Melissa Malcolm
August 12, 2019

Interview with Melissa, a co-founder and remote work champion

Melissa started Work Well Wherever to help individuals & companies embrace remote work—see how she balances entrepreneurship, parenthood, & self-care.

How did you get started with remote work?

I have worked in the advertising industry for about 15 years. About 10 of those years were spent in NYC where the job market can get pretty competitive, and the expectation is always that your butt was in the seat and the "face time" was what enabled you to move up the ladder.

I'm embarrassed to say how many nights I actually slept at the office. I thought it was the only way...

The more experience I gained, the more I realized that I needed solid chunks of thinking time without distractions. It took me a while to gain the confidence to set precedents with when I was willing to be available to my team and my boss.

Initially, I worked one set day from home, and that was enough to get me hooked on the benefits of flexible working environments. I was more productive, more energized and overall, felt like I had a life outside of work for the first time in... well maybe ever.

So when I moved to Atlanta about four years ago, I made some intentional choices that allowed me more flexibility while still focusing on my career goals:

  • One, I negotiated part-time status at the agency I was at.
  • Two, I picked up other sources of freelance income that allowed me to be more autonomous like teaching, mentoring, and workshop facilitation.

And, most recently, after meeting my amazing business partner, MaryEllen Stockton, we decided to go in all the way and not only work completely remote but focus on the topic itself in our services. We wanted to help other women like us achieve the type of flexibility they only dream of — without the guilt.

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What are you working on?

Right now, we are spending 20 percent of our time on business development, 50 percent working with clients, and 30 percent on mostly operational tasks to keep us going.

The client work today is mostly individual women like us seeking more flexibility. This can take on many shapes. Every person we speak with has a different story, and it's why we love what we do.

They may want help setting clear expectations with their boss for when they leave the office. They may want out of their job completely and are seeking a 100% virtual team, or they simply want the option to vary up their location based on the task at hand.

We have coaching sessions and give them some tough love helping identify potential blind spots they may not be aware of. As an example, one of our sessions is a mock video interview where we are completely in character the entire session. We give comprehensive feedback after on what they did well and where they need to optimize.

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What's your typical work routine?

My day starts with getting my kids up and out the door. I do my planning week by week, so I will have already decided where I need to work that day based on if we have video calls with clients and if I need some solid work time with Maryellen or not.

I have three go-to work locations I alternate between. After daycare drop off, I get coffee (always) and then get settled in my space and have a look at my to-do list.

I've been loving the 5-3-1 method. I pluck out one big thing, three medium things, and five little things that I want to do that day. It sort of becomes a game to get it done.

Then I give myself no more than 15 minutes to sort out any personal/home-related emails or calls that are urgent. From there, I usually work until my stomach growls. I will then decide on lunch or, if I was really on it that day, grab it from the fridge because I made it already! Then, I will take a break, walk around, drink some water, and get back to it.

My day ends at about 4:30 when I go to get the kids. Some days I log off earlier, some days later. Once a week, there will be a doctor's appointment or something for the kids, and I just build that into my calendar so clients can't book a time that overlaps. It all depends. But I have full control, and that's what I love!

I have gotten off my routine of exercise at least three times a week, so my latest challenge to myself is to incorporate that back in.

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Do you have a dedicated space to work?

I like to vary it up.

I divide my time between a home office, local coffee shops with reliable wifi and a new co-working space called The Lola here in Atlanta.

They are a members-only, women's only co-working space. I love being around other smart women; it fuels me to keep going. Plus, the way they decorated this space instantly makes me feel happy and relaxed.

Photo of The Lola co-working space in Atlanta, GA.

Photo of The Lola co-working space in Atlanta, GA.

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How do you stay on task?

Some days I don’t.

We have a lot going on right now and, as a start-up, you are wearing so many hats. We might be having a very high-level strategic conversation and then get an email that our web site form isn’t working and I’m off spending three hours trying to figure out something in the code.

I look at my tasks on a weekly vs. daily basis. It’s less overwhelming.

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What do you like about remote work?

I love that you can truly create un-interrupted space and time to complete a tough "think task" without feeling like an anti-social jerk!

I always struggled with this in traditional office settings.

I'm an extremely observant and also social person, so if anyone is by my desk, I feel obligated to take off headphones and engage in conversation.

If I saw someone upset while quickly grabbing water, I would inevitably have to ask them what was wrong. Before I knew it, I'd be an hour into hearing about their ex-boyfriend's Instagram feed.

