Distributed Discussions episode 3: Connectivity and rural communities with Jo Palmer

A conversation with Jo Palmer.

Distributed Discussions episode 3: Connectivity and rural communities with Jo Palmer

In this episode, host Ali Greene chats with Jo Palmer, founder and managing director of Pointer Remote, an Australian-based company that supports rural communities, businesses, and individuals to leverage remote work. They also operate a remote work jobs board, deliver capacity building programs with government and community groups, and is currently building a decentralization tool to encourage people living in metropolitan areas to relocate to rural towns.

Jo Palmer and Ali Greene

Jo is motivated by the social and economic benefits that remote work provides for marginalized parts of the community. She believes that a person’s location, gender, physical ability, or ethnicity should not determine the type of work they do.

Show summary

  • Lessons learned on how remote work transcends industries
  • Why it’s important to put processes and systems in place
  • What remote work means and refers to in Australia
  • Candidates, communication, and community impact
  • How rural communities leverage remote work to grow and attract/retain populations
  • Relocation strategies, economic benefits, and embracing new people in town
  • Push-and-pull growing pains and responsibilities with connectivity
  • What recruiters should know when hiring down under
Key discussion points from Distributed Discussions podcast episode with Jo Palmer

Listen to the Full Episode


Introductions & Pointer Remote Turns Four!

Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Distributed Discussions. Today, we have Jo Palmer. Jo is the founder and managing director of Pointer Remote, an Australian-based company that supports rural communities, businesses, and individuals to leverage remote work.

They run a remote work jobs board, deliver capacity-building programs with government and community groups, and they’re currently building a decentralization tool to encourage people living in metropolitan areas to relocate to rural towns. I love that and can’t wait to hear more. Jo is motivated by the social and economic benefits that remote work provides for marginalized parts of the community.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Jo. How are you doing?

Jo: Very well. Thanks for having me.

Ali: Before you get started, I’d love to hear a little bit more about where you’re dialing in from and how remote work or remote life played a role in why you’re there.

Jo: I am based on a farm about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne inland, so in rural Australia. Remote work has been a process that has evolved for me. I’m a primary school, elementary-trained teacher. I taught for nearly 10 years in schools in Australia, in the UK, and in North America. When I got back from traveling around, I knew I didn’t want to live in a city. I did lots of city time while I was away. I’ve gone to boarding school in Sydney. I’ve lived in Sydney as well as London, Vancouver, and places around the world, but I fell into the remote work space.

I started a company eight years ago where I had a still quite education-based comprehensive learning center that we were operating in three towns. I had teachers working for me, and we were in tutoring, school holiday programs, camps, science days, and those sorts of things. It was my first experience managing people that way. I had 30 staff over 3 towns that’s about 300 kilometers from each other so it was quite a physically-distributed team. I also learned in that instance all the what not to do so I didn’t do a particularly good job of managing everyone at all.

I ended up running an event-management company in the agricultural industry space with a business partner, and we ran the company remotely from both of our farms. She lives about an hour north of me. I was talking with some friends actually at a barbecue and I said, oh, it’s going to be fabulous as this business grows. We can just start hiring my girl friends who have married farmers and who aren’t working. They can come into the workforce. His friend said, you know, that’s a business in itself. That was how number three started. We’ve been going for four years this month actually. It’s our birthday, four years in March 2021.

Ali: Oh, happy birthday!

Jo: Thank you. I guess we had a bit of an identity crisis in that we weren’t recruiters but we weren’t a full-blown jobs board. We were that in between. We onboarded job-seekers. We vetted them. We made sure that their Internet connection was a decent strength—but that’s still a major problem for a lot of people in rural Australia—they had a decent phone service, and those sorts of things. With the businesses as well, we were working with them to see how remote-ready they were.

That year has evolved into all of those other bits and pieces that you said in the introduction. It’s definitely been a process. Each of the steps and things have evolved along the way, but obviously, things have gone to a new ultra level in the last 12 months. It’s definitely been interesting.

Ali: It’s been an interesting year for everybody but it’s amazing that for four years, you’ve been trying to find ways to make sure that people and companies are going to have good working relationships. There are a few topics you brought up that I want to dig into later like the connectivity and what that means.

Learning Not Regrets

Ali: Before we jump into that, I’m really curious. You’ve had these three businesses all in different facets of industries and with different people. What have you learned about remote work that transcends a particular industry or transcends a certain, specific team? It sounds like from your first experience, there were a lot of lessons learned. If you could go back and do that over again, what would you change? How did you evolve to become a better remote business for businesses, two and three, now with Pointer Remote?

Jo: To be honest, I’m very much one that doesn’t do regret. I don’t do that. I’ve been in that rabbit hole […]

Ali: Probably the better lesson here for everyone listening.

Jo: I very much try and take the attitude of, wow, that was a learning experience, wasn’t it? The things that were very apparent to me very early were the systems and processes that needed to be put in place and for me to be able to give that autonomy to my staff especially the ones that I didn’t see regularly.

