Pros and cons of Work and travel (at the same time) / by guillaume hammadi

This post is another "hey I have a question for you" email answer that I thought could interest more people.

So...

CONTEXT

Envato, the company I work for as a software engineer when I'm not out on shootings (precisely 90% of my normal work week, when I don't shoot at and for Envato, but that's a whole other story, worth a blog post by itself probably) has this awesome program called Work And Travel, or WAT.

You can read more about it, but the TL;DR is: 

Every full time employee in Australia is, if it does not disrupt their main duties (which has to be discussed with their manager, team and the head of HR), entitled to work while travelling anywhere in the World for up to 3 months per year, once probation period is over (6 months).

Obviously it's a tad bit harder to sell for the receptionist than it would be for a developer, marketer or graphic designer, but that's already a whole lot of people who can, if they choose to, pack their laptop, a few shirts, a set of headphones (more about quiet work environment later) and embark the next plane for Anywhere they want.

Being the soul-searching traveller I am, I obviously jumped on such an opportunity in 2016 (and am currently organising the next one).

While I was in Europe (I can't remember if it was France, the UK, Czech Republic or Austria at that time, but you get the idea), one of our agile coaches organised a retrospective for people with experience with the WAT program (WAT participants, teams members based in Melbourne HQ working with WAT-ers), as part of a normal process of getting feedback and improving the program.

What follows is an adapted version of the answer I sent the coach, as I would not make it to the retro at 3am Europe time (more about time zones further down).

WHAT WORKED

  • Most of the times, really high efficiency. Focus, no distraction, much less meetings. This usually results in an increased productivity when the tasks to achieve are clear.
  • Learning. The flip side of being sometimes stuck on difficult problems is that the only person available to fix it was myself. This was an enlightening experience. I found out that I had been relying too much on other fellow developers for the last few years, and it was good to figure out solutions on my own instead of the short-term quicker option to ask-a-workmate. And as most people would agree, doing is the best way to learn.
  • Being able to spend a lot of quality time on a daily basis with my family and old friends that I hadn't really seen in 4 years was invaluable. I did come back to France on quick trips during the past 5 years. But there's a big difference between quick rushed meals or weekends trying to summarize 18 months of life-changing experiences in 2 hours, and sitting at the same table with loved people for 3 weeks in a row. I don't mean I want to go back and live at my parents house, but there's incredible beauty with touching a sense of normality with loved ones. The benefits of a workplace not only allowing, but supporting this kind of compromises is in my opinion an immense reason to stick around. I think it massively helps building and maintaining a trust relationship between employer and employees.

WHAT DID NOT WORK SO WELL

  • Changing work places too often. The temptation is great to move around all the time. It's particularly in places where friends are scattered all around a rich, vast and interesting territory  (for exemple, Europe...). Settling in / setting up a productive work station takes a lot of time. Finding:
    •  good chair and table,
    • a solid internet connection,
    • power
    • and, last but not least, tranquility,

are not trivial.

Especially, friends and family telling you

you can come and work from here, we have WIFI.

should ring an alarm. Or at least should not drive towards forgetting the checklist above. Someone telling you they have WIFI is nowhere near enough to get work done. They might actually be the kind of people who will ask you to fix their computers 😉

  • Discovering one specific codebase was a monstrous challenge. It is legacy, vital to the business, and in the middle of perpetual movement (100k commits over 11 years and 100+ contributors, most of which are not in the company anymore). We used to have a team, called Pony Express, which role was to dampen the shock of getting involved in this code base. Most new developers at Envato would spend a few weeks there to get it set up and then be able to contribute mostly smoothly. Well, I started in a pretty independent team, so never had to work on it at the time. I then moved to my current team which had loose interaction with it, but the Pony Express team had already been disbanded. At first, my work didn't need interacting with the legacy code base. So I never really got exposed to the difficulties, until picking a task which involved working straight in it, which happened one month into my WAT. It was... a challange. The install process was better than I expected (I expected apocalypse), but even with that sorted, working my way through it, figuring out where to add the code I needed to, getting the tests to run, trusting that what I was writing was correctly designed, was hard. It's basically impossible to get quick and useful help when there's very little time zones overlap.
  • Meetings at 3am local time.

The 2 last points highlight the single biggest difficulty of the WAT program (and we are working hard to solve, or at least dampen, this issue).

Dealing with timezones is (incredibly) difficult..

Obviously, we can't change time zones (some countries are trying hard though), but we can get a few things out of the way. I'm not going into too many details, but there's what we are doing at Envato to make this project work better:

  • Reduce compulsory meetings to a minimum,
  • Move their time to a schedule that works best for all (end of day in Melbourne for European workers, for example),
  • Move some meetings to Asynchronous. We've been quite successful at it in the last few months, even with no one on the other side of the World. Most of my team members have children with sometimes random schedules and one of us is in Perth (which is 2 hours behind Melbourne). So two to three times a week, instead of having a 15 minutes Sync Stand-up, we post our updates whenever we are actually in front of the computer through Slack, our company-wide messaging system (you don't use Slack? You probably should).
  • Accept, when you are the WAT one, to wake up at random hours once in a while,
  • Choose your travel location accordingly. I'm thinking of going to Europe only one month this time, or  even WAT from another place, and only take holidays in the Old World.

TIPS

  • Headphones. Get a pair of good, if not great ones. You'll need noise isolation (not necessarily active, but a closed design is a minimum in my opinion) and comfort, as in comfortable for multi-hours sessions comfort, from this device. It's always been a work tool for me, but it's been even truer in the last 4 months.
  • I woke up and started working at 7:30am to try and get 1 to 2 hours with my workmates, until Daylight Saving Time hit Australia (I then had to wake up at 6:30am for the same coverage, which I found more difficult than I expected). I would then get to my morning-ready routine (breakfast, shower...). In order to improve this (and for some extra health reasons), I've been changing my bedtime / wake up schedule in the last month to wake up earlier. I'm curious to see if I can hold it while travelling. 
  • I'd highly recommend that you get a solid idea of what you are going to work on for the time spent abroad, and ensure you don't underestimate the discovery of a big tool / process / codebase / you-name-it-depending-on-your-role.
  • Record stand-ups when they happen synchronously, and other meetings that are deemed important enough. Particularly if the time difference is great, the feeling of loneliness that can hit the sole worker can sometimes be overwhelming. It's also a pretty good tool to get a grasp of what's going on in the team. All these little things that are not worth being carded up or just pop into existence for urgent reasons will often be expressed at standup. No need for special video gear or post editing. As our stand-ups would always happen through Google Hangouts (our team has a lot of people working from home, so full-time in-office are just not a thing), simple screen-recording was enough. The thing to be careful about is sound levels, and I'm still searching for a more reliable solution for my next WAT.

    As a side note, recorded standup reminded me that I was working with human beings. When everything is async and through text with up to 12 hours delay, the temptation is great to become a bit solipsistic.

Conclusion

If you ever come around such an opportunity, do it! It's not easy everyday, but it's an incredible adventure. And, by the way, if you think you would strive in such an environment, we are hiring!