On Remote Working and Productivity: My Half-Remote Year

It was surprisingly cold for April in Belgrade; later that week there would be sleet. I would’ve put on a heavier jacket or hat, but I didn’t have one. In fact I didn’t have any other clothes at all aside from the ones I was wearing, which I had been wearing for the last three days because our luggage was in another country. I was walking towards my reserved but still unseen co-working space in the city center and also realizing that while I did speak a little of the language, my inability to read Cyrillic was wiping out an awful lot of that little bit. Our rental apartment was beautiful, but the internet was not fantastic and my attempt at a conference call and work the previous night hadn’t gone well (jetlag hadn’t helped). I wasn’t freaking out, but I was certainly concerned that the next couple of months might not be particular productive.

Thinking Ahead

Let’s rewind to the previous fall. My wife had gotten a research sabbatical for the 2016-17 academic year and we’d been making plans for how and where to spend that time. I decided that I could tag along, and wherever her research happened to bring her I’d bring my work as well. We hatched a plan for a mix of travel and home; generally being away for a month or two and then being back home for a similar amount of time.

We tried to setup stretches of time around a month for each location, so it could feel more like we were temporarily living in places rather than being on some kind of whirlwind world tour. Our stops for the year included: Split, Croatia; Chicago, Illinois; Belgrade, Serbia; Ghent, Belgium; Split, Croatia (again); and Lexington, Kentucky.

The plans seemed pretty ambitious — but largely theoretical back then. One can only make so many travel plans before they all sort of blend together. Belgrade was several trips in the future at that point and I wasn’t really thinking about it.

But being cold, looking for a bakery (what the heck is xлеб?), and being worried about losing clients is where those plans made the previous fall hit the pedestrian-only walkway. But really, there was not much suspense or reason to be worried after all. My co-working space in Belgrade was great, our luggage eventually arrived, and I was actually more productive than I expected to be.

Typically on this blog I post analytics experiments that I’ve run. So rather than do a normal travelogue I’ve decided to look at the last year as an A/B test for different working environments and try to determine what kind of environments I did well in and which ones I did less well.

This wasn’t my first time working remotely, so I already had some ideas about how to structure my work. These previous experiences helped me have some confidence I would both enjoy the travel and still have a business when we got home.

Obviously this isn’t the most scientific experiment I’ve ever setup (next time I’ll remember to create a cloned version of myself to stay home as the control Jason), but I think the results and process are still interesting — especially if you plan to try and do this sort of remote work travel yourself.

The “Experiment” Setup

Over the last year I was away about half the time. While home in Columbus, Ohio I do most of my work in my office, a small individual suite in a shared office space. It’s very quiet and setup exactly how I’d like.

While away I worked in bunch of different places with varying levels of environmental control:

  • Co-working spaces
  • Airbnb apartments
  • Hotel rooms
  • Coffee shops
  • In-transit (airports, buses, ferries, etc.)

I’ve listed these in decreasing productivity order. I’m sure this is shocking, but I’m a whole lot less productive while trying to work with spotty wifi on a bus with a cramped tray table than in a quiet apartment with a decent desk.

I list them all out not because they are unique in any way (who hasn’t worked in a coffee shop…), but to emphasize how different people click with different environments. Some people work well in a coffee shop; I find it too distracting. Some people find open co-working spaces too disruptive; I like the energy.

I know that part of the remote work concept is that you can pull out your laptop anywhere and just start working. I imagine that some incredibly focused people are able to do that pretty effectively anywhere, but that’s not me. It might not be you either, and it’s important to realize that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or how you work.

For me, I might be able to answer some in-depth email or do a basic site analysis from a coffee shop, but I’m never going to be able to code well or write a blog post.

One of my keys for being productive while away is to understand what work I can effectively do in what situation and being honest with myself about what I can get done.

For example, say I have a 4 hour layover in an airport after an overseas flight. If I go into that day thinking that I can get 4 hours of productive coding on a project I just started on (and don’t totally grasp yet) — that is a recipe for disappointment when I end up with a whole bunch of highly interrupted time and end output of only a few lines of buggy code. Better to answer some emails or try some other lower focus task. Or even just reading a non-work related book can be more productive overall.