There was one of the towns. It was a 2½-hour drive from me. I probably only went a couple of times a year to go and see those staff. It was fun and actually, as far as the user experience, the families that we work with the most never were aware of me speeding my tasks behind the scenes. It was quite a smooth experience for them. Lots of things, making sure that those systems and processes for anything were repeatable. Those were the things that came unstuck if I didn’t have a system or a process for it that might take new ways to get to.

It was very apparent that we needed everything to be cloud-based. Like I said, this is eight years ago. I know that that doesn’t actually seem that long ago, but also seems a lot of time ago for someone that had never run a business. I was a classroom teacher. I’d never been in an office environment. I’ve never been in a corporate environment. I’d never done any of these. I’d never been even in management or leadership positions at school. It was definitely lots of learning from all aspects of it.

Being organized and being able to give my team access to what they needed especially because I was working in the business as well. It was a really tricky business. Like I said, 30 staff that work one-on-one or group-tutoring these kids between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM in the afternoon. If they had an issue, they couldn’t ring me because I was with a family or student as well.

It was a really tricky spot, but it was also really good because they were very good at solving problems themselves. That’s something that came out of this as well, giving them enough trust, support, and sorts of things for them to be like, you know what? We can sort this next time if it doesn’t work. Jo is not going to block my head off if I do this and it’s wrong. That’s probably why it worked and why I was able to get away with things being quite unorganized for a long time.

Ali: It’s interesting to hear you talk about these points because even eight years ago or today, technology and the tools available to us have clearly evolved. I see so many companies, people, ops people, and remote workers debating what tools they want to use or how excited they are for Slack versus Asana versus Monday versus Notion.

What you’re talking about is the very basic behaviors. You need a system. It doesn’t matter what that system is, it just needs to exist. People need to have access and to know how to use that system. Then, you need to trust that once you have let the bird out of the cage, they can fly.

Over the eight years, have you noticed anything new come up or additional qualities that you would say makes a company successful in remote working when you’re now thinking of how you evaluate if the company’s ready to bring on remote employees?

On Mindsets, Definitions, and Systems

Jo: Mindset is probably my go-to. If I think about the organizations that we’ve worked with with Pointer, if I talk pre-2020, for the first three years that we were going, we had almost the scale of businesses that used us to advertise jobs. There were those ones that had been doing remote for years and weren’t referring to it as remote.

That’s an interesting point because I’ve spent a lot of time in North America and I work remotely at least once a week like it was a big thing. Even for me to start a company with the word remote in it was a real challenge for at least for the first 18 months because in Australia, the word remote very much refers to the Outback, so physically remote.

Genuinely, until March last year, I still would have to start every presentation, every workshop explaining what remote work was. Literally until 12 months ago because we would get a lot of people approaching the business looking for, say, a nursing job in a remote indigenous community or they would come to us looking for a mining job. Again, in Outback, Australia or in so, just even the terminology around was really interesting. That’s something very basic. I don’t have to explain what remote work is anymore which is good.

As far as things around mindset, like I said, the companies that we had at the start were the ones that were already doing this. They knew it was fabulous. They were like, oh, my gosh, this is amazing. You’re tapping into a talent pool that we haven’t experienced before, we haven’t had access to before. They were onboard, rolling with it nice and quick.

To other extreme where there were businesses quite often in rural towns that had been trying to fill a job for 3, 6, 12 months by trying to pay a relocation package. They would try to up the wage. They would do all sorts of sweetness to try and attract someone physically to their town. Sometimes, they’d eventually get them near, and they then leave 12 months later because the town was just small, they left a partner somewhere else, or they just didn’t feel involved in the town.

Those businesses would come to us very much as a last resort. They’re like, we’ve tried everything. They’d throw their hands in the air. Okay, let’s try this remote work thing because someone told us about you. Then, we’d be able to give them amazing candidates straight away. They’d hire them within a week. It was amazing. They’re like, this is great, but then in six months time, that person with a place in that business would ring and be like, this is diabolical. There are no systems and processes in place. There is nothing that includes me. I get left out of meetings. I haven’t met any of them in the flesh.

All of these things that a lot of businesses across the situation found themselves feeling as well because they didn’t have the systems and processes, but they didn’t also realize or place value on that culture piece and that involvement of the human that you’ve hired as a human not just as someone that is doing work autonomously that you can’t see and you actually forget about.

That was the spectrum that we’ve worked with and everything in between. The mindset of the leadership and the manager is a big thing that is really important, and is a maker and breaker of this.

Ali: Yeah. It’s not just the mindset of, oh, this remote work thing or hiring a person who can work online for us. It’s not even a mindset of, is this a good idea or bad idea? I love this example of, okay, we can’t attract people to this town for jobs so let’s hire remotely, there’s an obvious benefit for a distributed teammate, but then forgetting the mindset about culture. The mindset has to be all throughout the process, not just the decision to hire someone but also the decision on how to treat that person.

