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The remote working revolution is coming to Southeast Asia

But cultural norms and a lack of infrastructure are getting in the way.

The remote working revolution is coming to Southeast Asia
[Photo: Rostyslav Savchyn/Unsplash]

By the time she was 27, Huong Nguyen had launched her own travel tech startup and traveled to and worked from more than 30 countries. But back home in Vietnam, some of her family and friends still think she’s unemployed.

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“Especially for middle-class Asian parents, after graduation, if you don’t have a 9-to-5 job working in an international corporation or government institution, you are pretty much failing,” she says.

Now she wants to challenge that assumption, as well as help other people, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, to follow her example. At present, while digital nomadism is growing rapidly in popularity in the Western world—according to a report by MBO Partners, nearly 5 million Americans now identify as digital nomads—for Asians it’s still relatively unheard of.

Even the idea of freelancing or working remotely for a company feels out of reach for many young people in Asia, millions of whom brave some of the worst commutes in the world to get to the office every day. Cultural barriers don’t help, but nor do confusing regulations surrounding working for yourself or the lack of digital infrastructure, such as payment systems.

“Most are certainly not aware that there’s a possibility of traveling and becoming full-time digital nomads, getting the same or even more work done on a laptop with Wi-Fi in different locations,” Nguyen says.

If you don’t have a 9-to-5 job . . . you are pretty much failing.”

Huong Nguyen

Through her startup CoXplore, which soft-launched on the App Store in September 2019, she is providing affordable access to 50 coworking spaces and 50 work-friendly cafés in 10 Asian countries for young people interested in working remotely and traveling. And while it’s still in its early stages, the plan is that by the end of 2020, users will be able to download the app to easily search and book vetted coworking spaces, co-living spaces, and travel experiences that are tailored to remote workers.

In the meantime, Nguyen is practicing what she preaches. The CoXplore team is fully remote, with staff members in Vietnam, Singapore, and Germany. Nguyen has also trained and mentored several young students as interns to show them there is a new way of working and they don’t have to follow the traditional path.

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“Most of them were very surprised with how mobile and remote our teamwork is,” she says. “It’s actually one of the things I’m the proudest of—working with people from all around the world and building my own kind of community and work environment I want to surround myself with.”

Building a support system for remote-work jobs

Other entrepreneurs are focusing on giving young Asians the skills they need to start working remotely. In January Jeff Laflamme, the owner of coworking and co-living space AngkorHub in Siem Reap, enrolled the first five Cambodian students in his Remote Skills Academy, where they’re learning how to become virtual assistants, who remotely help people manage their businesses.

“The skills gap is very present in Cambodia, and teaching people to become virtual assistants is kind of the perfect area,” he says. His program teaches students business communication and ethics, with the idea that whoever hires them will provide the rest of their training. Laflamme hopes the program will help 50 people transition to fully remote work by the end of 2020.

A similar program is set to launch in March this year at coworking and tech innovation hub Livit in Bali, where Indonesian virtual assistant Evina Yosiardi will be a mentor for the Virtual Assistant Certification.

After becoming fed up with working 12 hours a day in an office and hardly ever seeing her daughter, she quit her job and bought an online virtual assistant course two years ago. Within 12 months she had six clients around the globe.

I have a lot of friends asking me, ‘What are you doing carrying a laptop everywhere?’”

Evina Yosiardi

“I have a lot of friends asking me, ‘What are you doing carrying a laptop everywhere?’ and when I try to explain, they can’t digest that information. It’s something very strange, very new for them,” she says. “By having this program on the ground in Bali, we will show them it’s possible.”

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Dea Rezkitha joined Livit as a recruiter in 2014, having already worked remotely for two years at an international student organization, and left one and a half years later with the tools and network she needed to set up her own company, which organizes retreats for digital nomads.

“Being location independent is a really big advantage, especially for Indonesians,” she says. In Jakarta, which has the 12th worst traffic in the world, more than a million people commute to work every day, costing them in quality of life and the country $5 billion in lost productivity every year. Transitioning to remote work could help address both problems and would support Indonesia’s growing reputation as a startup hub. The Indonesian Creative Economy Agency projected a 20% to 30% growth in the number of startups in the country in 2019, supported by Indonesia’s large middle-income population, which is projected to reach 140 million in 2020. Other growing startup economies in the region include those of Ho Chi Minh City, Penang, Bangkok, and Singapore.

The challenges of digital entrepreneurship

The most recent Global State of Remote Work report by videoconferencing company Owl Labs, which polled more than 3,000 employees across six continents, found that Asia has 9% more companies that do not allow remote work than the global average.

“Here, the startup scene is growing, but there is still an office feel to it,” Rezkitha says. “You have to go to work, you have to commute to work. Most people still have this narrow mindset that they have to get a job in the corporate world.”

The pressure to follow the traditional work path is just one challenge that would-be digital entrepreneurs from Asian countries face. Rezkitha’s company currently accepts payment through PayPal and Transferwise, but many of the payment options Westerners take for granted, such as Stripe, are not available in Indonesia.

Most people still have this narrow mindset that they have to get a job in the corporate world.”

Dea Rezkitha

In addition, the regulations surrounding freelancing are confusing in many Asian countries and nonexistent in some. In Cambodia, for example, a company must have an office space to be registered with the government. “You cannot create a business unless you use an . . . office,” LaFlamme says. He helps entrepreneurs get around this by allowing them to use the coworking space’s address as their office address.

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The challenges continue when Asian remote workers venture further afield, with expensive and complicated visa applications. Nguyen must plan months in advance if she wants to visit Europe and had to get a transit visa for Australia before her recent trip to New Zealand even though she never left Sydney Airport. “But we can stay pretty much for free in ASEAN countries,” she says, which refers to the 10 states that make up the Association of South East Asian Countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

However, interest in and support for digital entrepreneurship is growing across Asia. In Cambodia, a new law that came into effect in November and established legal certainty for electronic transactions, is expected to play an important role in helping the economy adapt to the digital era. The Philippines government’s Department of Information and Communications Technology launched its Tech4Ed program in 2017, which provides training to people in remote parts of the country on topics such as social media marketing.

The entrepreneurs who are helping to create the infrastructure for remote work are also gaining recognition. Nguyen has won multiple awards in pitching competitions, and her company has received investment from angel investors in Japan and an accelerator in Vietnam, which is funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology. In Indonesia, coworking startup GoWork pulled in an investment of $10 million for expansion in late 2018.

Nguyen’s ultimate goal is to help one million nomads access spaces around the world for productive remote work. But even while she is building the infrastructure to make remote work more of a possibility for Asian entrepreneurs, cultural barriers still exist.

“When I go to see investors, partners, or business people in Vietnam—and Asia—I don’t really share that I’m a digital nomad because it’s not a well-known concept here, and people wouldn’t take you seriously if you say you don’t have an actual office and a team sitting in the office,” she says. “I want to prove to people that we’re doing serious work.”

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