Monday, May 23, 2016

what I've learned from being an enforced 'digital nomad'

As some of you may recall, along with thousands of others over the last Christmas period my family and I were hit by flooding. We had to move out of our home while it (and my 'home office') were restored.

5 months on and we're now back in, the furniture's out of storage, and we've nearly unpacked all the boxes, so it feels like a good time to pause and look back on what I'm taking from the experience of having been an enforced 'digital nomad':

- its easier to set up than you might realise
given the bulk of the work I do, I don't need much by way of specialist equipment or stock. I 'upgraded' my laptop and invested in a few extra toys, so can pretty much work anywhere now. I was initially worried about printing but realise that we print a lot more stuff than we need to out of habit and using cloud storage and such like, haven't been hampered by not having a printer to hand 24/7.
Now we're all back in the house, I realise just how many distractions there can be here, so am intending to remain as mobile with my 'office' as possible going forward.

- clients and other people can be very generous and patient
there seems to be an expectation that we're not allowed to hold up our hands in the business world and say we're struggling. But when I have (framing it in the context of recovering from having flooded), clients, collaborators, and suppliers, have all gone out of their way to try and lend a hand. That's even more true of fellow businesses who were also flooded.
The 'macho' image we present can sometimes get in the way of relationships in our business. I've found that taking the risk to show some vulnerability actually only strengthens links between us all.
I should also name check Gareth Nash of CMS here - at an event we both found ourselves at during this period, he took it upon himself to make sure that I got well fed and watered from the catering that had been laid on at it, in light of my not always knowing where my next meal was going to be...

- libraries can be great places (with the emphasis on 'can be'...)
there are countless hotdesking and coworking facilities out there, (and some offered me discounted rates on the basis of being flooded and wanting to show support). And while they can be fun places, I found libraries to be overlooked great places to work: big tables to spread all your notes and files out across, comfy chairs, good heating (and toilets!), and free wifi too. On the down side, heaven help you if you need to take or make a phone call, and the wifi usually blocks any file sharing or social media sites (unless its a private library like the Portico in Manchester).
On the issue of overlooked places I should also put in a mention for the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce members' lounge, as in addition to the tables, chairs, heating, free unrestricted wifi, and toilets, they also have sofas and free coffee! 

- hotel chains usually aren't worth it
I've found myself staying in a lot of hotels as I've bounced around the country over the last few months. I wish I could say that I picked them on the basis of their being independent local guest houses as part of my commitment to supporting local economies, but I'm afraid it was more pragmatic on the basis of relative location to train stations and client premises. And my experiences of having stayed in big brand chains to local cheap B&B's is that usually paying the extra for a posher stay isn't worth it. On the whole you seem to get better local knowledge, services, and value from the small local hotels that don't look as highly polished, but do at least seem genuinely interested in getting your feedback (and acting on it!)

- you get a lot fitter
I didn't have access to a car while the house was being restored (my family needed it to help with getting kids to school each day, shopping, etc) so I walked a lot more. And being a 'digitial nomal' meant carrying my office with me as well as my wardrobe for the week (up to 4 bags in total!). 
It meant I took up a lot more space on trains, but also made me realise how much stuff we usually carry around with us that we never use... But walking from train stations to clients premises and other venues isn't that arduous so as long as it's no more than about a mile and a half, so I intend to try and continue this habit.

- its more lonely and stressful than people let on
While my house was being restored, my family stayed with relatives, and my travelling around to meet clients and such like meant that it was only usually at the weekends when we got to properly spend time together as a family.
Being self-employed is stressful enough at the best of times for all sorts of reasons, but add to this being technically homeless, not knowing when your house will be ready for you to move back in, not being able to be around emotionally for your partner and kids... 

- you're always looking for the next plug socket...
There's an old saying amongst travellers that you should always eat well because  you never know when your next meal will be. As great as mobile devices and laptops are, they can't last as long without being topped us as we can go without food. And just as with hotels, it seems the coffee shop chains aren't as good as local independents when it comes to being able to offer us opportunities to 'plug in'.

- you can get away with a lot more...
and finally, using the rider "I've been flooded" means you seem to be able to get away with a lot more than you might otherwise feel able to. That's ranged from suggesting to clients that we meet in a pub, to getting suppliers to offer extended credit terms at no extra cost.
I've always been aware that I've pushed the norms of accepted business etiquette, but this will only encourage me to do so even more in the future!

I've always argued that it's important to allow ourselves opportunity to reflect on our experiences to see what we can take from them to our (and others') benefit in the future. And while everyone always agrees with the sentiment, its very rarely done.
Part of the reason that I committed to starting this blog 7 years ago was to allow me such opportunities for reflection - and to do so in way that is open in inviting your comments and contributions to them.

Given the severity and impact of the flooding that's had a massive impact on this valley, I hope that many of my fellow freelancers, self-employed, and other enterprises will find ways to similarly reflect on the experience of recovering their businesses as they start to get back to 'normal'. That's not just to help them think about how they build their resilience for any future knocks, but also as a wider encouragement to the rest of us too.

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