Jo: 100%. It goes through until they leave the organization. If you’re doing that right and the mindset is right, then they’ll stay for a long time. That’s a long time in between, but yeah, you’re right. You’ve nailed that. People see them as two separate things when they can’t. It needs to be completely intertwined from the start all the way through.

The Importance of Making Time for Employee Onboarding

Ali: Yeah. That’s hard for companies of all sorts. I know there’s always a debate on people operations teams of when does the hiring process end and the onboarding process begins? It’s so hard sometimes to have that conversation because it’s like, well, they shouldn’t necessarily feel like a beginning and you end it. You just smoothly transition into each other but tactically, how you do that, which is a whole separate conversation.

Jo: I think as well that we spend most of our time these days is where that small- to medium-sized business. With organizations, especially at that size, you pedal away and you’re absolutely flogging yourself until you cannot not hire someone. You have to hire someone because you were so flat-out, but then by the time you’ve made that decision and you are finally okay with departing with money to get work off your team’s plate, you don’t have the time to do that onboarding thing properly or they prioritize.

I shouldn’t say they don’t have time. Everyone has time to do it if you make the time. If you value it and you can place value on that in your organization, the time appears. Also, we say that a lot of the time. They start the hiring process when they’re at breaking point. I get it. I’m a small business. Being able to justify when you had another wage is scary and it’s hard, but then you’ve got to invest that time with anyone whether they’re working remotely or in your office. That investment at the start is how you get longevity. It’s how you get return on investment on that investment into your business. Doing all that stuff properly is all very good in theory.

Ali: Yes. Making it happen in practice depends on some of the things that you mentioned. It’s like ensuring that there is that system and the people know how to navigate it so that the onboarding time is spent on genuine connection-building, not reviewing things that someone who you hire who is autonomous to be a remote worker could be autonomous enough to figure out if there is the right documentation for it or if they have access to a tool.

It’s quite funny at this stage. Remote work has really only been a worldwide term for the past year but even a year in to think about things, like how could someone start and not have access to the communication tool the business uses? Those are the mistakes that will make or break the experience for remote candidates.

Jo: I agree. I know plenty of organizations where there’s not even remote work involved. People have their first two weeks without even a laptop yet and they’re in the office. They are wandering around aimlessly, learning how to use the paper filing system.

While I agree with you completely, it’s definitely not just remote or hybrid organizations. It’s organizations everywhere. Getting sent home with 24 hours notice with your whole organization was the biggest spotlight on organizations that were like, we have no systems. We are paper-based.

Effective Remote Work Candidates & Communities

Ali: Yeah. It put a magnifying glass on everything. On the flip side, I want to talk about candidates in communities. I know Pointer Remote does a lot of work not just with individual people but also thinking through community impact. What does a good candidate look like? What does a good community look like once you offer more remote work or attract distributed companies to hire people that live where they live?

Jo: I would say a candidate in a community as far as how we define and use the terms and things in our organization, looking at a candidate first, what does that look like? You can Google how to work remotely effectively now. There are 70,000 articles and hot tips about the ergonomics on your desk, your ability to work autonomously, be organized, and manage your time and your workflow, and all of these sorts of things.

All of those sorts of things I agree with. You’ve got to hire people that are good self-starters. You’ve got to hire people that can communicate well verbally and written. That was great communication there—verbally and written.

Ali: To be understanding that you can understand someone even if the sentence isn’t laid out perfectly. I’ve learned that a lot living here in Spain as someone who does not speak Spanish. I’m like, can I just put enough words together that you understand me? That’s good enough. That can be good communication.

Jo: My coffee might be a nice coffee but whatever, there is coffee. There’s caffeine. As well as how you asked about communities. Like I said, in the last 12 months, there is information overload online and it’s quite overwhelming. I find it even overwhelming as well. What I find overwhelming over the last 12 months is something that I know a lot of people in the remote work space prior to COVID, because while it was happening, it was still a relatively small world. I got to know a lot of people that were doing lots of really cool stuff in different parts of the world that we have become friends, speak on each other’s podcast, and have met them at conferences in-person, online, and all of those sorts of things.

I think there are experts or a dime a dozen these days. In the last 12 months, we’ve really chosen that our space is going to be really focusing on how rural communities—start within Australia, but I say this is something that is transferable to other parts of the world—can really leverage remote work to grow. To attract new populations but also to retain the populations that are already there.

As lots of countries around the world with an educated rural base where access to tertiary education is relatively similar to that in metropolitan areas like it is in Australia, we have a huge brain drain to the cities. That’s been a challenge for centuries in some places—definitely decades in Australia—but what we’re seeing now is that with this new-found flexibility in people’s jobs, they’re realizing, hang on, I live in Sydney.

Sydney for example is one of the biggest cities in the world geographically. It’s something like 75 kilometers across from the center route to the western suburbs or something. Don’t quote me on the distance. It’s a big geographic space for the 3 million people or whatever that lived there, but a lot of people would commute for 1½ hour, 2 hours into the CVD for a non-client-facing job, and then turn around, and do the same thing in the afternoon.

