Last June, I sat in the corner conference room of the sprawling block-wide office for a popular start-up and gave my month-notice. Even though it was a job I adored, I was offered the opportunity to travel the world while working remotely for a year, and I desperately wanted to try my hand at being a full-time freelancer. It was a scary jump — and one that meant I’d have to fully rely on myself for, well, everything: income, healthcare, taxes, accountability, time management — you name it. But right now, as I catch my 21st flight of 2018, I’m convinced it was the best decision for my personal health and career.
Half-way through my 13th month of full-time digital nomad life and I’ve been lucky to see 19 countries on six continents and to call 12 international cities home for a month at a time. As of right now, I plan on remaining my own boss indefinitely, but many nomads aren’t always given the same opportunity. Leaves of absences, remote-work programs, and sabbaticals are more popular among the millennial generation and the current state of professional development but for most, they aren’t permanent solutions.
This means after endless weeks — or even years — of working from cafes in Colombia, by the pool with a coconut in Thailand or from some outdoor park with WiFi in Mexico City, many professionals are sent packing back to the same cubicle they left. For many, the adjustment isn’t easy, especially once they’ve become accustomed to the flexibility of meeting deadlines and firing off emails from scattered corners of the globe. Others embrace the convenience of being face-to-face with colleagues, instead of attempting to listen through muffled video conference calls across time zones. But how do they do it? Can it be done?
Here, former digital nomads share how they readjusted to office life once they unpacked their bags … for good:
“I craved more interactions with a team.”
Insights Analysts at The Dodo in New York, NY, Jessica Schlauderaff spent two years traveling before her wanderlust sent her in a new direction: back to corporate life. Though she knew it would be a shift from the lifestyle she was used to, she actually found herself craving structure and the ability to truly fulfill her professional passions.
“I did have a goal to eventually get a remote position, but — truly — working for a team and on projects that I believed in and wanted to succeed outweighed my goal to be remote,” she explained. Though she was inspired by the many successful and talented folks she trotted the planet with, she wanted to join a team who shared her specific values and also offered flexibility, since The Dodo encourages its employees to work from home on Fridays.
“I found the silver linings.”
After more than a year of traveling, marketing, and business development manager for WanderLani, Milena Stancati, was asked to come back and stay steady. Though her company was open to her nomadic lifestyle and granted her more flexibility after witnessing how successful she could be from China and Colombia, the transition was still one that continues to take time. To make it easier, she sought out the silver linings of being in an office.
“There is a great balance having a little bit of both. Being fully digital, you lose sight of some of the structural things in life. Going to spin class in the morning with coworkers, cooking at home a couple times a week. I found that when I was working in the office again, life sort of fell into place without me forcing it to,” she explains.
“I organize my days differently”
Schlauderaff always hated the idea of being stuck in one place for a certain amount of time — whether a classroom or an office. And while she’s a hard worker, she’s also someone who prefers to work in short bursts, as opposed to hours of heads-down action. That’s part of why remote work was ideal for her: she could check off a project or get through emails for an hour, take a break, go for a walk, grab a bite or snooze for a bit, before diving back in. Once she was back in the office though? It wasn’t quite as easy — so she had to figure out how to restructure her calendar to maximize her creativity and productivity.
“I try to set up my days with a big project in the morning so that by the time I’m done, it is lunch time and I can leave my desk to take a walk outside or read a book. I’m usually ready to dig into work again for a couple of hours post-lunch, but between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., I’m lagging again,” she explains. “I’ll use this time to get up, grab a snack or a decaf coffee. Then, if I can’t get back into a project mindset, I’ll read some articles about analytics or look at what other companies, co-workers, or people in my network have been working on to try to spark some end of the day inspiration.”
It’s not quite the same as a nap in one of the many beautiful parks in Prague — but it keeps her sane and happy.
“I kept in touch with fellow nomads.”
After traveling with the same 57 people for a year, the final ‘see you soon’ was incredibly difficult. As many have experienced, there’s nothing quite like living, flying and working alongside the same folks for months at a time. It creates as Stancati calls it, a family. Though they all went their separate ways, Stancati says keeping in touch with her nomadic community was a way to find common ground, talk about the difficult period and remain connected.
