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A Canadian Entrepreneur’s Story of Managing Remotely while being Stuck in Middle East During COVID-19

In early March 2020 I flew to Dubai for work meetings. As an entrepreneur, I am always on the go. This trip was for my venture Airzai, a smart home fragrance and Care products startup that has attracted over $3.5M USD in seed funding so far and growing so fast that we were doubling our […]

In early March 2020 I flew to Dubai for work meetings. As an entrepreneur, I am always on the go. This trip was for my venture Airzai, a smart home fragrance and Care products startup that has attracted over $3.5M USD in seed funding so far and growing so fast that we were doubling our team each quarter. Even though I have to travel frequently around the world for in-person meetings and opportunities, I always tend to return back home and our HQ as soon as possible since I was a big believer in doing work with the team “under one roof”. But this pandemic changed it all for me.

While my Dubai trip started out in typical fashion; Flying in with pre-set meetings with investors, partners etc and a set day to fly back which is generally within a week, it quickly became a transformative journey due to COVID-19. The pandemic started ramping up on a global scale in early March. Airlines were shuttering flights and countries were exploring strict lockdown rules to slow movement and possible disease transmission.

After contemplating my options to return home to Canada, I decided to stay in Middle east during the lockdown period and manage my business truly remotely. I ended up flying to the neighboring country in middle east, Qatar where my sister resides and it seemed better to be with the family during these unprecedented times. Doha is seven hours ahead of Toronto, so when my team was working in Canada, I was winding down for the evening. When I was ready to go at six in the morning, everyone else was tucked in their beds. I obviously could not ask them to work on my local time, so I had to quickly adjust. I started my day in the midafternoon, stayed up late, and slept in when I could. During this period, I learned about my own capabilities and developed some tips for other people working remotely both during and after COVID-19.

Set Defined Work Time

As companies such as Twitter and Square and other players move to permanent remote work situations, they will need to implement set hours to ensure productivity and responsiveness. Otherwise, I think we will see some pullback from companies that want more control.

For anyone working remotely, it’s vital to set a “workday.” Sure, you can take a three-minute snack break, or pick up your kids from school, but you need time allocated for only work. Define the start and end of this workday, take a set lunch break, and you will get a lot more accomplished, and build a little work/life separation in a positive way. I recommend sharing your work time schedule with your spouse/partner, kids (if they’re old enough), and even your neighbor that likes to “pop in.” Formal work times help you to be more present when work is over.

 Of course, you’ll still answer some emails during other non-work times, but structured time is essential for remote work. A defined schedule also streamlines your work with colleagues and partners. I let all my key contacts know I was in town, so I could set expectations and schedules easily.

Open the Lines of Communication

Of course, COVID-19 didn’t create remote work – it just opened the possibilities to more people and companies. The technology tools for remote collaboration such as Zoom and WhatsApp were already in place. And what these tools provide so well is seamless real-time communication that makes remote work possible.  

Since I was on the other side of the world, I couldn’t rely on texts or voice calls, so we moved over to WhatsApp and video conferencing. My tip for remote working teams is to consolidate the communication mediums. Try a few, but then settle on the one platform that work best for your group depending on industry, time zones, personal preferences, and the type of actual work. Consolidating down to a minimum for communication tools reduces the chances of misinterpretation and losing important directives and insights. It’s much more efficient, and over time you build a repository of conversations and content that are searchable and provide a valuable record.

Embrace the Process

While my time working remotely in Dubai and Doha was temporary and driven by necessity, it did impart several lessons. I saw the need to wholeheartedly embrace working from home. I recommend every remote worker to dedicate themselves to the process, by creating an established workspace and following certain routines.

If possible, pick a work area where you can put a desk while also having some privacy. Invest in some professional equipment such as a high-quality headset so you can hear better on Zoom calls. Use a large and clear monitor, especially if you are running off a laptop. Buy an ergonomic keyboard and a comfortable office chair. Clear your desk every night so your mind is free from clutter. Use scents and sounds to add some calm to your work area.

Your personal habits will dictate your success working at home. Set yourself up from the start by eating a solid breakfast, taking a shower, and putting on decent clothes before diving into your day. I do not mean a suit and tie, just something more formal than pajama pants and old t-shirts. Get in the work mode.

As travel restrictions shifted, I made it back to Toronto, but the lessons I learned from working completely remote in Middle East stuck with me. After the pandemic fades, we will see many firms move away from paying rent or asking employees to commute, and instead shift to an at-home model that will require planning and dedication if it’s going to succeed. Heck, it worked so well for our company that we might move to a permanent work from home environment!

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