People were just like, hang on, after lockdown, I would just be like, I don’t need to do this. This is ridiculous. I don’t need to pay this mortgage. I don’t need to miss out on everything family life wise. I don’t need to be feeling exhausted on the weekend because I’ve literally commuted for 10 or 12 hours this week on top of my 40 hours of work. Let’s go west.

They are moving. We are having—in some rural areas—a housing process, our bigger regional centers. Our farm is about ½ hour away from the biggest inland city in New South Wales which got about 60,000 people in it. It’s too quite small when you’re talking about other parts of the world, but houses are selling the day after they go onto the market. There are no rentals. There is this mass exodus from metropolitan areas into these regional centers.

What we’re really trying to see is how do we get people to not just clump into these mini cities? How do we get them out into those towns that have got 5000–10,000 people which still got beautiful schools, communities, sporting clubs, and all of these sorts of things? They’re the ones that lose the brain drain. They’re the ones that originally had lost into a regional center or a city. How do we keep them there, but then how do we also attract people to keep going that 100 kilometers further?

Ali: What are some of the strategies that you see are working in that encouragement of people moving to other areas?

How Remote Work will Change the Urban / Rural Landscape

Jo: A lot of other parts of the world where people are going that is nothing apart from just the lack of where those towns are physically is to the coast. Those coastal towns where you can buy a house that’s walking distance from the beach through no planning or anything to do with anyone’s forward-thinking, only that the fact that they built towns next to beaches. That’s been a big thing.

As far as the towns, I see things that are happening. They are embracing what it means to have new people move to their towns. I know in a lot of rural areas across the world, that cliquiness and that, oh, they’re an outsider, and that new-person thing is a real thing. People will come and they’re like, oh, we’ve lived here for three years and we made two friends because everyone else had been there their whole life. They didn’t need more friends so they just ignored us at the supermarket. They didn’t talk to us on the edge of the football field. That sort of thing. That’s a real thing.

You see towns that have really embraced what it means to have a new family move to town and they’re the ones that then tell their friends. It’s incredible. There’s a town that’s about an hour north of me. It has about 6,000 people that live there. You cannot get to park in the main street. It is bustling at all times of the day, everyday of the week. There were hardly any vacant shops in the main street. There are three schools. They built a co-working space. There is a 74-spot child-care center. They are just really embracing what it means to have new people come and they use that as a marketing tool to attract people.

For example, the same town needed a doctor […]. They actually did a marketing campaign […] and Canberra. They had an open weekend where you and your family could come for a weekend, stay at a motel in town. All the shops stayed open and did light night things for the whole weekend. They put all sorts of things on to just show the people that were there and the diversity of the community.

The first time they did, they had something like four or five families relocate there with children, with jobs, with all of these sorts of things. That doesn’t sound like much but if you come and plunk in a town of 6,000 people, if you come and put 5 of those, even if only 1 of the couple were working in an $80,000 job—the average salary in Australia is about $83,000—if 5 people bring $83,000 a year into a town of 6000 people, financially, that is game-changer. They all bring 2 kids each, that’s 10 kids more that are going into a school, that are in the soccer team. They then go and shop at the supermarket. That real economic and cultural benefits that it has for that smaller community is just really incredible.

That’s where we’re being able to use towns like that town as an example to say, okay, you need a GP. You attract the GP to come. In the past, what might have stopped the GP from moving in the first place or had them maybe in a fly-in, fly-out situation was the trailing spouse. In the past, they would be like, yeah, you take that job and then what am I going to do in this town?

Whereas what this remote work revolution has done is given people the chance to say, okay, will you go to your physical brick-and-mortar office job, medical job, or whatever? The trailing spouse is like, hang on, this town has got co-working space. They’ve got a business chain that’s really involved. Oh, they’ve got a woman in the business group. They’re doing things. There are things here for me. I can work remotely but not feel isolated and can feel part of the town. That’s really what we’re working with a lot of local governments around.

Use this as a way to not only keep the people that already live there, keep them there because it’s not easier to hold on to them than to attract new people, but these are the things that people are looking for as they’re going to relocate and to bring their family with them.

Ali: Outside of the idea of, oh, my goodness, the town is a bit cliquey and people are nervous about new people coming in, have you seen any other types of resistance to this story and this example that you’re sharing? It sounds really cool. This idea that remote work is not just enabling remote workers to move around but also spouses or people that have these in-person jobs coming to new towns. I see so many positives in that and I’m curious, what are the potential drawbacks?

Jo: There’s always going to be some stick in the mud wherever we go. There’s always going to be someone that has issues with that. What we find not so much with this remote thing but we have a lot of migrant workers pre-COVID especially now really, rural towns that depend on foreign migrant workers in our agricultural industry to pick fruits, to harvest, and to do all of these sorts of things.