“I was able to find friendships and a support group from people I’ve never met; the digital nomad community seems to have this unannounced bond from the get-go,” she shares.
“I talk about travel.”
When you’re traveling, discussions about foreign lands and people is not only common, but celebrated. Since you’re constantly surrounded by other people fascinated by various countries and cultures, sharing stories is a daily part of your routine.
But once you’re back in the office culture, you realize how different your mindset is compared to others who perhaps haven’t exercised their passport quite as much. That’s why Schlauderaff makes a point to talk about her remote work experience and jetsetting often, so people aren’t surprised when she takes a long weekend trip or asks permission to work abroad.
“My manager is very supportive of me to work from anywhere as long as I can get my assignments done. I tested it about 3.5 months in by traveling to Europe for three weeks and working two days per week. It worked perfectly and everyone was impressed,” she explains.
“I made my non-nomadic life as nomadic as I could.”
Before Stancati decided to give the digital nomad life a whirl, she could sum up her routine in a few words: gym, work, food, repeat. But after seeing how much the world has to offer — and how fulfilled she could be stepping out of her comfort zone — she aspired to make her stationery life as adventurous as possible.
“Upon my return, I had a different appreciation for life and the time I wasn’t working. I wanted to check out exhibits and explore new places. It wasn’t so much about going out for a drink as it was trying a new cuisine, or a restaurant that served something I tried along my journey,” she continued. “When you are a digital nomad, you embrace life because it’s always new and different. When we are in an office and our surroundings never change, always in a cycle, it becomes easy to forget that it’s life that makes working worthwhile.
“Being able to spend your earned money on things you enjoy. If we aren’t living life to the fullest then how can we possibly be motivated at work?”
“I always have a trip booked.”
One rule of thumb for anyone who labels themselves a frequent flier is to always have something booked — or in the works. Even if it’s a short three-day getaway or the notion of where you’ll spend New Year’s, Schlauderaff says there is a comfort (and an excitement!) in knowing she’ll be getting out of town … soon-ish. Currently, she has two trips with her family, one with her boyfriend and a group reunion with her former traveling community in the works.
“I found comfort coming home.”
Take a look through Instagram under #digitalnomad and your jaw might drop from the places professionals in every industry have managed to work. I’ve certainly had my fair share of interesting places — from trains in Tokyo to buses in Peru, to name a few. But while it can be pretty photo-worthy, it definitely isn’t always easy. Between finding a WiFi connection, resisting FOMO and figuring out the best time to have a meeting between three different continents, it is a lot to balance … and often on little sleep. After traveling for more than a year and working remotely, front-end web developer for Glossier Laurent Jouanneau was ready to go back to the office. In fact, she felt, given the flexibility her company provided her for so long, she owed it to them to return.
“I was really grateful to have a company open to let me live my adventure without really being a blocker. I never had to give up on what I wanted to do and still had the job I wanted. After a year of dealing with every little struggle the digital life can bring, it was comforting to be back home and back to what I was used to,” she shared.
For her though, coming back wouldn’t have been quite as fun if she didn’t enjoy her job and love her homebase city of Montreal.
“I left my job in search of a more flexible lifestyle.”
Following a year of travel with stellar reviews and feedback, media strategist Kelly Kresin hoped her company would allow her to remain remote. But when one of the executives nixed her nomadic plans, she was sent packing to New York.
“Returning to the office felt like a prison sentence. I had the world, then regressed to a shoe box apartment. I put on stuffy business casual outfits each morning and embarked on an all too familiar commute day after to day to access the internet from the same box in the same building, doing the same assignments I did in a bathing suit from a beach in Thailand,” she explains.
And as she attempted to adjust to this old — yet new — way of work, she found her job to become even less flexible than before. She couldn’t take the breaks she needed and her greatest expectation was to show up and sit in a cube.
“Once I knew how fulfilling life could be sans the archaic office structure, going back felt wrong, like I was gipping myself of a better life that I know is possible,” she shared.” Needless to say, I’ve left that job, and am on a quest to find a nomad friendly career path.”