Two Questions for a Remote Worker

I wrote this really clever piece a couple years ago about the tools one needs to be an effective remote worker, a term that has since come to be far more than a buzzword to me. I wrote about how important it is to find a nice small computer, have a stable mobile connection, and some good headphones to block out the extra noise. At the time, we were staying in this beautiful village north of Lisbon in Portugal. It was a happy season, but the contract I was engaged with had me travelling with increasing frequency, I was becoming less of a remote worker and becoming more of a remote dad/husband.

Over the following two years, which basically brings us to today, I’ve had long periods where the work didn’t flow nearly so frequently as I’d have liked it to, and periods where I’ve spent far too much time pursuing various projects away from where we were as a family. I’ve settled into a couple great contracts at this point, and find myself with more room to breath and reflect on my life as a remote worker.

There are two questions I didn’t properly ask myself when I first began this journey as a remote worker. I’ll even confess that after two years, I’m only now just beginning to answer these questions in a meaningful way.

What am I hoping to gain as a remote worker?

What am I willing to give up in order to be a remote worker?

When I think about what I was (and still am) hoping to gain, it’s obvious enough to say freedom and autonomy are the top reasons most people (including myself) would choose to work remote. There are practical reasons too, many people work from their houses or villages to avoid the commute into a big city. Still, others do so because they long to have the concentration afforded by having no one other than your cat around to bug you.

For me, my wife and I wanted to bring our children to various cultures and cities so they might become enriched by the diversity, exposing them (and us) to the rich tapestry of people and ways of life. Also, how amazing is it to learn about Ancient Rome while exploring modern Rome?! I’ll also confess to a romanticised idea of sitting in cafes around Europe and writing world-changing policy documents and communications. But, I wasn’t yet willing to give up the regular opportunity to work directly–face to face–with co-workers and clients. I also wasn’t ready for the constant battle of trying to hobble together all the elements of a good work station. And so, even as we have been travelling as a family, I’ve continued to do additional travel by myself in order to network at various events, and have the opportunity to build relationships with clients, partners, and industry peers. If I’m honest, there’s also a healthy amount of FOMO (fear of missing out) involved, I just can’t imagine missing the safety meetup of the decade. What if there’s a potential client that I’d never have met if I wasn’t at that event which might require me to travel 6 hours on a train for a 2 hour meeting? And there’s that meeting in two days, makes sense just to stick around here for that event too, I’m already here, right? It’s this thought process which lead me to becoming more of a remote dad/husband.

In a statement of personal reflection, I gave up the wrong thing.

Deciding why you want to become a remote worker is for some a luxury. Many remote workers do so for reasons entirely more practical than for the freedom to travel or work from an ideal work space. For some, it’s not even a choice; perhaps they haven’t the ability to move to where the job is, or they have mobility issues which preclude them from the opportunity to co-locate with their colleagues. Perhaps this great gift of modern connected technology has given people more options to work with great companies, regardless of their circumstances. But, for those of us who are taking advantage of the perceived luxury of being able to work from anywhere, the question of why is more nuanced and ought to be given careful consideration. One ought to consider if their motivation to work remote is realistic given their means, their opportunity, and their ambition. One also ought to consider what they have to offer as a remote worker so they can avoid taking more than they give, whether it’s to the company that’s afforded them the opportunity and trust to work from a remote location, or the culture in which you visit.

But I think the question of what you’re willing to sacrifice is possibly an even more important question, and one that is super hard to answer when you’re on the cusp of making your what’s in my travel bag video.

Side note, there are over 180 million what’s in my bag videos…

Working remotely can be amazing! I have incredible memories of sitting at a seaside bar in the South of France, working away on my laptop in the warm spring sun while my kids play in the sand 10 meters away from me.

But I also have a lot of memories where I’ve stayed up for 1a for a meeting with someone on the Canadian west coast. Or wasting half my day looking for a cafe with WiFi. Or finding a cafe that will allow me to plug in my computer to charge it. Or, when I’m incredibly lucky, finding a cafe that has both WiFi and power outlets. If you’re freelancing, you often have to decide between taking that meeting with a potential client on the same day that you were going to hike the Alps, or miss going out to the pub with some friends you’ve met while travelling because there’s an opportunity to join a meeting that’s entirely focused on something that you want to advance in. Often, you find that you need to sacrifice the endless opportunities available to you, wherever you are, or an opportunity to advance your purpose and career (not to mention earning potential).

But, I paint a dim picture and I don’t intend to. For me, I’m learning that I have to sacrifice some of my career ambition if we’re to continue travelling. I have a couple excellent clients, and it’s enough to be working with them, and giving them my professional best. I want my children to remember being in the French Alps with me, not being in the French Alps while I was somewhere else.

When I ask myself the first question, what am I hoping to gain as a remote worker? The answer is clearer to me now, I want to further my understanding of various cultures and witness the changes (good and bad) to these cultures in this time of incredible and rapid change.

As to the question, what am I willing to give up in order to be a remote worker?Quick career advancement. This is actually a really hard one for me, not because I’m an insanely ambitious person, but because I have so many ideas for various companies, and how I’d lead those companies. But learning and gaining these experiences are better investments for me. As for my wife and children, I want to have this experience with them, and I want my kids to grow up understanding different cultures in a far richer way than they’ll be able to by watching YouTube videos or following interesting people on Instagram (although that too can be valuable). This is an investment in them!

My mother and I are doing a research project together, we’re looking at what makes remote workers successful, and we’re learning a lot of really valuable things (you should check her blog out). We just finished a trip through Europe where we visited several co-working spaces in Finland, The Netherlands, Germany, and England. One of the things that really stuck out to me, as we met with remote workers, is how loaded this designation is. One thing is clear though, work is changing, and for those of us doing the remote working thing, it would be wise of us to see ourselves as late pioneers. To be sure, there are people who have been working remotely for far longer than Yonder has been talking about it. But the reasons why people are working remote, and the sheer number of people doing it now has so dramatically increased that there is a ton of learning to be had right now. Some of us will do it well and bring incredibly valuable best-practices that will help the whole business community. Others of us will crash and burn, either because it wasn’t the right thing for us or because our managers/clients failed to provide the support and direction needed to be successful. This too is incredibly valuable. So, be observant and share what you’re learning along the way.