Jo: Taking it back like I said with the housing issues, that actually is a challenge if you think about these people that have all of a sudden realized, hang on, I can do my job from anywhere. Oh, wow, I can move three hours away and I can buy a house that’s twice as big for ⅓ of the price, but I’ve sold a multi-million dollar house in Sydney. Then, I move to this town and the locals can’t compete with that cash as far as being able to get into the property market. That actually is a really big challenge.

On a bit of a lesser challenge but still something that I hear with this big mass migration is that expectation of the people that have lived the city around the service, the type of food, coffee, experiences, and things like that that aren’t quite big yet in a lot of towns. They’re getting there but sometimes, almost disappointed like, oh, hang on, this is the best coffee? This is as good as it gets?

Again, opportunity with that is they’re like, okay, there are also three vacant buildings in this main street, I’ll put my own coffee shop in there. Then everyone has to pull up their socks. It’s a push and pull with everything. With more people comes more services and that’s straight up. If you got more people living there, they are spending money more, the health services are improved because there are more people. But again, housing and affordability is a really big challenge as well, so push and pull.

Ali: That push and pull is quite interesting as time evolves because as you said, there are these regional hubs. How do you prevent certain areas from getting too big and maybe turning into situations where similar problems that existed in urban areas now exist just in more places around the country, versus genuinely ensuring people are finding homes that they can build these communities where there is that balance of charm and slower life?

Why would people move out to the countryside but also enough amenities to support new people coming in? How do you find that balance? I’m especially curious. We talked a little bit about the government’s influence on that balance, but what do you think? Should businesses have a responsibility in this push and pull as well as they’re going to be hiring people in different places?

Jo: Yes and no. With anything, there are going to be growing pains. That’s going to just be a thing. As far as the businesses that are hiring people remotely, I don’t know how they so much can influence what outcomes the community that their remote workers choose to live in. I don’t see how they can do a huge amount there. Only if they can encourage their staff to use coworking.

Introducing Co-Working to Small Towns and other alternative Corporate Benefits

Jo: Coworking, especially in rural towns, is still relatively not a big thing here. Like I say on the things that grow remote in […], there are hundreds of co-working spaces in rural islands. Their physical space is just so much smaller than Australia, or the uptake of coworking in those areas has just been astronomical. Whereas it’s really slow-going here. It’s happening, but it’s slow.

If businesses can either include in-packages or pay extra to encourage people to work from anywhere not from work from home, that can have a really good impact because it’s really interesting. John […] who is an author of Distributed Chains—he’s an Irish guy who lives in San Francisco—has done a lot of work in the space around decentralizing people rather than organizations and he talks about what the impact is of people seeing someone working remotely in their community.

The fact that they’re not staying at home, that they’re actually going and working in a co-working space in the main street. They’re going and buying their coffee or their lunch from one of the local stores and then having a conversation with people like, what do you do? I see you walking around. I work for a big organization or I work for a startup or whatever.

People will be like that’s cool. We find that. We go and run a workshop in the town and people come and we do the usual whip around at the start to see what people do. People that have known each other for years have never actually known what people did for a job. They had no idea that they work remotely or they assumed that they didn’t work because they haven’t seen them in a brick-and-mortar store or an office or themes. They’re like, you’ve got a really important, impressive job for a company in Germany and you’re in the town of 2000 people.

They just don’t realize because that work-from-home theme is very different to work from anywhere where they’re out and about and they’ve got their work-hat on. They’ve got their laptop, like, I can’t talk or I’m obviously in a meeting like those sorts of things. I think the last 12 months, even in small rural areas, have opened that up a lot more and people were seeing it now. I think that that’s been a really big change and a really big shift in a positive way.

Ali: I think that’s really a good way to articulate it because it puts some abilities back into people ops teams as they design benefits for remote workers. I think there’s been a lot of attention especially this year because of the pandemic and because people are working from home. How do we make sure people have the proper chairs to sit in when they’re in their home? How can we make sure they have a desk stipend so they can buy materials for their home?

But there’s been less encouragement this year and I know it’s been a big topic of conversation for those niche companies before the pandemic that allowed remote work around do we only pay for co-working spaces? Well then what if a town doesn’t yet have a co-working space? How else can companies use their funds to make sure their remote workers are getting out in the community? Whether it’s going out for lunch or having the ability to work from a cafe and using money that exists in companies to better the employee and also have that trickle-down effect on communities.

Jo: I think another way as well is sponsorship money for sporting teams or community groups, like having a branding awareness that comes with that as well. That’s two-birds-with-one-stone, the individual employee has the ability and some cash to contribute or participate in things. But again, like a branding opportunity for a business, how fabulous? It’s interesting as well as different governments. I know that the state of Vermont when they did a big push around people relocating and taking their jobs from interstate to relocate to rural Vermont is part of the program. If there wasn’t a co-working space in the town that you moved to, the state government would dollar-match you to stop.

If you then had some skin in the game and we’re doing it, there was assistance. That doesn’t just have to be from the business. It can be from local government, state government, federal government, from wherever that is as well.

Ali: Yeah. It’s cool to see if the government’s chiming in, the individual workers, the businesses and that’s what really I think is going to help shape the future of how we live as individuals, communities, companies and all of that.

