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Telecommuting from paradise

Telecommuting from paradise

Nine years ago, Francie Tanner was working at a technology consulting company in Dallas when she received an email that began, "Dear Sir or Madam, I manage a bank in the country of Anguilla..."

She hit "delete."

"I knew there was no such country as Anguilla," she says.

Eventually, the mix-up was straightened out, and Tanner was on a plane to Anguilla which turns out to be a British territory in the Caribbean to spend 10 days in a "concrete bunker" helping the bank set up a small hosting center.

"There was no beach time, nothing," she says. Well, there was one thing. When she arrived at the island, she had an overwhelming sensation of belonging, she says.

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"Which made no sense," she adds. "I had lived in Texas for 14 years by that time, with a house, four kids, and a job in Dallas." And she was originally from Switzerland. There was nothing in her background to indicate an affinity for tropical islands.

"So I did what any sane human being would do," she says. "Which is nothing. And I went back home."

Four months later, she was sent back to Anguilla to help the bank set up a Blackberry server. And the feeling was still there.

Two months later, she sold her house, her car, packed up all her belongings, her kids and their stay-at-home dad, and moved to Anguilla.

Why the rush?

"If you actually think these things through, and look at the details, objectively, you're going to talk yourself out of it," she says. "There's no way you're going to do it."

And there were a lot of details. She hadn't seen the house where she was going to live. Didn't know if there was a school for her kids. Didn't know that there was no water system, half the roads weren't paved, electricity was unreliable, and medical care was dicey. "But if human beings are put in a situation where they don't have a choice, amazing things can happen," she says.

Luckily, when it came to the Internet, Anguilla was a late adopter, so the infrastructure was new and very good. Tanner got 4Mbps download speed when she first moved to Anguilla, and the connectivity has continued to improve since then.

"If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't have been able to do this," she says.

Her boss was supportive and, for the first nine months, she continued to telecommute to her old job. Then there was a change of management, and she became an independent consultant until she was hired by Panagenda four years ago. Austria-based Panagenda offers enterprise software that provides monitoring, upgrade and management capabilities for IBM Connections, Lotus Notes and Sametime.

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SLIDESHOW:Telecommuting from paradise]

Today, Tanner travels about once a month to speak at IBM conferences and the rest of the time works remotely.

"We at Panagenda are huge believers in telecommuting as it allows us to hire the highest quality people, without requiring relocation," says Panagenda CEO Florian Vogler.

The company uses IBM Notes 9, IBM Connect, Jira, Skype and GoToMeeting as its main collaboration tools, he says. The company also holds twice yearly in-person meetings. "There are some challenges telecommunication presents, especially as we grow, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks," he adds.

For Tanner, island life offers a particular set of challenges. Power goes out sometimes, though usually with no loss of cell phone coverage, she says. If it happens, she takes her laptop to a beach bar.

"Anguilla has free Wi-Fi all over," she says. "And if I'm in the mood, I'll call my teammates on a video call and rub it in."

And there's the weather. "We're first in line for the hurricanes," Tanner admits. But they usually haven't reached their full growth yet when they hit Anguilla. Over the past eight years, there were only two major storms, which knocked out power for a week, she says. And tropical islands aren't unique in having adverse weather events.

"Everybody deals with natural disasters in some way or another," she says. "I just happen to be dealing with hurricanes. Right now [early June], my colleagues in Austria are dealing with horrible floods."

Other downsides include the lack of chain stores, car dealerships, supermarkets if it's not for sale at one of the small island grocery stores, it has to be shipped in, which takes a lot of time, and money. As a result, Tanner buys multiples of everything she really needs.

Foreign countries and this includes most of the islands in the Caribbean love getting tourists and retirees, who just come to spend money. But they are more hesitant to accept working-age adults as permanent residents, since they might compete with the locals for jobs. It is usually easier for a telecommuter to create a brand new company that they own, and get a self-employment visa, than to get a work visa.

This is what Tanner did so she could work in Anguilla. "There's legal paperwork that has to be done, and has to get renewed every year," she says. "But it is doable."

