For several months this year, when I told people I was working remotely from beach towns in Mexico, they responded with expressions of jealousy and palm tree emojis. If they knew.
My experience has shown me how difficult it can be to set up a professional life and be productive even in beautiful places, not because the environment is tempting and distracting, but because the environment is often problematic.
While some people have understandably grown weary of working from home during the pandemic, my time as a digital nomad has given me the opposite experience. There’s nothing like spending time trying to be productive in hotels and cafes to make you appreciate the benefits of a home office.
If you’re planning on flying to faraway places so you can keep your job while seeing the world, consider this a checklist of things to prepare and a warning that it won’t be as glamorous as you might imagine.
When you hit the road, you don’t take an ergonomic chair or a standing desk with you. The chances of you being able to set up a comfortable workstation are slim, so be prepared to back and neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s just to start. There’s not much you can do to control the lighting, so you may also experience eye strain. And the temperature control can be elusive – during my months in Mexico and South America, I was almost never able to bring a room to a comfortable temperature. It also interferes with sleep.
Slow and unreliable Wi-Fi
Chances are you need a faster internet connection and more bandwidth than you think. And an even greater chance that you’ll have trouble finding it when traveling. Most cafes and hotels that offer Wi-Fi often aren’t what you’re used to in the office or at home. This is especially true if you’re like the millions of people who keep lots of tabs open suddenly.
There is also the crucial issue of security. Using public Wi-Fi can expose your and your employer’s information to hackers. It’s important to use technology like a VPN to protect your data. But there is also the question of “shoulder surf”, in which people nearby see what you type. Hackers prey on digital nomads, and some have gotten really good at disguising what they’re doing.
In most U.S. offices and restaurants, workers can count on a basic level of hygiene to maintain, in part because of health codes. But in other places it’s just not the same. Without going into details, let’s just say that I must have seen more than my share of dirty toilets. Also, my fiancée (who was also working remotely) and I were poisoned with salmonella from sushi. Yes, it’s possible in the US, but less likely. Be careful and beware.
“Mosquitoes are the number one scourge of our lives,” wrote one of the people behind the website Discover the discomfort, in an article on full-time travel. I had no idea what the bugs would be like inside, even with bug spray and other basics. It’s not just an annoyance. They represent a serious danger and can carry all kinds of diseases.
The clamor of traffic, crowds, construction, nearby airports, etc. can make taking calls or Zoom meetings particularly difficult. The sound can also considerably decrease productivity when you’re trying to focus, and noise canceling headphones can’t cut it all out. Continued noise pollution can also make you more irritable and stressed.
Loneliness versus hookup culture
I had the chance to be with my fiancée. But some other digital nomads we’ve met on our travels are some of the loneliest people I’ve ever met. Many people working remotely, even from home, have struggled with loneliness in recent years. But in tourist locations, such as coastal cities, where people work remotely, they run into a sticky situation. Vacationers show up looking for a quick adventure, but digital nomads are looking for deeper connections and real conversation. This can lead to frustration.
Does that mean the work life of anywhere is bad? Definitely not. We were able to see beautiful sites, from Playa del Carmen in Mexico to Machu Picchu in Peru. After long days of work, we were able to relax on the beach. We saw places and met people we would never have seen otherwise. We also know we are lucky that our employers support remote work.
But for me, it’s a lesson learned: most people, myself included, are likely to be the most productive and have the best work experience when they are stationary and in the comfort of a home office.
Gaetano DiNardi is a growth marketer and advisor to the fastest growing technology companies in the world. He works for Will havewhose mission is to create a safer Internet for all.