What I Learned Working Remotely This Week

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For the most part, 2020 has brought nothing but frustration but we also found a small opportunity. Mike’s been working remotely since March 11 — I have for five years — and we decided we may as well take remote work to a whole new level.

It’s been brutally, record-breakingly hot in Buffalo, so we packed a cooler, rented a cabin, and headed to the mountains for a reprieve. We figured all we needed was strong WiFi and we’d be all set.

Inside our one-bedroom, one-bathroom cabin.

We had a very utopian view: we’d get up early, put in eight hours, and then still have a solid four hours of daylight to play with. We knew sights and attractions would be closed (or limited) but our main goal was to hike. I used the Alltrails app to save inspiration and maps for trails we could complete in our timeframe, always looking for ones with key phrases like “lightly trafficked” or “good for solitude”.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? (or, at least, perfect for us!)

I was really excited for this. I’ve worked away from home many times on my own, most recently in Mexico City. My previous “workations” have been awesome. On the work side, new environments help me gain clarity and find new ideas. On the vacation side, I’ve had free time to explore new destinations without the guilt of taking time off from work. Obviously working remotely isn’t the same as vacation, but it does introduce you to new places and new people.

However, Mike’s never come with me on my work retreats. I’ve never had zoom calls going on in the room next door and I’ve never had to design a schedule around inflexible committments (being a freelancer means having a lot of schedule freedom compared to dealing with group meetings and conference calls). Still, if this great experiment worked, it would open more doors for us to travel together.

And so, we’ve spent part of July doing just that. We make a pot of coffee in the morning, pull out our laptops, and work all day. We give ourselves an outdoor lunch break, to enjoy the fresh air and watch the hummingbirds on our front porch. Around 4:00, we pack up water and a picnic dinner and head out to the trail. Most nights, we miss staying out for sunset: exhaustion sets in, so at 8:30 I’m drinking a cup of tea and trying to read my book instead of chasing a viewpoint.

front porch of cabin
Our front porch, perfect for midday breaks

In theory, we’re checking all the boxes of what we set out to do. In reality, it’s been more challenging than I expected.

What should’ve been obvious (but instead I overlooked) is that this remote-work experiment does not resemble any of my independent forays in the past. We’re purposely avoiding restaurants for health, safety, and financial reasons. There goes your mini-mental break, when someone else takes care of you and you’re treated by new, interesting flavors. Instead, I’m spending time cooking meals and washing dishes — both of which are harder than home since it’s not your kitchen with a fully stocked pantry and the appliances you’re used to.

laptop and breakfast
My very first work-remotely experiment, Kathmandu in 2014.

We’re also constantly picking up. There’s no housekeeping service, understandably, but moreover this particular rental home doesn’t have the space to leave a desk set up from day to day. One of us sets up at the kitchen table, clearing it for meals, and the other sets up on a small desk in the bedroom, moving it at night so we can actually walk around the bed. On previous trips, I’ve just loaded my laptop in a bag and walked five minutes to a coffeeshop or coworking space. Frankly, both take about the same amount of time, but cafes energize me and cleaning frustrates me. It’s not the same.

Lastly — and I can’t believe I didn’t think of this — I’m having a lot of trouble adjusting to the schedule. At home, I start my working day mid-morning at the earliest. On the road, it’s even later (I explore first and sit down to work after lunch, essentially working “B shift”). Out of necessity, I’m working earlier here, to coincide with Mike’s meeting schedule. Turns out, my brain is all sorts of confused when I ask it to focus at 7am. Working remotely together is not as easy as working remotely apart.

On the bright side, we’ve hiked a lot of miles and will hike even more before we go home on Sunday. We’ve escaped the Buffalo heat wave. I feel safer than I do at home because the parks and trails have practically no one on them (the joy of a small town that’s also not a major tourist destination).

hiking portait

Despite my frustrations and challenges, we have gotten work done. Both of us have hit all our deadlines and delivered work as expected. However, it’s not as carefree as I expected and I’m not sure that I’ve enjoyed it enough to spend money trying it again.

Practical Tips for Working Remotely

1. Wait for things to (safely) reopen. We’re missing out on a lot of exploration (and community buzz) because we’ve isolated ourselves. Little things I normally love while working remotely, like watching street scenes unfold and sampling local restaurants, aren’t the same right now.

2. Stay in someone’s home, not a rental. Rental properties are set up for vacationers who naturally spend a lot of their time out of their house for sightseeing. Spending the majority of your waking hours there is a whole different story. The little things that wouldn’t bother us as travelers are starting to wear on us: uncomfortable couches, inadequate desk space, and totally impractical kitchen tools. If I did this again, I’d look for a home exchange or maybe a housesitting gig.

3. Go longer. It might sound counterintutive to commit to a longer stay, especially if it’s your first experiment. However, some of our problem is FOMO. We’ve physically pushed our limits, going out to explore every night for several hours. If we had longer, I wouldn’t feel the need to maximize every moment. We could go out for a short excursion instead of all evening long or maybe even take a night off to relax!

4. Stay true to routine. It’s hard to motivate yourself to work from home and even harder in a new and tempting environment and harder still when there are a thousand news stories to distract you. If I had taken moment to think about that in advance, I would’ve adjusted our plans before we even left home. Traveling is never going to be the same routine as home (in some ways, that’s the entire point!), but we could’ve prioritized a few of the most important parts of routine and self-care if we planned better before arrival.

Nothing About 2020 Has Gone to Plan

^^^ Understatement of the year.

This year has been full of travel substitutions. I went glamping in the Finger Lakes instead of road-tripping through Arkansas. I’m currently on a workcation instead of hiking in the Pyrenees. We had to cancel our Minnesota getaway and that likely won’t be replaced.

If anyone else is thinking about a remote work getaway, make sure you’re looking at the current reality, not “what could be” or what has been in the past. It’s true that this is a relatively safe and responsible way to get away from home (assuming you pick your destination correctly), but you’re limited in what you can do. Considering that vacation rentals aren’t free, there’s a whole new return on investment equation in 2020.

We’ll be home for the next few months, working remotely and dreaming about travel. Right now, it seems like that’s the best I can do.

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