Jo: Very much so.

Connectivity Issues

Ali: I want to go back to the plane around connectivity. This has come up in a few different podcasts. So far, it still is an issue for people working remotely that might not always have a stable internet connection to rely on. What does that look like for the communities that Pointer Remote is involved in? What do you think that the path forward is? Again, I think this is an interesting question of is it the government’s responsibility? Can businesses have a positive impact there? How do we make sure people have this? Is it now a human right that people should have access to the internet? What does this mean moving forward?

Jo: Look, it’s very political in Australia. Connectivity’s very political. I don’t know if it’s been stated is a human right. People say that. We’re finding that a lot of the argument around the need for adequate connectivity in rural and remote, physically remote Australia not remote working Australia, remote outback Australia, is that with population decline comes service decline, which means access to health services and education, in particular in rural and remote communities, is quite in some circumstances really substandard for the way that the rest of the world sees that Australia lives, behaves, and runs, all of those sorts of things.

The argument around needing a strong enough connection for telehealth to try and fill the gap that physical health services and not being able to provide. Access mainly for work, it impacts my community of Pointer Remote quite dramatically. I know in those first years when I was running the business, it was so crazy.

We physically onboarded every candidate that was looking for a job and we spoke to every single one of them on the phone like I was saying that we tested out to see what their internet speeds were, actually spoke to them on the phone to almost make sure they weren’t fudging through, that they had a good phone service because I was trying to sell them as a product. I had to remove any of the people from the candidate pool who genuinely, even if they were so skilled and the most amazing person to fill a job, if the internet connection was awful, they just couldn’t do it.

If you didn’t have enough of the connection to be able to FaceTime with someone, I couldn’t let onto the platform to then get all the way through the interview process. We offered a job and then two weeks later, the business be like, these people, their internet, they’re on ADSL and they get no connection. We can’t do anything. They can’t download anything. They can’t watch training videos, all of those things. That is still a reality for a huge number of people here.

Like I said, it is political here in that we are such a big country physically. Australia pretty much lays on a map over the same size as the US, except we’ve got the same population as LA spread across the whole country. The infrastructure that is required to get a decent connection if you’re doing it through fiber and all the other physical infrastructure that’s not satellite-wise, it’s expensive. By the time they do things, it’s become almost obsolete. It’s a really big challenge here […].

Ali: Any thoughts on how to solve that challenge? Putting you on the spot.

Jo: It’s so funny. In the last four years, because I was one of very few people in Oz that was champion in this way of working, I’ve got myself quite a reputation for being quite noisy and politicians get very irritated with me because of how annoying I am as far as advocating for people that don’t have a great connection. I think for a lot of people, according to the federally funded internet broadband rollout, apparently 98% of Australians have access to a connection. It’s just how fast it is and how expensive it is.

I think for us, they just need to realistically be really heavily subsidized to at least remove the cost side of things to even it out. Connection-wise, we just need to realistically, the likes of people, like Elon Musk shooting a bunch of satellites up into the world, so that there are lots of […] into the sky, so there’s lots of satellite connections and things. Because I think the physical infrastructure is forever going to be a challenge here. I don’t know how else you do it. I think it’s just being noisy. I think having people like me that every opportunity, that anytime there’s a microphone in front of me, my first thing is connectivity, connectivity, connectivity.

The Trickle Down Effect

Jo: Even in our roles because everyone’s always wigging about that but it is something you just have to keep saying and people like hearing the incidences of what happens when the connection is not good enough, but then the flipside, saying those positives like I did earlier on around what an $80,000 salary does in these towns, all of the other social issues and economic issues that we have in rural communities, if people working and earning money, they are spending money. It solves lots of problems. If people have got money, it solves lots of problems. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it definitely helps towns run a little smoother. It helps them to drought- and fireproof themselves.

We’ve had pretty wild few years here, even pre-Covid as far as natural disasters, which I’m pretty sure you’d have to be living in a cave if you haven’t seen at least photos of all of Australia looking like a desert or all of Australia on fire in the last couple of years.

Ali: Yeah. I remember before Covid took over the news cycle that was like very much something that I was seeing in the news and I was traveling to the US and South America and Europe as well.

Jo: Yeah and it was just you’ve never seen before. It’s just crazy. The thing is, the towns that have been able to bounce back and have shown more resilience are ones where people have got access to work. Because if they’ve got money, they can rebuild. They’re spending in those shops. The shops can open back up. All of those things and so I think when people get a bit despair-y about how do you do things and how do you solve the rural Australia problems and all those sorts of things, my argument is always put them to work.

Most people want to work. There’s only a very small part of population in any community or parts of the world that actually don’t want to work or physically can’t work. Most people want to work and most people want to do a good job. If they’re doing that, they then spend the money on the stuff that they like doing as well, which is just that whole cycle. Then you can stimulate economies on a really small scale. I think that that’s something that this remote work thing is just doing and is blowing people’s minds when you look at the numbers on it. It’s really crazy that the impact that just individuals working can have.

