Monday, November 12, 2012

Telework Cambodia-style 1999

As its National Telework week in Australia I thought I'd share the evolution of my career as a teleworker over the last 13 years.

I'm writing this blog post on holidays poolside in Phnom Penh Cambodia where my remote work life began in 1999.

As an Australian Business Volunteer placed with the Maharishi Vedic University I was sent as a marketing advisor to Cambodia and the Kingdom's free first rural university. The campus was 4-8hrs bumpy minivan drive 'taxi' (depending on weather/road conditions) from the capital Phnom Penh where I was based.

Communication took the form of couriered letters sent by said taxi which meant it would take at least a day for a reply. Proof reading the newsletter took on a whole other dimension to production schedule that Phon Pheuy my counterpart and I had to contend with. We were both happy that we published 3 editions during the 6 months which was a big step forward in regards to promoting the great work of the Uni.

We also had a short wave radio which we valiantly tried to connect twice a day. I'd hear Lay Tithy's voice in my sleep 'Phnom Penh - Kamchai Mear over'. The line was bad as we had to contend with those using the signal between here and the province and so we barely could hear Stuart respond 'Kamchai Mear - Phnom Penh, we're here, over'. As with any challenge you find work arounds and new ways to connect and communicate. Decision making via CB radio isn't one I'd recommend.

As often the only expatriate in the head office I missed the community that the campus life offered my colleagues. They missed the 24/7 electricity and supermarket.

Team building when working remotely is a challenge. Making the effort to understand how your colleagues may feel isolated is important. I remember Michelle was teaching on campus and the only female at the time so we wrote letters to keep each other company. I used to send up care packages and she'd send back news the latest antics of the boys which could fill a book!

As volunteers we had clear roles for our assignments set for us before we left Australia. With little communication with the host organisaton during our time in country this was vital in being able to stay on track and work towards the outcomes of the program, providing quality education to poor students in a rural context.

Teaching office skills including basic phone use with no active phone line was play acting but it was important for the future that was coming. Generators provided power from 6-9pm and the computer lab was a hive of activity for both students and staff. It made for a very long day.

The Internet was expensive and temperamental with dust or humidity the enemy of electricity. Mr Son would unplug the power cord, tap it, blow on it and then reconnect and guess what - 9/10 it worked. We had limited time once connected so had to write emails offline and then copy and paste. For the team on campus they sent their emails via taxi on disk!

Communication with Australia was via monthly reports which made it hard to be responsive in a 6month assignment as by the time feedback loop was complete the issue was already dealt with. Thankfully my next assignment had great connectivity and I only had to work around the 4 hour time difference.

I think back to those days whenever I feel disconnected in my workplace.

The phrase 'work is not a place you go but what you do' resounds with me as I think back over my career. I hope to share other memories over this week to bring context to the current developments of the workforce of the future.