The Remote Experience: Vol. 2

10 Things I learned from working out of coffee shops, co-working spaces, trains, planes and hotel lobbies.

For the last 3 months I’ve been experimenting with the concept of working remotely for a company that is predominantly based in Vancouver. The agreed timeline for this arrangement is 6 months, which marks today as the official halfway point.

The journey so far has been all over the map. The first few weeks were fairly isolating, as I had been working by myself in a tiny home office for the majority of it. The last month has been a bit more interesting though, as I’ve travelled to California and Quebec to meet with some awesome folks in the Community space. I even had an incredible experience with the CEO of Boosted; a notable highlight of my trip.

Since I was travelling for work, I decided to try and keep up with my daily routine throughout my trip. After all, I was already acclimated to working 100% remotely, how difficult could it be? Even if it proved to be challenging, being a part-time digital nomad (ps. I hate that term) would be an interesting experiment either way.

Over the last 6 weeks, I’ve worked from:

+ 6 different cities
+ 13 coffee shops 
+ 3 co-working spaces (my favourite being Workshop Cafe)
+ 2 airports
+ 2 planes
+ 2 trains
+ 2 hotels
+ 1 AirBNB
+ 1 satellite office (Unbounce Montreal)
+ 1 Unbounce Experts’ office

What went well

+ Freedom. Working from the location of your choice on any given day is extremely liberating. Even though you’re technically doing the exact same work, having control over the venue gives you a feeling of independence and autonomy that is hard to put into words. For me, this freedom manifested itself in a newfound sense of ownership and direction in my work.

+ Wifi. Surprisingly, wifi was the most consistent thing about the experience. Almost every location had strong, stable wifi. There were exceptions, of course. Using wifi on a moving train/plane was comparable to using dial-up internet from the 90’s, and some coffee shops had imposed time limits where you’d get booted off every 45 minutes — but overall, dependable internet was a non-issue.

90% of coffee shops had stable wifi, but 100% had delicious lattes.

+ Creativity. Routine can be a huge detriment to creativity. Being surrounded by varying types of stimulation, experiences and audio/visual input can help kick-start your creativity and allow you to view things from a renewed perspective. It’s not just a placebo effect, research has shown that ambient noise can have positive effects on creative cognition.

Tip: Try working from a coffee shop for an hour or two each week. If you can’t swing that, try using an app like Coffitivity to simulate the experience.

+ Productivity. I assumed that my newfound productivity would take a hit being surrounded by constant noise and chatter, especially seeing that was my number one gripe with working in an open-office environment — but thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

Coffee shops can be noisy and full of distractions — but none of it was being directed at me, so I didn’t feel bad tuning it all out. Research also shows that productivity can be contagious in certain environments — and places like co-working spaces encourage this type of behaviour.

Workshop Cafe in San Francisco was a fantastic place to plug-in and get some serious work done.

What was tricky

+ Security. Making sure your company’s sensitive information remains safe and secure should be your number one priority. Being on public wifi networks puts you at risk of prying eyes and seedy hackers trying to steal your login credentials. There’s many steps you can take to secure yourself, such as using a VPN and only connecting to WPA2 networks, but I recommend connecting with IT before venturing off of company wifi to ensure you’re not breaking any security protocols.

+ Routine. Switching up your daily grind can yield newfound creativity and productivity, but it also means you now have to worry about the essentials — like power. Seating may be plentiful, but power outlets are a rarity. The safety of your tech is also at risk, which means you now have to pack up your workstation every time you need to use the washroom. Getting into a solid routine with so many different variables is tough, so plan accordingly.

+ Noise. Unless you’re working in a library, public spaces are going to be noisy. This might not bother you, but it will piss off those in your meetings. If your co-workers can tell you exactly what coffee the last person in line ordered (this actually happened) then it’s safe to say you need to rethink your workspace.

+ Privacy. Being surrounded by people in a public atmosphere makes things like group meetings and 1-on-1’s very difficult. It’s impossible to have candid discussions about career development and budgets when you‘re surrounded by 20 random strangers.

Tip: Make sure you have access to a quiet, private space for 1-on-1’s and video conferences. It’s a disruptive experience for everyone involved and it’s disrespectful to those who expect privacy.
It pains me to admit that I was THAT guy a few times. Coffee shops are terrible places for zoom meetings.

What I would do differently

+ Seek more permission. While it’s common to venture into a coffee shop to witness a sea of glowing screens, it’s important to remember that most of these businesses rely on low-price, high-volume sales to turn a profit.

Many of the cafe owners I spoke with didn’t actually mind people using their space as a workstation, as long as they ordered something substantial (ie. not just an extra small black coffee) and occupied a single occupancy seat (ie. not a table for four).

Tip: If you’re going to be a few hours, introduce yourself to the manager/owner and buy yourself a sit-down meal. It’s a friendly gesture and it ensures you’ll be welcome back in the future.

+ Have a backup plan. Sometimes, no matter how meticulously you plan, things just don’t go your way. One morning I attempted to work out of a well reviewed coffee shop in the neighbourhood, only to find out that it was closed forever. With a meeting starting in 15 minutes, I had to run a few blocks away to an obnoxiously loud Italian “caffee” and tether to my phone. It was far from an ideal scenario (even if the latte was out of this world).

The Verdict

While a large chunk of my solo work was largely unaffected by my location, certain things like meetings and 1-on-1’s were just way too difficult to tackle while on the road. Switching up the scenery was fantastic, but I always felt bad that the rest of my team wasn’t there to experience it as well.

In my case, this approach to remote work probably isn’t feasible for more than a few days a month. There were just too many variables that were out of my control and I was constantly paranoid that I was going to miss a meeting or provide a bad experience to those who rely on me.

Don’t let this sway you though. If being a digital nomad is on your bucket list, there’s a growing number of fully remote companies (such as Buffer, or Automattic) that offer solutions to the problems I faced. At Unbounce, we rely heavily on face-to-face interactions, whereas companies with more robust remote policies tend to rely on methods like asynchronous meetings and collaborative project management tools.

Or, you could just become your own boss; start a consultancy gig, take on contract work or even start your own business online.. all of which are actually easier to do while travelling the world.

About the Author

Justin Veenema is the Community Manager at BlockCAT Technologies Inc. — create and deploy ethereum smart contracts, no coding required. He’s also the founder of PixelPaws.ca, a photography initiative geared towards improving animal adoption.

You can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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