Ana & Catalina: Transforming work environment from the road

Digital ‘romads' Ana Marica and Catalina Contoloru know how to combine the best from both worlds - they have time to explore exotic locations while working remotely in HR. We spoke with the girls during their spontaneous visit in Naples before heading home to Romania. Future of work, Indonesia and looking for a remote job were all intensely discussed.

How did you guys get to know each other and how long have you been traveling together?

We are from a city called Craiova, located in the south of Romania and after we finished high school both of us went to study Economics in Bucharest. During our first year we started joining same groups of people and volunteering and we discovered we have similar interests, we joined the same student NGO, called Volunteers for Ideas and Projects and a great community called The Alternative University.

We learned a lot from both of them and being part of these communities helped us discover what we are good at, what we want to do and how we want to live our lives. Later we started working in Bucharest and after a few months we decided we want to explore the world and find different opportunities.

We've been traveling together for 3 years now. In the first year of travel we weren't working that much, we were in Indonesia exploring remote places. Then we moved to London for a year and worked with great HR Consultants on different projects. This year we've been mostly traveling in Europe and the US and working remotely with a digital PR and SEO agency.

Why did you choose to become location independent?

It was pretty clear for both of us that we didn't like the traditional style of work. We enjoyed working in HR but we didn't like the culture of nine to five and being in an office every day. We needed more freedom. So we started exploring and traveling just to see what else is out there. By experimenting and getting involved in different initiatives we realized we can do things we enjoy but in a different way.

Are you constantly traveling or rather doing trips from a long term base?

We've been on the road for most of this year but we usually prefer staying more in the places we're going to. At the beginning of the year we were in Czech Republic, two months in Romania, a month and a half in the US and then went back to Romania. We spent the summer exploring Portugal and now we've arrived here, in Italy. Last year we were based in London and did short trips, two years ago we were in Indonesia.

So it depends a lot on opportunities we find in the places we are going to, what we are looking for, what budget we have. We like to be very flexible and ready to adapt to what we find on the road and what new ideas we have, spontaneous decisions are always the most exciting ones.

Do you have any routines on your travels?

The first thing we always do is to buy plane tickets :) We are mostly traveling as backpackers and everywhere we go we look for more authentic experiences. So wherever we travel we try to hang out with locals to see what's going on in that place - we go to meetups, local festivals, events. We do different things in different places.

One of the things we like the most about this lifestyle is flexibility and the fact that so many times we don't know where we'll end up. Last week we didn't have an idea we would be in Naples. We were in a working camp in the south of Italy, close to Bari, when we realized that a good friend of ours just moved to Naples so we decided to visit her and work from here for several days. Things change quite quickly for us. This is what we love about it - having freedom and flexibility to be able to adapt to new things.

Do you find it difficult to be productive when you're on the road without any structure to your days?

It is a challenge to be productive when we move very often. This is one of the reasons why we prefer to stay longer at one place. That way we can find different places to work, explore and we can get used to the local lifestyle. We are not very productive when staying somewhere just a week or two.

But we also learned that we can do some work on a train, plan different activities, read more. We are more creative on the go and we usually have long conversations about our work and next steps when we have a 4 hour layover in an airport, for example. Then when we get to our destination and we want to work we know exactly what we need to do. It works great for us.

What working environment do you prefer - coworking places, coffeeshops or rather rented flats?

We go to coworking spaces but we also like finding nice coffeeshops that we can work from. Or if we have days with a lot of calls and we need a quiet place we can stay at the place we rent. We don't like going exclusively to coworking places or coffeeshops. It depends on our mood every day.

You spent some time in various places in Portugal this summer, what brought you there?

We stayed a month and a half in Porto and one month in Lisbon. We had Portugal in mind since the beginning of the year, we heard really nice things about this country. One of the people we are working with is from Lisbon and several other friends told us a lot of nice things about Portugal in general. We heard there's a great startup scene and a lot of digital nomads recommend this place.

Ever since we were in Indonesia we've been quite attracted to places where it's nice and near ocean so we can stay outside a lot.

What did you like about Lisbon?

Catalina: I liked how the city was so laid back and relaxed. The atmosphere is nice, the food is very good. It's a very nice and vibrant city. There are a lot of interesting places and initiatives, it's a great place for freelancers and there are many nice beaches around where you can go any time.

Ana: Also the living costs are lower than in other Western European cities.

You also surfed a bit in Portugal.  Are you active surfers?

Portugal was the first time we ever tried it. We went surfing twice and we loved it. To be honest, we had this in mind for a long time, and this adds to the reasons why we came to Portugal. We wanted to try surfing since we were in Indonesia but we didn't get to do it.