Ali: I think that’s really important. Just highlighting the other topics or the other areas that people might not be thinking about and how it can impact life is really important because you think about an issue like connectivity and it’s like, okay, so people have strong internet. What does that mean? Well, it means that telehealth does become an issue as you said. I think just continuing to bring that noise to make people ask more questions is usually important. Elon, if you’re listening, send Jo some satellites so we can get that connectivity in Australia shooting upwards.

Jo: In fact, I think as well, what’s really interesting is that even if people got really poor connections on their farm or in their really little towns, there is always somewhere that they can drive to, even if it’s not every day of the week, but we’re working with a lot of local governments who are then saying, the connection is dreadful, as soon as you leave.

Five kilometers out of town, the phone service drops out and your own 3G if that’s as far as any data that you’re being able to access. But these are the ones that you then say, okay, hang on, you’ve got all these council-owned buildings in the main street that are either not being utilized or under-utilized, put desks in there. Crack up the internet connection. You cover it and just let your ratepayers come into town and work here. Again, you just create that coworking theme.

It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It doesn’t have to be with SWAG carts. It doesn’t have to have an incubator or any accelerator or anything. You put three desks in an office that’s not being used, you watch that fill up. You watch the people making connections and talking and spending money at the cafe and doing the food shop in that town rather than driving to a bigger down further away because they’re already in there. It’s so good and that’s the stuff that we really love seeing because it’s such an easy thing to do.

Ali: It’s such an important reminder, too. You don’t need the kombucha on tap. You don’t need the fancy desks and the fun paintings, though my sister who’s an interior designer might argue on that point. But yeah, get good internet. Get a few desks and see what grows as a first step. I think that’s such a good reminder.

Jo: I think because I know the business model for co-working is really tough. I don’t know many people that run co-working spaces that are not either losing money or having to supplement with a whole lot of other different things. But again, co-working doesn’t have to be fancy co-working. It doesn’t even have to have a cost. You do that in a small town and that’s something that just absorbs what a bit of extra electricity and some more tea bags in the communal kitchen, such a minimal cost that the positive outcomes that can come out of that are really, really amazing.

That’s such an easy win for little towns to be able to really impact in a positive way. Just that ability, especially people when it hasn’t rained, like in drought-stricken communities and you’re sitting out at home and if you’ve managed to get an off-farm job, doing it by yourself and having your partner coming at lunch time and still hasn’t rained. All those mental health things, those mental health outcomes that can be improved if people are seeing others and all those conversations. There are so many other benefits of having people come together to do this sort of work, too.

About Hiring in Australia

Ali: I feel like we can talk about this for endless hours but alas, you don’t have that much time. Before we jump into the last segment of the podcast which is a fun game I’d like to play with you, my last question is if you had to give very tactical advice to recruiters that work at distributed companies that want to hire talent in Australia, what should they now about hiring people that live in Australia, about common practices around salaries, around how to get in touch with those people? Are they on LinkedIn? Is that the best way to find these people? What should recruiters know when they want to get talent in Australia?

Jo: I think a lot of the time we do get overlooked because of the minimum wages and salary expectations in Australia are very high. We have a lot of tax here, but people are generally paid well here. That is something to keep in mind. But again, there’s an element of you-get-what-you-pay-for as well so that’s good. I think our time zone is something that can be leveraged really well. I think especially in those of customer support roles and things if you’re wanting your organization to have 24-hour chat or support, all those sort of things, really being able to leverage our time zone.

English as a first language is another big thing that you can leverage here. I think as far as accessing people, LinkedIn is a really good way. I think in the last 12 months, people are quite open with saying they’re either unemployed or they’re looking for things to work, but that stigma around not having a job, I feel, has gone out the window globally, which is really awesome. It’s interesting. I think as far as attracting people or finding them, it’s really interesting because I think a lot of Australians still don’t realize how many job opportunities there are abroad.

We’re not much help to them because we’ve had our businesses pretty much been Australian companies advertising to Australian job seekers. While we definitely got scopes and plans for bigger things, we’ve become very busy just doing that. That’s been fine and I’m not a huge amount of help. But in saying that, recruiters globally are more than welcome to get in touch with us. We’ve got a very motivated candidate pool of people looking to work. It’s just that they might be quite surprised at how flexible or different that it might be working for a company that’s based elsewhere.

I say that, but companies like Atlassian and Canva that have put Australia on the map as far as tech companies and having headquarters and big offices and staffing people here I think has started putting us on the map as far as another talent pool. Again, we get overlooked a bit as well because there’s not many of us. Like I said, there’s only 25 million Australians from the babies through to the geriatric, so there’s not that many of us. There’s a motivated workforce here that are looking to do things differently.

I think that what’s really interesting here is the amount of women that are looking to do things differently. That are wanting to work and that are wanting to get back into the workforce after babies or after caring for elderly parents. I think it’s a global thing, but it’s definitely, definitely a big thing here.

