6 years of working location independent

In fall 2010 I started an adventure which would change my life: 6 months of remote working from Thailand. It was my first trip to Asia and my first lenghty trip not intended as vacation. Many more were to follow. The Internet-enabled freedom to open your mobile office from anywhere in the world got me hooked instantly, and I haven’t manage to escape its fascination ever since.

The list of places from which I have spent from a week to several months working remotely has gotten fairly long: Several places in Thailand, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Barcelona, Lisbon, Puerto Vallarta (Mexico), San Francisco Bay Area, Santiago de Chile and Vancouver are on it. The most recent addition is Las Palmas (de Gran Canaria, Spain), from which I am writing this text (it’s an outstanding choice for location independent work, by the way).

Creativity & serendipity

There is something magical about occasionally changing your complete environment, relocating to a place somewhere on this planet. It’s a perfect way to find inspiration, to foster creativity and to expose yourself to serendipity. Such as that I really wasn’t very interested to travel to Japan actually, but I still did. After 3 months in Tokyo, I had turned into a Japan fan. Over the years, one learns a lot and gets quite experienced when it comes to the “art” of working from (almost) anywhere. In the next paragraphs, I’ll share a few of my insights.

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Obviously, the most important aspect of working remotely is stable, fast Internet. Which requirements one should have depends on the tasks, and especially on the amount of synchronous interaction that is needed to accomplish these tasks. During my initial half-year long stay in Thailand, I was working very independently from others. I hardly ever had to do any real time-type interaction such as Skype or conference calls. Most of my work was text-based and did not require my online presence during fixed times. Therefore it was no issue to work on a weak broadband connection that often even struggled with streaming a YouTube video, or – in case of one of the rather frequent power outages – on a tremendously slow 2G data connection.

Today, my needs are different. I am participating in a standup meeting every morning at 9 CET via Hangout, have ongoing “real-time” interaction on Slack and regular video calls and demos via screen sharing. A shaky connection, pixelated video transmission or constant interruptions quickly can become an annoyance for those I work with. That’s why I am nowadays more cautious when it comes to choosing a location to work from. Too big of a time-difference is not ideal, and a downstream speed of 10 mbps and an upstream of 3 mbps are the minimum. Less than that means trouble and decreasing productivity for me and others.

Productivity is what I am not willing to compromise on, no matter from where I work. Fortunately, nowadays I know fairly well what I need in order to stick to that principle. Apart from good Internet, these criteria are important:

  • Easy access to a variety of restaurants/take-out places to get (healthy) meals at affordable costs, cafés (or at least a coffee machine at the accommodation) as well as to “everyday” infrastructure such as grocery stories, shops, ATMs, public transport, gym, places to run and so on. Especially if staying longer than a couple of weeks, creating healthy and efficient routines as fast as possible ensures that neither work nor well-being will suffer – and that there’ll be some time left every day to explore the new environment
  • Safety. If you constantly carry your complete office gear around (notebook, smartphone, maybe a tablet, credit cards etc), if you strive for working without unexpected interruptions and if you enjoy a spontaneous stroll through the new city without doing a lot of research before, then certain regions are less suitable. Recommendations to always be cautious and to take a taxi after dark are a warning signal. I consider places like that a bad choice for this type of undertaking. They are better suited for vacations, during which I am not focused on minute-by-minute process optimization and the consequent avoidance of problems that would cost time, energy and money to sort out.

The greatness of coworking spaces

A real boon for people who work location independent are coworking spaces that are popping up all around the globe. Recently I read an article that described how people past university age struggle to make new platonic contacts and friends. Coworking spaces are the antithesis to that claim: It’s never been easier to find like-minded people anywhere in the world. Provided that one finds a vibrant space with a good crowd, it’s the ideal way to connect with people and to prevent a feeling of loneliness – which of course could arise when being thousands of kilometers away from home over longer periods. The word on the street is that some people actually get work done in coworking spaces. For some odd reason, I work better in a calm environment without anyone to chat with. But that’s another beauty of working remotely: It does not matter if you come in every day or just 1 or 2 times a week. Everyone according to their preference.

Those who enjoy full flexibility in regards to their work location and schedule can benefit from massive cost advantages regarding traveling. My rule of thumb as a budget-conscious location independent worker is to travel anticyclical, for example  to hop on a plane when few others do. That might mean to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday instead of a Friday or Sunday, or to fly in January or September instead of July, August or December. My strategy is to have a mental list of potential target destinations, to keep an eye on travel deals and if a good fare catches my attention, I purchase it – as long as the time frame works. Those who like travel hacking and to optimize their frequent flier mileage earnings have a little advantage, but it is just an add-on.

I appreciate to keep having a homebase. An apartment which acts as the administrative center of my life and as a place to keep my stuff, and which I could rent to someone if I decide to stay away longer. However, I have met many location independent workers who have gotten rid of all their stuff or who managed to convince family or friends to store it for them.

It just doesn’t get boring

What I always ask myself is how long I will continue with this type of lifestyle. I’ve been expecting to get tired of it, but so far it hasn’t happened. Sometimes I am happy to be back home for a few months – until the urge for a change of scenery again grows too big not to give in. A lot of course depends on priorities in life and general life planning. If one decides to have a child, location independent work would become not impossible but much harder and way more expensive as well. The lifestyle can also be burden for relationships. Except if the partner would join in. Couples that travel and work together are not a rare occurrence.

Summing up, I am more than grateful for this experience and for living in this connected age. I cannot and don’t want to imagine a world of more borders, fences and other man-made obstacles that prevent people from changing their environment to learn and thrive.

German version of this article

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