “It’s actually a real treat for as it makes her feel grown up and important. She once wrote in a school writing assignment that she spent her holiday attending client meetings with her mom!”

There are, of course, downsides too. For Bernie, it’s missing out on special occasions, especially when relatives from overseas are visiting. Allie, meanwhile, misses working in a team – the office pantry banter, the brainstorming sessions, having lunch with colleagues. “The camaraderie is what I miss most,” she says.

How long do they seem themselves doing this? Bernie, who is still new to extreme telecommuting – she started in June last year – sees the travelling slowing down over the next few years as she grows her company and has teams in each country. “Then, I may only need to travel to each office once in a while,” she says.

Allie, now an extreme telecommuting veteran with six years of experience country-hopping, figures she would consider going back to full-time studio work once her daughter is older and more independent.

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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