During our travels there we met a very nice couple who told us that the south of Portugal is the best place in Europe to learn surfing. So we made a mental note to go there at some point and surf.

What is your most favorite location for living and working remotely from those you have visited?

Ana: For me, one of the nicest was a city in Romania called Cluj. The city has underwent a lot of development and it's becoming one of the best tech spots in Europe. Living costs are very low and it's in the middle of Transylvania. The arts and cultural scene there is also very colorful.

Cata: I really enjoyed Lisbon, we had some great experiences there, met interesting people, had a lot of friends visiting so we explored the area together. I think I will be back at some point for more surfing and working.

Ana,  you spent a couple of months in Indonesia studying. What did you study?

This is how my travels started 3 years ago. I had a 6 month scholarship given by the Indonesian government to study Indonesian culture and language. It was amazing, one of the nicest things I've done so far and it completely changed the way I see things. The whole experience had a great impact on me.

At the end of those six months I met Catalina who was in Indonesia with another project. We were supposed to travel maybe two more   months in the country but we ended up staying eight more months. It was completely different from anything I've seen so far. The fact that I went there alone was very important. I didn't know anybody and I had to get used to a very different lifestyle. Since the beginning I was very curious to see how they live, why they act how they act and I loved it. I'm looking forward to go back.

We were thinking about going back at the end of December or January. We would like to go to Bali, as it's a very interesting place right now, full of startups and freelancers and a really good place for digital nomads.

Three years ago we spent a month in Bali but back then there weren't as many things happening for digital nomads, freelancers and entrepreneurs. So it would be nice to go back for a few weeks just to see what's going on there.

How did you get to the job you have at the moment?

Cata: The starting point was very interesting as they found me online when we were both looking for opportunities to work remotely. This time last year, the agency called 90 Digital was looking for someone to help them with recruitment.

The whole consultancy team works remotely and they knew they need a different approach to recruitment, different than the traditional one. They realized that by working remote they will be able to work with very talented people, no matter what's their location. So we had several very interesting conversations about how this can work and how can I help them.

I am very interested in organizational design and doing this for a remote team sounded great as it brings more freedom to the workplace.

I wasn't available full time back then and I worked mostly with Ana, together we were able to do more so she could join, too. Since last year both of us have focused on this collaboration. We really love working with 90 Digital, we get to learn a lot and experiment with a lot of ideas we have about how work should happen.

We get to adapt all the principles we know from HR to a remote workforce. Currently we're focusing on recruitment, performance and learning processes.

Could you tell us more about what 90 Digital does?

We are a digital PR and SEO agency. To put it simple, the team is looking at innovative ways of connecting businesses with their customers by enhancing their online presence. The consultancy team has about 20 people in total in various countries - UK, Portugal, Greece, Netherlands, Romania, Armenia, Serbia, Argentina...

When looking for new people to bring on board, we look more at what are their interests, skills and if they could be a good culture fit, no matter the location. We are looking for people who have the same working philosophy and appreciate the same things as us.

Everyone has the freedom to live wherever they want, as long as they are able to coordinate with the team and can be available for several calls during the day (UK time). It also doesn't matter when we do our work. Whether someone works better in the morning or in the night, it's their choice.

This is something that works very well for us as we move a lot and we need a flexible schedule. Everyone is very open to help and talk about their work, ask for input or feedback, we are a very friendly crowd. :)

What advantages do you see in having a remote team?

Diversity is an advantage because people can bring various perspectives to different situations and you can work with very talented people no matter where they are. We can be very creative when we work together, bring new ideas or examples. Whenever we have a conversation with people based in different countries the results are much better than if we spoke to people around us who see things same way.

Another very important advantage is the fact that all our people have a high degree of autonomy and they are used to work in remote teams. We have to make sure that people who work with us are very autonomous, responsible, come up with new ideas and have initiative to make things and projects happen.

What does your company communication look like and how do you ensure that you work efficiently?

For direct communication we use Hangout and Skype a lot. The whole company is also supported by Hipchat and we use instant messages, WhatsApp or emails for things that can wait.

We try to keep it as simple as possible and not to overwhelm ourselves with tools. Our regular Skype calls don't take longer that 30 minutes, 1 hour max if it's a very important matter. It saves a lot in terms of decision making and it keeps us productive.

How do you see the future of work?

Catalina: This is a topic we're very interested in. While we were in London we worked with a great consultant named Perry Timms. We learned a lot about the whole "future of work" concept from him, we went to many events and talked to people about this topic.

We think a lot of people will start working remotely, travel more and see work differently. The best thing about this trend is that it gives people another option. There will always be those who prefer traditional and corporate environment but it's nice that you will have this option more often. Just by giving people an option of choosing to stay in a traditional environment or work differently is a big plus.