We’ve all read about programmer productivity and seen graphs illustrating how disruptive one short meeting can be. In theory we know if we schedule your tasks to match up the required focus level with the type of environment we can be more productive and a lot less frustrated, but that planning is hard work that a lot of times we skip thinking honestly. We all gripe about meetings, but there are plenty of other interruptions of our own creation, and while traveling there are even many more opportunities for interruption.

So how’d I do? What was the result of the experiment? I’ve read some accounts of how energizing and inspirational being away is, and I feel the same way!! BUT, let’s be clear that for me the time away definitely did not translate to higher productivity. Measuring productivity by billable hours (and let’s face it, as an hourly consultant how else am I really going to measure productivity?) I had a 21% drop in productivity while I was away:

Billable Hours Per Month

Luckily for this graph, our travel lined up pretty well with the start of months. Also I’ve ignored December since we were away for some of it, and the holidays really make it not comparable to other months in general.

Some of this productivity drop was definitely expected and part of the plan. Working just as many hours while away as I do while at home would have caused me to miss out on all kinds of fun and interesting experiences. If I was toiling away 24/7 what exactly would have been the point in all that travel? That productivity loss is real though, by-product of planning or not, and you should expect the same kind of thing if you work and travel.

Is 20% an accurate measure? I think it’s perhaps a little high because in the months of February and March while home I was really working as hard as I could in anticipation of being away. Still, there are plenty of months at home in the past when I have also put in as many hours as I could, whereas I don’t think I’d ever try to do that same nose-to-the-grindstone thing while away.

I know I said this wasn’t going to be a travelogue, but…

Photo break!

 

Staying Productive When Away

By far my number one tip is:

Find a co-working space!

Unless you’re going pretty far off the beaten path it’s not hard to find a good co-working space, and there are a ton of benefits:

  • A reliable and controllable workspace.
    • This is so important to me. Call me crazy, but when I work I really like to have a comfortable chair, a good desk, rock-solid internet, and maybe an external monitor. Clicking “laptop-friendly workspace” in your Airbnb search is not the same as a co-working space, whose entire business is dependent upon providing the renter with a high-quality working environment.
  • Built-in community of locals.
    • Your co-workers will give you insights about where you are that are way deeper and richer than anything you could learn online.
    • If you’re somewhere popular in the “digital nomad” community, you could also have a community of other traveling remote workers.
  • A feeling of accountability.
    • We obviously don’t report to our co-working compatriots, but being around other people working hard is certainly an inspiration to also do your best. Or at least make you feel a little more guilty about that second game of Words with Friends.

How do you find a co-working space? I haven’t found any site that is truly comprehensive, but coworker.com is pretty good. That and y’know… Google. Definitely do your research before arriving at your location and communicate with your preferred picks before traveling. Spaces fill up,  go out of business / move, don’t take online payments, etc. If you want a dedicated desk or are booking somewhere in high demand you might have to reserve space ahead of time, but spaces with more capacity and/or floating desks will be happy to give you a tour in person before you commit.

Shout-outs to my favorite co-working spaces over the last year:

Smart Office: Belgrade, Serbia
Awesome, Inc.: Lexington, KY
coLab Evanston: Evanston, IL

Take advantage of timezone differences.

Timezones are tough. Instant communication tools like Skype and Slack help close physical distance well, but there’s just no way around timezone differences. Many of us have worked with teams in other timezones, but being the remote person on a team that is mostly in a different timezone is a different experience. Maybe it’s 4pm to your team back home in New York and they’ve just found a critical bug, but it’s 10pm for you in Europe and you’re out of coffee. Or it’s 10am for you and you’re stuck on a task that needs clarification, but your project manager doesn’t come into work for another 5 hours.

With a little advanced planning this can totally work to your advantage. Once I got used to being 6 hours ahead of people I knew I had a big uninterrupted stretch of time every morning that could be incredibly productive. Like some coders who stay up late to avoid interruptions, I was getting that quiet block of time every morning — I just had to make sure I had what I needed the night before. In the evening I would spend an hour or so dealing with any issues that might have come up after my regular working hours and get prepared for my distraction-free time the next morning.