The process varies by country, and can become time consuming and expensive. Eventually, countries will probably figure out that telecommuters aren't competing for local jobs, but are instead bringing in spending money, networking opportunities, and high-tech skills to the places where they settle. Instead of making it difficult to relocate, they should be actively trying to attract telecommuters, they way they now market to vacationers and retirees.

Virgin Islands: No passport needed

Until then, however, if your Caribbean destination is a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands then you can avoid all the paperwork.

"It's part of the United States, so you don't even need a passport to go there you just need a driver's license," says Matt Bauer, co-founder and director of St. Croix-based and president of BetterWorld Telecom in Reston, Va. "It's like moving to another state."

Bauer, who splits his time between the island of St. Croix and California, says the cost of living on the island is a bit higher than, say, in a rural town in the midwest. But there are supermarkets, K-Mart, Office Depot, even an accredited university the University of the Virgin Islands.

Best of all, St. Croix is one of the 10 most concentrated places for Internet traffic in the world, since two major Internet pipelines meet here. Local authorities are currently putting in about $300 million worth of new infrastructure to expand local connectivity to these pipelines, paid for with U.S. stimulus grants and private business investment.

The main goal of this infrastructure is to attract new businesses, such as financial institutions or tech companies looking for lower taxes, an educated local work force, and, of course, great infrastructure.

But the infrastructure is also perfect for telecommuters. Another benefit for telecommuters is the region's two new co-working spaces. One is in Frederickston on St. Croix, and the other is on the neighboring island of St. Thomas. Telecommuters can get daily, weekly, or monthly memberships to work in these broadband hubs. There are also Internet cafes on the islands.

"And at 5 p.m. you walk out the front door and run off the pier and jump into the Caribbean ocean," he says. "It's paradise. It's beautiful. You're surrounded by water and nature. It has a unique feel very healthy. I feel really good when I'm there."

The Caribbean is particularly attractive for people who live in northern states. "I don't know if you've been to Seattle in the winter," says Ted Lawrence. "It's pretty dreary. It starts raining in October and keeps raining through February. So I got in the habit of heading down to the Caribbean in January, February, and March."

Lawrence is a business manager for Bellevue, Wash.-based consulting firm Inviso Corp., managing operating expenses for Inviso's corporate clients.

"The job is very well suited to telecommuting," says Lawrence. "It's very independent work. I spent a lot of time on spreadsheets and making sure that things add up the way they're supposed to."

This year, he worked from St. Croix and decided to just stay there. "St. Crois just appealed to me," he says. "It's far more laid-back than the other two U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas is quite busy and St. John is quite expensive. St. Croix just seemed to strike a good balance. Good people. Real estate values seemed reasonable. So I bought a house, fully decked out with a desk and a few computers and all kinds of deck chairs. I have a view of the Caribbean."

Lawrence starts work at noon each day, since there's a four-hour difference with Washington during the winter months. In the morning, he goes to the beach, or runs errands. One thing he doesn't do is work on the beach, he says. "I have to work with my computer, and beaches and computers just don't get along."

It's important to plan ahead for all contingencies, he says. The Internet can be slow or intermittent where he lives, so his backup plan is renting a desk for a day at ConnectSpace, so that he can work uninterrupted for a long stretch of time.

Sunny Spain

Gibraltar-based e-learning company Tradimo is all about supporting remote employees in exotic locations, with half of its staff working remotely.

"We chose to set up the company this way because it offers some significant human resources advantages and the people who telecommute love it," says manager Mike Hofmaier. "Ironically, our head office is in Gibraltar, which is in itself paradise."

People commute from the United States, Canada, Germany, Poland and more exotic locations as well, like Thailand.

Workflow is organized so that it can be done remotely, which sometimes can create challenges.

"For some roles, it's important that we get the scheduling right, in terms of the time of the day," he says. "But for many positions, it's not super relevant what time of day they're operating in. We have a 24-hour cycle, and we can continue producing content and keep up with forums no matter what time it is."

Some staffers have to start their days earlier than normal, or work later than in a typical job in order to get enough overlap to hold meetings, he says. "In a lot of ways it works even better, because we can assign something to someone at the end of the day and when we wake up in the morning, it's finished."