Ana: Everybody will start to shift the way work happens in organizations. Even though a business might have five thousand full time employees they will allow them to work more as freelancers who have a bit of freedom and autonomy rather than the way they work now, which is very inflexible and somehow dependant on physical space.

Catalina: We are a part of a very nice community called iPractice on Google+ that has 100 people from all over the world - Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, US. These people are great professionals and start projects together or share resources and ideas. Some of them are consultants and come to the community with questions and everybody helps them with answers. Or if someone is working on a project and looking for a partner, they can find them there. It's a really nice and self-organized model.

When talking about the future of work, I think this is a great example of how work should happen and how healthy working environments will look in the future.

Both of you studied math and Catalina even informatics but you ended up in HR.  Have you thought about becoming a nomadic developer rather than working in human resources?

Ana: This was a challenge during the past years. While in Indonesia, we wanted to experiment with a different lifestyle, travel and see the world. But when we came back to Europe we didn't know exactly what we wanted to get involved in. We didn't know what kind of job would allow us to have the freedom we had gotten used to.

By a very nice coincidence we got in touch with Perry Timms whom we met back in Bucharest. We told him we're going back to Europe from Indonesia and he recommended us to go to London, to see what's going on there and get involved in his projects. That was a very lucky moment for us and we were very grateful for that.

During these projects we got in touch with HR community in the UK. They are very smart people who do things in a quite unique way, away from traditional models of building an organization. We learned about HR a few years ago in Bucharest but we had no idea that it could be a remote job. Through working with Perry and his group of people we became interested in learning and future of work and how we can change the way work happens in companies.

Catalina: Coming back to your question, I think we were never interested in becoming developers. We knew that you could work remotely as a designer or web developer but we were trying to see how we can adapt what we like to do to the nomadic lifestyle.

What would be your advice for people who are looking for a remote job?

Catalina: Know how to analyze your interests and what you want to do long term and then try to find different opportunities. There are a lot of platforms right now for freelancers and people who want to work remote. As soon as you find out what you want to do, create different accounts and get in touch with businesses showing what you can do for them. It's very important to connect with people in general, just to see what opportunities can pop up. For instance if your interests do take the form of websites and their development, you may want to read into resources in order to help yourself become a web developer.

Ana: These days any kind of interest can be translated into an online job. We had no idea we could do HR or organization development and we were very lucky to find out that we can. The offer of online jobs is a lot wider than it was years ago.

Catalina: Perry was a really key person for us to understand how we can develop our passion, find what works best for us and adapt the concepts we wanted to work with in the online environment.

Ana: He was definitely our mentor. Having a person who inspires you as much as Perry inspired us always helps a lot. It can help you understand how you can do things better.

As you are fans of business books and productivity, are there any interesting books you have read recently?

One very nice book that we came across lately and that makes you rethink the way work happens is Reinventing organizations by Frederic Laloux. Remote, written by people behind Basecamp is also great. Some others are Good to Great, The Year Without Pants and Maverick written by Ricardo Semler, we've been following his work for a couple of years and it's fascinating.

There are a couple more about happiness in workplace and how you can establish organizations that are built around the idea of freedom at work.

We learned about this concept from a very interesting network called WorldbLU - it's also the reason why we went to US this year. WorldBlu connects all the organizations that are built around freedom. There are 10 principles that all these companies have in mind when they work. One of the things WorldbLU does is a freedom network festival every year. We visited the festival in Miami earlier this year and we discovered a lot of very interesting concepts, ideas, people and consultants there. We would like to visit again next year, it's exactly the kind of network we're looking for. It's definitely the place to be for everyone interested in freedom centered organizations and future of work.

When googling your names, I stumbled upon an interesting term -  ‘digital romad.' Where does it come from?

Last year while we were in London working with Perry Timms he named us romads, which is a mesh of two words - Romanian nomads. We thought this was a great name for us and we actually started a blog called Digital Romads. We are thinking about building a community around this idea with more people from Romania who are traveling and doing similar things.

Could you share some cool places to visit in Bucharest?

Whenever we're in Bucharest we go to m60 and work from there, it's a very nice coffeeshop. There's also Seneca cafe, an Impact Hub coworking space and of course the Alternative university  at The Leaning House, where we work a lot from.

Bucharest is a great place for freelancers and remote workers right now. The startup scene is growing and there are a lot of new initiatives. It's also the city with the best WiFi we had so far.

And any favorite places in London where you used to hang out?

We used to go to the Google Campus and hang out around Shoreditch. We also liked food markets and King's Cross, it's a cool area. Interestingly, we had plenty of meetings on a train because we were traveling a lot. Since then, we have developed this habit of being able to work and plan things from wherever we might be.

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