Embrace Un-productivity

There’s more and more research showing that being bored and letting your mind wander can be great for creativity. Believe it or not, you don’t actually need to be in the shower to have a “shower thought” insight. I find travel to be particularly great for this kind of creativity. The combination of many opportunities to be a little bored (in this case, this is a good thing!) and the amount of different new stimuli you’ll be exposed to is a great recipe for creative thinking. Don’t fill all your downtime answering emails and checking your phone, and who knows what kind of creative thoughts you may have!

Have fun, but don’t expect to see everything.

Remember, you’re not on vacation. Confusing working remotely with actual vacation is a recipe for both a terrible work week and an awful vacation. Again, it’s important to set expectations. I was expecting to get about 75% of my regular work done while away (and I turned out to actually beat that by a little), but you may plan to do more or less — though I wouldn’t recommend much more.

Especially if you are only in a place for a short time it can be really hard to see everything you want and still get some work done. You have to accept that you won’t see everything. Fight the FOMO!

There’s no list that people are going to check when you get back home to verify that you did your travel “right”. You could make a list for yourself beforehand of a very small number of must-see attractions, but don’t get greedy. You’re not collecting tourist destinations for your Instagram feed! Most of my favorite travel experiences are about the most seemingly mundane of experiences, like going to the post office or meeting interesting people in a coffee shop rather than seeing some tourist-jammed wonder of the world.

If you find a place you totally love and want to see more of, plan to come back on an actual honest-to-goodness vacation!

Photo break 2!

 

Keeping Your Job When Away

Being productive is one thing, but keeping your bosses/clients happy is another. Obviously you’re not going to get too far keeping your clients happy if you’re not productive at all (… or at least let’s just pretend that is true), but that’s not the whole ballgame. I’m a consultant, so I’m going to focus on clients, but I think the lessons are pretty much the same for regular full-time employees as well.

Reading about the troubles that the first group of Remote Year workers had reminds us that despite the pretty pictures, amazing experiences, and whatever your employer agreed to when you left there are no guarantees. A lot can go wrong. That Remote Year group had at least 8 people lose their jobs and only about 50% of the total group of 68 had full-time jobs at all. I too have lost a job for taking an extended trip abroad, so I know it’s not easy! I have to give major props to all my clients, who were very accepting and downright supportive of my geographic itinerancy in this last year.

Communication is absolutely the key.

Establish expectations. Long before you travel let your clients know you’re going to be traveling. Then remind them again a couple weeks before you leave. That’ll give them a chance to meet with you ahead of time, do whatever they need to prepare (if anything), and most importantly not surprise them.

Be as responsive as you can be when you’re away. It’s really more important to make this effort while away than while home, even if it feels the same to you. But please skip the gory travel details unless asked. Your clients don’t really need to know if you’re in Belgrade, Belgium, or Botswana (side note: I did not go to Botswana), they just need to know you’re going to still respond to an inquiry in a timely manner. Even if it’s just a Slack message saying “Not in front of a computer right now, but I should be back in a couple hours and will take a look then”, that goes a long way to re-assure people that you’re still available and part of the team.

That doesn’t mean you need to be chained to your phone and respond in seconds, it just means check in when you can and don’t be the one holding projects up. If you’re going to be offline, let team members that might be looking for you know ahead of time that you won’t be reachable. Set your messaging app statuses accordingly (though please, don’t do email auto-responses unless you’re really going to be offline for a long time).

Perhaps this all sounds like common sense, and perhaps it is, but when you’re geographically away from a team you have to make real and constant effort to continue to be engaged. Teams that are remote/distributed themselves are a little different and easier, but the same communication rules apply — it’s just that the team’s structure will already be built with remote work in mind.

Until Next Time…

I know I learned a lot over this last year, and I feel pretty confident that next time this kind of great opportunity comes along I can continue to work productively and enjoy my time away from home. Hopefully this is helpful for some others out there considering the same kind of adventure!


photos © Jason Packer, all rights reserved.

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