From September 2019 to January 2020, my girlfriend did an internship at the International German School in Brussels. As I wanted to gain some experience living abroad, I moved with her and have been working remotely from Brussels for the past five months. Now that I’m back, I wanted to reflect on what were some learnings for me, my team, and if I were to do it again.
I think one of the reasons why you usually have fewer distractions when working from home is a no-brainer: when you’re working at the office, you can hardly decide when to react to someone asking you questions. Sure, you can hide somewhere or book a meeting room, but apart from this you’re physically there, people can see you and will approach you whether you want it or not. While working remotely, you can turn off notifications, your messenger(s), and focus on a complicated task.
The other reason might be a bit less intuitive. For some reason, I’ve experienced that everyone on my team thought that I was super busy! And yes, many times, this was true, but there were also times where I had no clue what to do next or simply some spare time to do “quality work” (learning, maintenance, etc.). Maybe because of that or because it’s less convenient to write someone via Skype than to simply talk to them, but I had the impression that I had a lot more distraction-free time during my workday.
Another reason could’ve been that I was able to choose my working hours more freely. Some days I started working at 8 AM, some days I started around 10 with my colleagues. Some days I’ve finished work around 4:30 PM, some days I decided to work late in the evenings to finish a task, or I took a 2h “lunch break” where I did my running workout, showered, and got back to work.
Of course, no one forbids you to start work earlier or work until late in the evening, but somehow working remotely felt far more flexible, and I felt more “in control” of my time.
Berlin is a lovely city (and so is Brussels), but commuting to work and back took me more than an hour every day! And I think for a lot of people in bigger cities it takes this long or longer to commute every day.
Sure – it’s not a total waste of time! I usually spend my time on the train reading books, blogs, listening to podcasts, or some Twitter. Nevertheless, not commuting definitely saves time.
The same goes for lunch breaks. I love having a 1h lunch break, eating out at a nice restaurant in Bergmannkiez with my colleagues – but then again: cooking at home is fun, delicious, and reduced my lunch break to about 30 minutes per day.
And speaking of saving: I think it saved me between 5-10€ per day!
Working more hours
Alright, let’s talk about the nasty stuff (and I don’t mean the “It’s hard to stay disciplined to not get into your sweatpants, ‘slouch on the couch’ and Netflix”-argument): it’s difficult to consciously stop working after a certain amount of hours. It’s especially tricky when you want to work on some side project in the evening, and I think it also makes it more difficult if you don’t have a separate “working area”. Thankfully at Exozet, we have a very humane way to treat overtime, so I was able to finish work early on a couple of days and spend more time with friends who came to visit or experience more of Brussels.
How remote-friendly is your team?
For a couple of years, my team consisted of some colleagues sitting in our office in Vienna, and some colleagues in Berlin. So yes, working together with colleagues in another city was not entirely new to us.
And still, we’ve experienced some challenges during that time. There were some technical issues like bad connection, incomprehensible sound quality, but also communication issues like not knowing if someone is currently working or at lunch break or not properly refreshing ticket statuses. I’m not saying we had those issues all the time – not even close! I just want you to expect that some of those issues might happen!
Maybe not as terrible as this:
but if you watch them and think “ah, yeah…” – you know what I mean.
This might be one of the toughest things for me, mainly because the Fitbit on my wrist showed me every day how many fewer steps I was making in comparison to a typical workday in Berlin! Usually, without actively leaving the house and going for a walk or doing a running workout, I would not get more than 3000-4000 steps! Maybe 5000 when I was doing a fitness program (1h of HIT & cardio training each day) with my girlfriend. Yes, we did a lot of sports, but with a “step goal” of at least 10.000 steps a day (which I easily achieved each day in Berlin), this was quite devastating, and it also affected my mood after a couple of days without running or walking.
Would I do it again? – Oh definitely! Does it solve all your problems and comes with no disadvantages? – Of course not. Nevertheless, I absolutely enjoyed the experience, the time I saved while not commuting, and the great control over my time. So in conclusion: if you have the possibility to work remotely (e.g., from another country) for some time – give it a try, but also prepare yourself and your team if you are not used to remote work!
Update April 2020
This article was written in February after coming back from Brussels. In the past two months, the whole world experienced the impact of the coronavirus, and a lot of people and companies learned the hard way what it means when the entire company has to work remotely without any preparations. While our team is used to working with a few people in Home Office, I think these five months were also excellent preparation for my team and me.
I wish you all the best and hope your friends & families stay healthy!