Ali: Awesome. Thanks for sharing. All the recruiters listening today, reach out to Jo. There’s awesome talent to be found in Australia. I was laughing as you are talking about Canva because it’s a product I use every day, which leads to the final game, which is pearls of wisdom. In this rapid fire ending, I’m just going to give you a quick prompt and without thinking about it too much, just share the first two or three words that come into your mind. Sound good? I gave away the first one when I said Canva was one of mine, but what is your favorite remote work tool?

Pearls of Wisdom

Jo: Trello, Slack, […] and I’m very visual but we also use Canva everyday as well. Those are our good ones. Anything that is live. We live in Google Workspace. We do everything in Docs and Sheets. Those are the things that we use.

Ali: Awesome. What is your favorite way to take a break from work? A break, what is that?

Jo: I’m the owner of a startup, what’s a break? That’s right, I have a break and then I have two kids. Actually, it’s funny you say that I have come inside to do this podcast interview but we actually have a glamping tent to set up in our […] side of our house. We quite often will just take the kids and go and make s’mores, you see my North-American influence. We like s’mores and then sleep in the tents.

Ali: I’m so jealous. I want to come over for s’mores. It sounds amazing. Segue to the next one. What is your personal biggest challenge when it comes to working remotely?

Jo: Actually, I do know what I have improved out of sight. It was very much like do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do as far as self-care and I’ve burnt out in a big way last year. I think that that is something that I’m doing much better at managing, but I think a real mindset shift for me has been I’m really active where I play sports, I walk, I hike, I ski, I do things. I’m quite good at keeping track and keeping the physical side of my body looked after and just was not looking after the mental side of things.

That’s something that I’ve been doing for the last 12 months. I know in North America like having a therapist, everyone has a therapist. That’s still very much not the case here, but I have put my monthly psychologist visit into the mix as well as Pilates on Mondays. I go to the psych every 4th Wednesday like it’s part of the mix now.

Ali: Yeah. That’s one thing that I think is another shining light from the pandemic. As you mentioned people are more open to saying when they’re searching for work or unemployed. I think people are starting to be more open with their vulnerabilities and their mental health challenges when it comes to the current world that we’re living in and how that impacts them at work which I’m very thankful for.

Jo: 100%. I make a point of trying to mention it literally anytime anyone’s talking, and people are quite surprised I’m really out there, outgoing person. I’m a high I on the DiSC profile. I am very much in people’s faces and things and they’re really still on a regular basis really like, you see a psychologist? I was like, yeah, man. This is a mess if I don’t get you some reined in. There are way too many balls in the air and I was trying to do it myself which was dumb.

Anyway, it’s like game changing and has been genuinely life changing, as cute as that sounds, it definitely impacted my family life very positively. The business? My gosh, and the fact that being able to talk like that with my team as well, all of my team.

Ali: […] it’s amazing. Last but not least, kind of a fun not to end on. Who is someone real, fake, living or dead that you would want to co-work with in real life in your hometown or somewhere around the world you can travel to, but show them what it feels like to work in Australia?

Jo: That’s a tricky one. I sort of mentioned the pre pandemic remote work crowd, I want to have like maybe, it could be just a day co-working on the farm, in the tent, in the paddock. It would be so cool to get all of these people that I have met virtually around the world, all these thought leaders and those sort of things. That’s a bit corny saying that, but I would love to.

I feel that I have had a lot of exposure through people’s articles on LinkedIn or blogs or videos on YouTube channels and things. I see what it’s like to say coworking in Europe or in the US and all those things, but again, it doesn’t really happen here. It would be cool to get that crowd here and show them how we do it down under.

Ali: Yeah. Well, I would love to come, so I’m asking for an invite right now.

Jo: Done. If we ever let foreigners in again, I think our borders are going to be closed for another five years before anyone’s allowed to come.

Ali: Well, hopefully not. I was in Australia once, back in 2012 and I only went to Sydney and now that’s my biggest regret is seeing how much more of Australia there is. We’ll keep an eye out on travel restrictions and in the meantime continue to build these virtual communities.

Jo, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s always such a blast to talk to you. If people want to learn more about your initiatives or Pointer Remote, where can they find you?

Jo: Our website is pointerremote.com.au. You’re more than welcome to have a look at that. You can find me, Jo Palmer. I’m really happy to connect with people on LinkedIn. I’m also always really interested to talk to people that are interested in this rural space and what it means in rural communities because the amount of information out there is not as huge. It’s always really cool to meet people doing stuff.

I’m an open book and I’m very generous with my learning and connections and all of those things. It’s always great to meet people that are in that same headspace with as far as sharing and collaborating, all of those good things.

Ali: Awesome, well thank you so much. To all of our listeners out there, thank you as well. Join us next week for another episode of Distributed Discussions.

Resources Shared

Pointer Remote Roles

Jo Palmer on LinkedIn

Jo Palmer on Instagram

Jo Palmer on Twitter

Jo Palmer on YouTube

Distributed Teams by John O’Duinn

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