Working from Bali for 3 weeks: what we accomplished and why

by Pedro Cardoso

As the last summer-like days of 2015 are passing here in Lisbon, PT, I’ve suddenly felt inspired to share the story of our first escapade to Bali that took place 2 years ago. As more nomadic practices happen every day, the discussion around the concept becomes hotter. “Does it fit me?”, “Am I autonomous and disciplined enough to stay productive while those palms and beaches keep calling me every minute?”, etc. I don’t know whether the universal answer to these questions exists. What I can do is to lay down my own story of our first escapade at Kwamecorp.

It was summer 2013 and for quite a while Kim, Kwamecorp’s CTO, was nurturing this concept of taking a group of people away from the office and work together from an exotic place. He called this concept “Creative Healthy Lifestyle”, the CHL. The idea was to go to a natural healthy environment with good access to places for physical activity, and work there for some time. As Kim’s crazy about surfing, his definition of “places for physical activity” was ocean and good waves.

Back then I was still a newbie conquering my space in Kwamecorp, and the occasional “run away from it all” sounded like music to my ears. Kim’s idea got few followers in the company, but we were still waiting for the right opportunity, both project-wise and team-wise. It was hard to get everyone buy in cause this was and still is quite an unusual approach to work, as it seems to conflict with conventional ways of how we (should) work.

Although the concept was new as a direct approach to a way of work, it was already well proven in different contexts, many of us just didn’t realise it. One of the best examples are our regular trips to San Francisco to work at our clients’ premises. Kwamecorp has its own suburban house/office in Silicon Valley, so when our teams go there, they don’t stay in a hotel room for weeks. We live and work together in a house, 8 time zones away from our “normal” lives and share daily routines with our coworkers, who inevitably become our close friends.

On my previous work at YDreams, a digital innovation company, we often had to travel to remote places in order to install exhibitions, prepare museums and digital experiences. During those travels we felt just the same, thinking “We’re here because of this, let’s make the most out of it”. We were focused on work, giving all of us to what we did. At the same time we enjoyed new surroundings and each other’s company.

These work travels served as a proof of a part of the CHL concept. Taking people away from their routines and personal connections triggered higher commitment and efficiency, and made them focus on work. But as I said, all this was only a part of the concept, the practical part. To complete the experience we still had to add such important ingredients as personal fulfilment and healthy well-being.

The Bali case

There are many places around the world where you can practice the “run-away-but-don’t-forget-to-work” concept. Many natural retreats have good Internet connection and enough infrastructure to live and work for some time. We had to narrow our choice a bit to the places with good waves. Giving it a good deal of a thought, we went for Bali, Indonesia.

In August 2013 we got the right project from Samsung and started assembling the right team who would go to Bali to work on the project. We needed 3 full-time developers, 1 full-time designer and 1 part-time designer to work together for 6 weeks. I joined the team as a full-time designer. It was summer in Lisbon, kids were on holidays at their grandparents’ place, and my wife kind of liked the idea of staying alone for a while. It was a perfect opportunity to dive into the new experience.

In the end of August I travelled to San Francisco to kick off the project with the client. A week later I was on a 30-hour flight to Bali, where the rest of the team were already waiting for me.

The place where we were staying was situated in a small village called Gianyar, near Sukawati, 15 km West from Kuta (Bali’s primary resort town) and 20 km South from Ubud (ancient capital, now spiritual and cultural capital). Quiet and peaceful, the compound was scattered around the village with 4 houses and a central courtyard named as “cantina”. There were staff who took care of the houses and provided meals. All very nice and gentle people.

We quickly developed a routine, with two main things in mind: the time frame to talk with the client in San Francisco and colleagues in Lisbon, and the time for physical activities. While Kim, João and Pedro (a.k.a. “surfing guys”) were looking for the best locations to catch good waves, I was looking for picturesque lanes to do my mountain biking routine. Passionate about photography, I couldn’t find a better place to get the most out of my hobbies.

Usually before breakfast at 8:30am, the guys would have broken some waves, and I would’ve made 30–40km taking photographs of everything around me, bathed in the blissful Bali morning light. Every two days we needed to touch base with the client between 6 and 7am. So less kms in those days.

Fresh fruit, vegetables, and cereal were standard on our table every breakfast. At 12:00am lunch was waiting, typically something with rice. Spice was a must. Plenty of natural juice was there to ease our palates. In the middle of the afternoon and at dinner time, healthy food, often unknown to us before, appeared again.

Climate worked like a clock. Wind would always blast off around the same hour, vanishing precisely a couple of hours later and giving way to the stable +C28º-30º and 90% humidity. Even cycling early in the morning the humidity took me to the levels of dehydration unknown to me. Fun fact: there’s an isotonic drink on Bali called “Sweat”, seriously!

I would love to describe in detail the other Bali that I got to know. I say other because, as I moved further away from the beach and main touristic places, a truly beautiful, peaceful and exotic Bali unraveled before me. It was so refreshing to have something completely new to discover in between work. As contradictory as it sounds, I truly worked harder to get more time to explore.

I would turn the GPS off and go to the interior of the island, and turn it on to get back to the house. People in villages received me with warmth and were curious to see a westerner lost in there. I won’t talk about amazing crystal clear waters, full of life swirling under the surface. I won’t say a word about rich traditions and millenary culture. This story is not about Bali.

With the regular surf and bike workouts as well as delicious fresh food, the healthy part of the concept was covered. The only thing left was to work hard on the project and deliver in time to the client. Philosophical as it may sound, clearing our heads from regular worries for some time filled our bodies with energy and bliss that allowed our minds to be more open. Any barriers to creative thinking were broken. I am even sure there is a scientific explanation for this. The only constraints that we had were the constraints of the project.

In the end we managed to deliver the project that got praised at all levels, and won us the second contract. We managed to take the work beyond expectations. Later, when the project’s responsible on the client’s side shifted to work at another company, he came back to work with us again. It worked.

Why did it work?

And why does it keep working, at all the escapades that we’ve done after that?

Why don’t we get “too relaxed” with the tropical climate, exotic nature and, let me be frank, sometimes not really healthy nightly going-outs? :)

It works because we’re passionate about our work. We’re always hungry for the ways to excel at what we do. With this mindset, work is not a burden, an obligation, or something we’re forced to do. It’s a part of the whole that our life us. As such, we feel good doing it. We are happy.

While cycling up a volcano or crossing endless rice paddies, my mind would often wonder about problems with the project in hands. Even during meals and off time work related conversations were natural. This comes to prove how it all blends seamlessly in the most positive and creative way.

With all this happening spontaneously in every moment that we shared together, our efficiency grew really high. Problems were solved immediately, no lag or information lost. You’re there face to face with your team, just for that.

This works when responsible, flexible and creative people work together. When you have to live 24h a day with each other, all the above needs to apply. You need to accept and adapt to the other’s rhythm and personality, and never impose yours. As this works both ways, we manage to build a common ground where real connection happens. Coworkers become friends. These experiences linger on affecting all future work relations.

I truly believe this concept can work with any kind of teams, projects and companies. Sure you need to compromise a few things, but we always compromise, why not do it while feeling good. When you’re taken from your comfort zone, you grow, you’re challenged to be better, and the outcome is often surprisingly positive.

So definitely it works.

I rest my case.

If you enjoyed reading this story, you can check out Noel Tock, Marina Janeiko, levels.io, and other inspirational nomads of today. If it’s still not enough reading for you, go for this one: How to lead a collective of creative freedom lovers.