Living la vida local: Reflecting on 1 year as a remote worker

“You’re living the dream!”

“Wow, you’re so lucky.”

“I wish I could travel around the world with my job…”

“Is Hanno hiring?”

This is what I hear from most people when I tell them that my job lets me work from anywhere (by the way, in case you’re wondering, we’re not hiring at the moment). And yes, I agree—I am extremely lucky and I keep reminding myself that being part of a team which gives me this freedom is truly rare. Yet without wanting to seem like a spoilt, ungrateful being who will always find something to moan about, I also want to tell them this: like all things in life, having this opportunity has its pros and cons.

Let me rewind my life to 2 years ago, long before I knew anything about remote work. I was working a 9-5 job as a graphic designer in Vienna from Monday to Friday. After uni, all my job experiences were very similar, both in my role and work space. Strangely, I often found myself working from offices with a limited view of the outside world, the kind of semi-basement spaces where you only get a wistful glimpse of the sky. Back then, I would have been more than happy to see some trees or a patch of urban nature from my desk, but I definitely didn’t foresee the power of choosing my own work space as I do now.

Then one day, after starting an MA degree to change my career, I stumbled across this article. Suddenly I found out that working and travelling WAS A THING. It was possible. People were doing it, designers were doing it, and nothing was going to stop me from doing it. Reading that article was a life-changing moment that made me feel like I had discovered my purpose in life.

My life was never the same again.

So did I become a born again nomad the day after? Well, yes and no. In a way, I’ve always been nomadic. My grandfather, and my father after him, regularly moved their kids around as their jobs made them change cities, countries, and continents. As a result, there are many places across the world that my family and I would call ‘home’, making the question “Where is home?” really complicated to answer.

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The ones who passed me on the wanderlust gene.

This kind of upbringing probably explains my love for experiencing cultures by actually integrating myself somewhere on a local level, and it’s a lifestyle I’ve been reluctant to give up in my adult life. So after doing some research, I realised that I didn’t have to give it up—not only that, but I could switch places at an even faster pace than my forefathers, thanks to all the information out there that would make me a born again (digital) nomad. The world wide web also helped me find a remote job when the Internet heavens opened and I found myself staring at my future team. I asked if I could join and use Hanno as a case study for my thesis, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was time to live the dream life.

To start with, I wanted to travel between the UK and South America while working for Hanno and writing my thesis. I was studying in the UK and the Hanno team was going to meet in Buenos Aires for their yearly team trip, so it made perfect sense to join them there and carry on by myself afterwards. I had read a lot about work-life balance and was familiar with living in different countries so I thought it was all going to be relatively easy. The culture shock and homesickness that some digital nomads described in their blog posts left me unfazed since I didn’t have a place to call home, really. Besides, as someone who prefers to travel light, I wasn’t worried about what to pack either.

Nothing had prepared me though for the realisation that travelling and working (and writing a thesis) could be stressful, especially without a more detailed plan on how to travel and where to stay along the way. The only thing I knew was that I’d be travelling to Argentina and Brazil and I’d figure out how to get there and where to sleep along the way, as I always did when I went on holiday. But here’s the thing: remote work is not a holiday.

There’s no such thing as ‘workation’.

That word grates on me, even more so when it’s used to describe the typical life of a remote worker. I learnt that the hard way when I tried to find a balance between work and travel when I should have actually focused on work and life. Travel, in this scenario, was simply a means by which I could explore a different way of working, and living. The fact that I had work to do, directly implied that there was no mental space to be on holiday. On top of that, my usual ‘go with the flow’ attitude to travelling only caused me more stress since I had to spend extra hours searching and comparing costs of flights and accommodation on the go. This left me little time to enjoy my free hours and made my first experience as a digital nomad look something like this:

Need someone to user test a sofa bed? Call me.

3 tips to live as stress-free digital nomad:

  • Plan in advance. Give yourself some peace of mind, especially if you’re on a budget.
  • Travel less, explore more. You’ll be surprised to learn how fascinating your local area can be. One doesn’t need to look far to find hidden gems.
  • Find a ‘home’. The more comfortable, the better. Changing beds all the time can be tiring and affect your health and work negatively.

If I would have to do it all over again, I would. With the exception of staying in one Airbnb house with the team, I was lucky to meet wonderful friends along the way, both old and new, who welcomed me into their homes and let me experience their city as a local. I cherished each of these moments and got to connect with their communities since I’d usually work from their place and explore their neighbourhoods during my free time. My weekends were interwoven with theirs: I met their friends and families, tasted delightful homemade meals and street food, and went on unforgettable walks in places I would have never unearthed by myself, like jungle paths in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro and peaceful suburbs of Buenos Aires, far from the tumult of more touristy areas. When Mondays swung around, it was back to work again, but this time, I’d get to choose my surroundings and I certainly didn’t regret having that flexibility.

Working between a jungle and a beach in Vargem Grande, on the edge of Rio.

Fast forward to today…

It’s been a little over a year now since I’ve joined Hanno and I’ve learnt so much about what it takes to work remotely, both personally and professionally. In the meantime, I’ve had the chance to travel to Southeast Asia for two months where again I switched between various hotels, Airbnbs and friends’ homes. It was a phenomenal trip that allowed me to facilitate workshops while meeting incredible people and discovering countless foods, traditions and places that I had never encountered before.

I also started becoming more aware of the downsides of remote work. For one, it can be a very lonely experience. I’m generally comfortable with spending time alone, even when I’m travelling. It’s when the journey becomes an extended trip (say, more than a month) that the loneliness starts creeping in. I’ve solved that by avoiding switching places too often in my trips so I can make more meaningful connections in one place instead.  As a team, we’ve also built Oskar, an open-source Slackbot that checks in with everyone to see how they’re doing and notifies the others if a teammate is feeling down. It’s still a challenge to track everyone’s happiness remotely but we’re always trying to improve this.

I’ve also tried to establish a home base from which I can travel for short trips when I feel I want a change of scenery (or longer trips too, but again, without hopscotching between too many places). If there’s one thing I learnt, it’s this: Luther Vandross was right, a house is not a home. Simply because I can live from an Airbnb that looks perfect doesn’t mean that I will truly feel at home. A real home is also made by the friends and social network around you. Throughout my life, I have found that this is what will ground me and give me some sense of stability which is essential for my wellbeing. This may sound obvious but it’s easy to forget when you’re tempted to travel non-stop. Apparently, I’m not the only one to think so. In recent months, many other digital nomads have been sharing their thoughts on the topic.

So are digital nomads a bunch of whiners with first world problems?

And if we’re unhappy, why do we keep on doing it?

Considering that this lifestyle is still relatively uncommon (it really started booming in 2014), there’s still a lot to learn by first-hand experiences and trial and error. Many journalists and bloggers will dismiss the difficulties and romanticise the remote work lifestyle instead. Which is why there’s a growing sense amongst the community that people should be honest when telling their stories. I still haven’t figured it out myself… I’m currently based in London and work remotely elsewhere when I can afford it. I’m not sure how long I’ll continue to live this way, but for now, it’s an enriching path I’ve chosen and one that I’m happy to share if it can inspire others before they embark on similar ventures.