How to make the most of remote work (and a couple of things to avoid)
8 things I learned about the 'have laptop, will travel' lifestyle
There have some great recent posts about combining remote work with international travel, especially during the pandemic. I’ve been remote almost exclusively since 2016, so here are a few observations and tips for making the most of remote work which I haven’t seen others make:
1) Your location is a big part of your professional brand and may say more about you than you realise
Imagine you called your lawyer’s office to make an appointment and they said the person you need to speak to is currently in Hong Kong and will be dialling in remotely, vs the same person calling in from sunny beachside Cancun. You’re getting identical expertise and experience but the vibe is totally different: the feel of each place will start to colour how you see the person you’re speaking with. No matter how strong your personal brand and reputation, this will apply to you too. As your client/colleague joins a call are they imagining you strolling among reassuringly businesslike skyscrapers, or drying off and putting your surfboard away before opening your laptop?
As a rule of thumb, the more conventionally relaxing your location, the more damaging the effect on the perception of your level of professionalism. Tier 1 cities are generally best for generating a helpful brand impression, but weirdly remote places which people don’t associate with vacation can also do this (remote islands, Siberia, rainforest stations etc). If you are somewhere people associate with umbrella cocktails maybe play this down a bit, generalising to your region or giving an explanation for your location which doesn’t involve laying around in the sun.
Out: “I’m on a second honeymoon hot-desking between swims at St Tropez”
In: “I’m staying in France with family”
In general though, a city brand is best. Even if you aren’t there all the time, when big work projects come up a base somewhere people associate with hustle and bustle can pay for itself. It’s not fair but it does seem to be the case that people are more willing to work with someone who maintains an office or residential address in Manhattan or Singapore, even if they’re not actually in there right now.
2) Remote work makes it harder to develop a within-company network, but much much easier to develop an external one if you manage it right
People working remotely often complain about losing the in-person water-cooler chats which make navigating a company or client’s workplace easier. While this does dent your ability to make inroads at your main gig, you have a giant compensating opportunity to network outside your immediate surroundings via the ability to travel easily. Apart from building up new know-how in your remote location, you can attend conferences, travel to attend and give lectures and seminars, fly to meetings and build up a wealth of knowledge and contacts which can help you work smarter on your current project, or move easily to find higher pay or a better fit. It’s another point in favour of working from a big city that more people can come to meet with you, or will pass through and can catch up for a coffee with you as they go.
3) Short holidays while working can be a bit overrated because of the amount you’re paying in hotel fees just to work from the room
I quite often see people talk about how nice it is to just grab their laptop and jet off to a resort for a week without taking time off work. It absolutely can be very pleasant but the ratio of fun hours to the cost of accommodation is going to be pretty high if you get fewer of the former because you’re on calls or working. This is worth balancing against the fact that you can work on the journey to and from your destination though- so a weekend trip where you work and travel on Friday and Monday is definitely more doable with remote.
4) Because of all the above, cost of living arbs can be overrated
While it’s true that you can go and live cheaply in a digital nomad hub city which mostly attracts people by being inexpensive and having decent QOL (examples include Chiang Mai in Thailand or Medellin in Columbia), being based somewhere like that probably dents your potential earnings via affecting your personal brand and reduced networking opportunities, maybe more than many people realise. It doesn’t fit with a lot of the received wisdom about a global clearing price for labour, but in my experience clients and employers are just willing to pay more for people in big cities and this more than makes up for the difference.
5) One of the best uses of remote work is making extended visits with family and friends
While travelling and staying in a hotel is very expensive, if you have friends who fancy an extended stay somewhere cheap and fun (eg rent a French chateau for a month in the off season), relatives who want to put you up while you’re caring for children, or you’re needed to help someone else like an ageing parent, remote is an absolute godsend. A whole generation of my pals who’d never worked remote before said that the biggest positive impact of the pandemic switch was being able to spend time with, help, and be helped by their extended families without always rushing back to be near to the office Mon-Fri.
6) I strongly recommend renting an office or at the least getting a wework or equivalent membership
In most places you won’t pay tax on costs like this so it comes at an effective discount, and a comfortable, reliable place to get work done can raise your productivity and comfort level enough to more than pay for itself. If you and your partner both work remotely then having separate spaces is a nice way to avoid getting under each others feet, and it makes it a lot easier to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day if you have somewhere you can leave your work behind.
7) Visit collaborators when you can:
If possible, travel to visit your remote colleagues and invite them to visit you one on one. This is best when paired with regular meetups of larger groups. In previous jobs I’ve found that the best cadence of all-hands meetups among remote teams is around 4 meetings per year. This means gathering the entire team and spending focused time together over several days to have sensitive conversations, get buy-in for key decisions and spark ideas from the usual jostling of mindsets and perspectives. I’ve heard of some companies doing this more frequently but that feels like too much travel time to me.
8) Finally, what not to do:
The people I’ve seen who were least happy with the switch to remote were the ones who stayed near their office, suffered the loss of workplace socialising without finding an outside replacement, didn’t travel much, and just got isolated. It sounds obvious but some people are just built for the office life and if that’s you then the good news is you’ll be in high demand from employers who prefer having people on hand.
I mostly see people focus on the contributions of remote work to the ‘life’ portion of work-life balance, but I hope I’ve shown here that remote work doesn’t always have to be traded off against career progression. If you manage it the right way there are extra opportunities only available to the globally mobile which make it a strict win.
Thanks for reading Too long to tweet!