When I walked into my office—a streetside coffee shop called Brewed Awakenings—I thought something was on fire. Smoke billowed from a little toaster oven in the corner. But none of the staff looked concerned, and guests sipped their morning brew in peace.
Turns out, the owner was set on roasting his own beans, so he did what you do in a developing country: He improvised. He turned a little chicken rotisserie oven into a coffee roaster by adding a perforated drum where the chicken should be, and by bolting a floodlight to the cover to intensify the heat and thus cut the roasting time in half. Step aside, MacGyver!
If that’s not enough, “Mac” sources his beans from a farmer just on the other side of our lagoon—fair trade at its best. I love it! Plus I love the taste of the coffee, which is why I decided to drive the 8 miles this morning to work from here rather than from my usual spot on the beach, which is but a short bike ride from my home.
This is clearly not your typical city coffee shop. There are no overstuffed chairs. No cozy corners. The tables and benches are shipping pallets adorned with colorful paintings. Not comfy, but the place has a great atmosphere. And the staff? They’re the friendliest baristas this side of the Gulf. Despite me having been here but a couple of times—and I use couple in the most literal sense—they remembered how I like my latte. “No sugar for you, right gyal?”
If you’ve not yet figured it out: I clearly don’t live in America. Home currently is on a peninsula in the south of Belize. And Belize, in case you’re wondering, is a little country with Mexico on our north, Guatemala to our west and south, and the Caribbean to the east. If you’d keep going east from here, you’d hit Jamaica and Haiti. Drift a little northward, and you’re in Cuba.
At less than 9,000 square miles, this country is small. It’s about the size of Massachusetts, and just a tad bit bigger than Israel. Except, Israel has 20 times as many people as Belize, and Boston alone has more than 10 times the population of this entire country! So, other than the fact that this clearly is not a place you typically experience traffic jams, why would I live in such a sparsely-populated country down in a part of the world I had never set foot before moving here?
I needed a place to work from, seeing that for reasons beyond my understanding, my U.S. work visa was denied. Instead of living at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I live in the tropics. And instead of trying to ascend fourteeners, I traverse the waters by kayak and I descend below the surface to explore the world along the second-largest barrier reef on the globe.
Kayaking, scuba diving, and drinking copious amounts of coffee forms the backdrop to my online work as a content creator (a.k.a. writer) for a tech company in Colorado, plus doing online teaching and dissertation supervision for a university based in Texas. In other words, all my work is done remotely. Very remotely.
I haven’t always worked remotely, though. I have worked in offices in South Africa and Taiwan, on campuses in several countries, at a training center in a small Kenyan village. In my last job before moving to Belize, though, I worked at Compassion International’s regional office, supporting staff all over Asia. In effect, that became my transition into working remotely.
Having made the transition from on-site work for almost 30 years to doing all my work remotely for the past year, I have learned a thing or two, which I’m happy to share.
Pros: Having flexible work hours is the single biggest benefit of working off-site. While there are inevitably meetings to dial in for and specific deadlines tied to tasks, working remotely offers flexibility in how you get to organize your day. Also, due to your flexible schedule, you may be able to put yourself out there for additional freelance opportunities.
Cons: If self-discipline is nowhere in your skill set, flexibility can also be the biggest detriment. Find ways that provide accountability along with the flexibility.
Solutions: The main company I work for tracks team tasks and deadlines via Asana, which we use for folks are office-based or those farther afield, like me. But with having several jobs as well plus my personal writing schedule, I cannot rely on others to hold me accountable. This year, I started using a Passion Planner to help me set and track goals.
If you find yourself being distracted by social media, there are several tools available to help you curb the temptation to wander off and waste hours. Some I’ve found useful are StayFocusd, Pomodoro and, most recently, Freedom.
Pros: Having no commute to the office is another huge plus. Obviously, it saves you gas money as well as wear and tear on your vehicle. An equally-great positive is that you waste no time on the road, allowing for more time to get work done—possibly even for multiple companies—which, of course, translates to a greater income stream.
Cons: There are other costs, though. Making sure you have excellent Internet at home is crucial. That could be a challenge if you’re looking at living and working from someplace very remote and exotic, like in Belize, where a good Internet service can be costly. Electricity in Belize is also costly, which is especially important during the hot and humid summer months when you might want to be running an AC while working.
Financial costs are not the only challenges to working remotely, though. Getting simple things done (paying bills, for example, or running simple errands) can cost you valuable time since those tasks often are much more time-consuming if you work from a less-developed country.
And should you choose to work for several companies, you could commit the carnal sin of freelancing by over committing and under delivering.
But the greatest cost is likely the social cost, which is true even if you work nowhere as remotely as I do. Unless you’re an introvert down to the very core of your being, working remotely can be socially isolating. More about that in the next section, though.
Solutions: Find a space and routine that works for you. Share an office space if you can—an option common in many countries (though not in Belize). If staying connected at all times is critical to your work success, have a backup MiFi or cell phone hotspot for times when the regular Internet connection is less stable.
When it comes to making sure you make good on commitments, track the amount of time it takes to complete projects. Download an online app that helps you keep track of exactly how much time is spent on which project so you can better budget time for future commitments. It can also help you with billing for the correct number of hours spent on a job. I have found ChronoPlus to be a great solution for tracking time spent on tasks. A side benefit of using a time tracker is that it also helps you realize how much time can slip through social media cracks.
Pros: Not working from an office means you likely won’t be pulled into as many meetings as you would, had you been at the office. And not being tied up in meetings means you can get more stuff done—much more stuff, in fact!
Cons: But not being present at meetings will likely mean that you won’t be in the loop when it comes to small iterations on projects. Beyond not always being in the know on projects, you could easily feel socially isolated. And isolation can be one of the most difficult things to get used to.
Solutions: To combat the challenge of being cut off from your team, you’ll want to find ways to stay in the loop. Using Slack has been a tremendous help in combatting that sense of disconnection. But that’s something your entire team or company has to agree to use. Whether you use Slack or more traditional means of communicating, make it a priority to connect with various project leaders. Stay on their radar. And during calls, resist the temptation to disengage.
Unless you’re comfortable with being home all day, every day, you may want to find some favorite spots from which to work, so you can simply get out of the house. You’ll also want to make sure you find ways to connect deeply with folks in your community so your life is not all about work.
Growing into full-fledged Serious Players in a remote work setup, we can learn from each other.