For several months this year, when I told people I was working remotely from seaside towns in Mexico, they responded with expressions of jealousy and palm tree emojis. If they only knew.
My experience showed me how difficult it can be to set up a work life and be productive even in beautiful locations—not because the surroundings are tempting and distracting, but because the environment is often problematic.
While some people understandably got tired of working from home during the pandemic, my time as a digital nomad has given me the opposite experience. There’s nothing like time spent trying to be productive from hotels and cafés to make you appreciate the benefits of a home office.
If you’re thinking about taking off for far-flung locations so you can keep your job while seeing the world, think of this as a checklist of things to prepare for—and a warning that it won’t be as glamorous as you may imagine.
When you hit the road, you’re not bringing an ergonomic chair or standing desk with you. The chances that you’ll be able to set up a workstation that’s comfortable are slim, so prepare for back and neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s just for starters. You can’t do much to control the lighting, so you’re likely to experience eye strain as well. And temperature control can be evasive—during my months in Mexico and South America, I was almost never able to get a room to a comfortable temperature. This damages sleep as well.
Slow, untrustworthy Wi-Fi
There’s a good chance that you need faster internet and more bandwidth than you realize. And an even better chance that you’ll have difficulty finding it when you travel. Most coffee shops and hotels that offer Wi-Fi often can’t match what you’re used to in an office or at home. This is especially true if you’re like the millions of people who keep lots of tabs open at once.
There’s also the crucial matter of security. Using public Wi-Fi can expose your information, and that of your employer, to hackers. It’s important to use technology like a VPN to protect your data. But there’s also the matter of “shoulder surfing,” in which people nearby see what you’re typing. Hackers prey on digital nomads, and some have gotten very good at disguising what they’re up to.
In most American offices and restaurants, workers can count on a basic level of sanitation to be kept up—partly due to health codes. But in some other places, it’s just not the same. Without going into details, let’s just say that I had to see more than my share of unclean restrooms. Also, my fiancée (who was working remotely as well) and I got salmonella poisoning from sushi. Yes, this is possible in the United States, but less likely. Be careful, and beware.
“Mosquitoes are bane number one of our lives,” wrote one of the people behind the website Discover Discomfort, in a post about full-time travel. I had no idea what a big problem insects would be, including indoors—even with bug spray and other basics. These aren’t just an annoyance. They’re a serious danger and can carry all sorts of diseases.
The clamor of traffic, crowds, construction, nearby airports, and more can make it especially difficult to take calls or do Zoom meetings. Sound can also dramatically decrease productivity when you’re trying to concentrate, and noise-canceling headphones can’t get rid of everything. Continuous noise pollution can also make you more irritable and stressed.
Loneliness versus hookup culture
I was fortunate to be with my fiancée. But some other digital nomads we encountered on our travels are among the loneliest people I’ve ever met. Many people working remotely, even from home, have wrestled with loneliness in recent years. But in tourist sites, such as coastal cities and towns, where people are working remotely, they run into a tricky situation. Vacationers show up looking for a quick fling, but the digital nomads are looking for deeper connections and real conversation. It can lead to frustration.
Does this mean the work-from-anywhere life is all bad? Definitely not. We got to see beautiful sights, from Playa del Carmen in Mexico to Machu Picchu in Peru. After long workdays, we got to kick back on the beach. We’ve seen places and met people we never would have otherwise. We also know we’re fortunate that our employers support remote work.
But for me, it’s a lesson learned: Most people, including myself, are likely to be most productive and have the best work experience when they’re stationary and within the comforts of a home office.