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What do you not like about remote work?

I have the same answer. The flip side of the above is that sometimes I have a hard time taking breaks because there’s so little distraction when you can totally control your surroundings.

I think five-minute breaks every hour are important to stay energized and also healthy (get water, get out of PJs, go to the bathroom, stretch).

Sometimes it will be noon, and I haven’t moved from one position, hunched over my computer.

Working in an office sometimes forces you to get up and move around and engage with others.

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What tools do you use to stay productive?

This has always been a challenge for me even before I started working remotely. I've purchased every brand of planner and platform there is.

Where I'm at now is a very simple Excel spreadsheet shared with my business partner in Google Drive.

We have three columns, my to-do's, her to-do's, and our "middle of night thoughts." The third column is critical for me because sometimes you don't know where to start with an idea so I just need to put it down in a list and then divvy it into actionable tasks at another time.

This works now because we are two people. As we grow, we will go back to using either or Dubsado. For us, it wasn't worth the cost until we had more people's time to manage.

Another method I use is to chunk out the workday. I give myself deadlines because sometimes I can spend too much time on one thing. So I'll say, "You can work on that web site copy for 30 more minutes only."

If I don't pay attention to the clock I'll get lost in it and not get other tasks done.

I even have a penguin-shaped egg timer that I stole from my daughter. I know, very high tech over here!

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Do you have any advice for remote workers?

If you are working remotely and part of a hybrid team as we call it, you have to drop any guilt or the feeling of trying to PROVE to others that you are getting work done.

I see this so much where people are glued to their screens at home because they don’t want their boss (who isn’t remote) ever to see them away from their desk. When you do this, you are just perpetuating the inaccurate assumption that when you work at home, you are binging on Netflix all day.

Set expectations with your team of how you structure your workday and then embrace it! There are perks and it’s ok to take advantage. You will feel so much lighter. Take a call from your back porch. Schedule a lunchtime spin class. Walk to the corner coffee shop. If you get your work done, the trust follows.

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How do you decide which clients to take?

In my past freelance assignments, I would choose to pass on clients that didn’t ask me any questions during our initial conversations.

If it was all about them and what they needed then I knew right away it wouldn’t be a positive experience.

Also, of course, pay rate came into play. I had someone once try to cut my requested rate in half and, while I needed the work, I declined the project because I needed to protect my value for other potential clients.

However, now, as a start-up consultancy, we aren’t really turning anyone down— : ) It’s all about business development and getting our name out there.

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How do you decide priorities?

It’s not easy.

The best method for me is to go week by week and pull out the things that have to get done and things that would be nice to get done and go from there.

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How do you know when to push yourself vs rest?

I recently got strep throat after a long string of late nights. It was the reminder I needed of how important sleep is. I have two kids under three years old though so choosing when I rest is pretty laughable at the moment.

Overall though, it's just about finding a balance. Not that cliche work/life balance that you are so tired of hearing about. It's bigger than that.

Some days you push harder than others but, when that happens a few days in a row, I counter that with something just for me and/or my family like an ice cream date with my daughter at 3 pm.

I go to therapy once a week too. I am a huge advocate of taking care of your mind as much as you take care of your body. For me, this is a great checkpoint too of how I'm doing with self-care.

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What are the biggest issues when companies try remote work?

This one's easy for me to answer because it always, always, always starts at the top.

If the leadership team doesn't embrace a remote workforce, then it will fail.

We offer specific training for executives to help them get more comfortable with the new ways of working.

We provide relatable case studies and business cases to show how productivity can increase, and you are actually spending less money due to increased employee retention.

Not surprisingly, this area of our business has received the least traction. However, we think it's because it remains the top barrier and a bit taboo. If this sounds familiar and you'd like us to help your leadership team shift their mindset, please reach out. (We won't tell!!)

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What did we forget to ask Melissa Malcolm?

At RemoteHabits we're always trying to improve our interviews, what question should we have asked Melissa Malcolm?


Melissa Malcolm

Melissa Malcolm is the co-founder of Work Well Wherever. She describes herself as a fierce advocate for career flexibility.

Work Well Wherever works with both individuals and organizations to provide practical, no-nonsense, experience-based guidance on a wide range of nuanced topics impacting today's modern workplace.

So whether you're an individual looking for more flexibility in your career or you are an organization that's ready to evolve, we're ready to help you get started. Schedule your free consult today:

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