There are occasional issues with connectivity, he says, but employees are expected to move to a different location, where they can get online, or fix the problem within a day or two.

"In the last few years, it's gotten to the point that if you can pay for it, there's a good Internet connection in any major city in the world," he says.

The company uses internal forums to manage workflow, with individual items moving from one board to another as they move between different stages. For example, educational content starts out in a new content conception forum, then moves to the new content draft forum, then to a forum where a content quiz is created, then forums for SEO review, content approval, and translation into all the different languages the company supports.

"We make a point of avoiding email for ongoing discussions or debate," he says. Other tools used include Skype, instant messaging, and a time-tracking tool.

One of the workers who takes advantage of the company's telecommuting policies is translator Alexander Noethlich, who left the "gray, horrible weather" in his native Mühlhausen, in eastern Germany in favor of warm, sunny Cordoma in southern Spain.

The Internet connectivity is generally the same in Cordoma as in Germany, he says. There was an outage a few months ago due to heavy rains.

"For three days, I had no Internet, and it was really critical for me," he says. "I was still working on a desktop, and those three days made me buy a laptop because I realized I needed the possibility to go to a different place to get an Internet connection. I cannot have a week offline, it would be harmful for my work."

Extreme telecommuting

If you think working from an island paradise is a stretch, try working while on a year-long trip around the world.

Cora Rodenbusch manages the employee website and online community for PGi, maker of iMeet and other collaboration products. She and her husband had been talking about taking an around-the-world trip for years. Two years ago, he was between jobs and it seemed like the perfect time except that Rodenbusch didn't want to leave her job.

"I have a great team, and I loved what I was doing," she says. "So I thought maybe I could pitch Sean [O'Brien, her boss] on keeping the job, and using the software we developed internally around the world, put it to the test."

He liked the idea. Plus, since the company has 1,800 employees in 25 countries, this was an opportunity for Rodenbusch to visit some of the company offices in person.

"It became almost a company initiative," she says. "We had just discussed my goals and objectives for the year ... and I put together a PowerPoint presentation what projects I could be doing better by being on the road, what hours I could keep. At the end the day, you're going to have to get your work done."

"We are big believers here at PGi that work is not a place you go, but a job that you do," says O'Brien, who is the company's executive vice president of strategy and communications. "It was a bit out of left field because I didn't see it coming, but I thought it was a great social experiment and an opportunity to put our software to the test, and an opportunity for her to be an ambassador for us globally. It was a no-brainer in my view and the experiment worked out great."

The commitment to meeting her goals particularly impressed him, O'Brien says.

The two met in April of 2011. On Aug. 1, Rodenbusch and her husband were in Ireland. Over the course of the following year, the couple also visited Frankfort, Munich, Zurich, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Bangalore, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, Melbourne, Brisbon, and Sidney.

"They [PGi] did not approach me, so I was adamant that we cover the costs," Rodenbusch says. "We were going to do it anyway, and the fact that PGi was letting me keep my job was just icing on the cake."

The total trip cost around $50,000, including airfare, hotels, and van rental in Europe. The couple rented out their Austin, Texas home for more than their mortgage payments, put their things in storage, and loaned their cars to friends. Staying at home would also have cost at least $50,000.

"I think it was an even trade," she says.

When working in cities where PGi had an office, Rodenbusch would put on a suit, and just go in for work. Elsewhere, it was a bit harder.

"We worked in coffee shops, or libraries wherever you can get an Internet connection," she says. "You have to be pretty passionate to get your work done. The fact that iMeet had a mobile app made it easy for me, because even with the smallest Wi-Fi signal I could have my meeting. We operate on low bandwidth connections."

They also got data plans for their cell phones, though changing countries usually required getting a new SIM card. Rodenbusch's husband, who did some contract work as well as working on his own projects, used the data plans the most.

"The running joke is that I became a big fan of McDonalds," she says. "Wherever we went, we could easily crank out eight hours of work."

The hardest place to work, she says, was India. "If I was in the office in Bangalore, it wasn't a problem," she says. "But as soon as you got out of the office you were at the mercy of the power companies. They have rolling power outages, and you didn't know when it was coming back on."

Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.

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