This is a short report about me traveling to Australia and doing some part-time remote work for my employer. I’ll be talking about the general experience, things to keep in mind when planning a trip like this, and what to expect. Feel free to jump straight to Lessons Learned for a summary.
My girlfriend Maro is half Australian. She has been to Australia a couple times while I’ve never made it that far away. Ever since we’ve been together she wanted to take me there. Because of the long journey and the sheer size of the country, it was clear to us that a normal vacation would not cut it for us. The usual two weeks just aren’t enough to explore and appreciate what this vast country has to offer while fighting with jet lag. We knew that at some point we would be able to take a couple of months off and stay for longer.
At the beginning of this year, this opportunity had finally arrived. Maro had just finished law school and I had completed all of my courses at university and was about to start my master thesis, which I fortunately managed to postpone by a couple of months. We started planning and, based on budget and time constraints, decided to stay for three months.
I work at ElectricFeel where several employees work remotely. I had always been interested in trying out this remote thing for myself and thought, why not do so while traveling? This would not only allow me to have an income during the three months but to also every now and then have an intellectual challenge. I decided to work for two days a week during the second month abroad. We’d be in the big cities with plenty of cafés with Wi-Fi and Maro would have no lack of things to do by herself.
Depending on where I’d be in Australia, the time difference to Europe, where everyone else from the team is located, would be between eight and ten hours. Because of this and the fact that I’d only be working part-time without fixed hours, we at ElectricFeel thought it would make most sense for me to work on a standalone project by myself. The biggest part of communication would be asynchronous through email and GitHub. I’d still need to talk to coworkers in person and check in, which meant that I would need to join our daily standup every once in a while.
On January 20th we finally took off. On our way to Australia, we did 4-night stopovers in Hong Kong and then Bali. That’s one of the niceties of having more time at hand, since fighting with an 8 hour jet lag—especially going east—certainly isn’t fun.
Once in Down Under, we spent about one month in Western Australia. Let me tell you, what a beautiful spot on earth. And probably best of all is the small number of people outside Perth.
From Perth we flew to Adelaide where we took a car and drove along the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne, where I’d start my working month.
We stayed at an Airbnb in Melbourne. Of course I made sure that the place had Wi-Fi as I planned on doing some work from there. I was a bit surprised to find out that they only had a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot. The owners told us to notify them once it runs out of data and they’d recharge it. So far so good, but the device did not have any data left to begin with. It took them several days to recharge it with a mere 1 GB. Having two iPhones and an iPad connected to the hotspot all doing automatic app updates, it was a matter of 5 minutes and the data was used up. Long story short, the internet at this place was useless.
Generally, internet access in Australia is a weird thing. It’s expensive and there’s almost always a data cap, even for home broadband. Paying AUD 73 for a best case speed of 30 Mbps with a data cap of 50 GB is unimaginable, even in Switzerland where network operators charge considerably more than in the rest of Europe. I really hope that other networks have more competitive packages, especially now that Netflix launched in Australia.
Without internet at our place I went out to find a café to work from. Sure, it is possible to get some work done without internet, depending on the task at hand. In my case that’s possible thanks to the decentralized nature of git and local documentation. At some point though you will hit a wall requiring internet access.
Finding a free Wi-Fi is easier said than done, at least in Melbourne. Most cafés simply did not have internet at all, others simply claimed it was broken. Some places had some sort of time based access or limited data amounts, forcing you to keep consuming in order to stay connected. If you want to work efficiently, that gets in your way.
Unhappy with the available options, I did some research and found out that libraries had free Wi-Fi. So I went to the stunning State Library of Victoria just to find out that, except for ports 80 and 443 required for browsing, everything was blocked. Some file extensions were blacklisted and, if I remember correctly, even github.com was banned because it supposedly hosts malicious software. Fed up with the time I was losing neither working nor exploring the city, I bought a VPN subscription from blackVPN that works over port 80. Finally some sanity in this madness.
There are certainly some cafés which have a nice environment for work, i.e. not being too noisy, providing great coffee (that’s a no-brainer in Melbourne), and of course Wi-Fi that just works. I ended up finding one go-to café in Melbourne and Sydney offering everything I needed.
Depending on the weather forecast and my mood I’d work either in the morning or in the evening. I usually planned for the next day so that Maro could make plans for things to do by herself and where we’d meet once I was done working. This was important so I could be alone to focus.
Whenever I needed to talk to a colleague, I’d have a call in the evening which was in the morning for my colleagues. Scheduling a time slot for that was crucial. Otherwise we’d keep missing each other whenever we were online due to the time difference. Occasionally I joined the daily standup meeting on Google Hangouts, allowing me to see familiar faces and reconnect, which was nice.
I was quite impressed by the amount of work I got done in the short amount of time. I believe this is due to the mindset I had whenever I sat down to work. I’d start the timer and work, period. No coffee sipping and chatting with colleagues, no interruptions, no meetings, just concentrated work. Once done with work, I could do whatever I wanted, like going to the beach or getting to know new places in a new city.
Make sure you have good internet that just works. I learned it the hard way that internet does not equal the internet you might be used to. Relying on some random Wi-Fi will cause you to lose time, guaranteed. You might be better off getting a 4G subscription. Depending on the country, these can be cheap.
Asynchronous communication only gets you that far. Talking to your peers, be it over phone or video, is sometimes inevitable. The less working time overlap you have with them, the higher the need to schedule those calls.
Keep in touch with your coworkers. Even thousands of kilometers away, you’re still part of a team with a certain culture. It’s nice to talk random nonsense unrelated to work with them. Cultivate that culture.
Not depending too much on coworkers is advantageous. Especially when the time overlap with them is small. In other words, work on independent projects.
If working from the place you’re staying at, make sure it has a proper table. Sitting on a bed might do it for an hour, but after that you’ll feel the bad posture.
When traveling with someone, plan and communicate with your partner in order to get some time for yourself to concentrate.
Your primary occupation is traveling. Working is something you do in between. So when you sit down to work, work. Don’t read the news, don’t check Twitter. This will save you time you can better spend on your primary occupation.
My initial intention was to get a glimpse into working remotely. Combining travel and work certainly did not achieve this since the setup is just too different. Instead, I think I did get an idea of the digital nomad lifestyle. I could see myself doing this again, possibly for longer and with a higher workload. I guess the higher the workload, the longer one needs to stay at a place in order to fully appreciate what it has to offer. Maybe you’d work four hours early in the morning and enjoy the afternoon and do another session in the evening. Heck, that might even be an option once in a while when working from home, allowing you to do sports or just enjoy a beautiful summer day. I can see people doing this more often in the future, breaking free from the standard 9 to 5 hours. But that’s a topic for a different day.
I’d like to thank ElectricFeel for giving me this unique opportunity. Of course I also have to thank Maro for supporting me and taking this trip of a lifetime with me.
If you have the opportunity to travel while working, I encourage you to take it. You won’t regret it.