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Meet the travellers who have taken remote working to the extreme

Tourist offices, travel companies and even conventional employers are making ‘workcations’ easier than ever before. Do you have what it takes to join the growing ranks of remote workers setting up offices on beaches and in hotel cafes?

Published 20 Jun 2021, 08:00 BST
In early 2021, the palm-covered beach island of Antigua launched a programme to encourage ‘workcations’.

In early 2021, the palm-covered beach island of Antigua launched a programme to encourage ‘workcations’.

Photograph by Getty Images

Most mornings, before her working day begins, Keisha Ferrell scales a mountain. This isn’t just any mountain, but one whose jungle-fringed paths climb to what’s among the most spectacular views in the West Indies: Shirley Heights. From this vertiginous old British military post, the island of Antigua is laid out with postcard perfection: pristine arcs of white sand frame yacht-populated bays of brilliant blue, giving way to forever views of the Caribbean Sea. It’s a soul-lifting way to start the day, a moment’s blissful pause before the conference calls from rainy England start ringing in.

What sounds like the enviable morning routine of a megabucks business executive is, in fact, the happy new habit of a young British freelancer. Keisha is one of numerous UK employees to have recently set up office in Antigua, taking advantage of the island’s new ‘business on the beach’ initiative. In 2020, the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority conducted a nationwide UK survey that showed 84% of working Brits would love to replace their Zoom background with a genuine tropical island backdrop, and in early 2021, the Caribbean nation launched its Nomad Digital Residence (NDR) programme, designed for those who can ‘meet the requirements of their employers, clients and colleagues while working abroad’. In short: the sort of remote working many of us having been doing during the pandemic. 

Those who take advantage of the NDR can stay for up to two years, benefitting from the islands’ no personal income tax status. The programme provides ‘some much-needed space and recuperation following a turbulent 2020’ according to the tourism authority. It also, quite crucially, brings business back to destinations that rely heavily on income from tourism.

“I’d always wanted to work in the Caribbean,” says Keisha. “I’d already done some research on the destination, which is normal for me as a single female traveller, and it looked promising: somewhere with good wi-fi, and in a time zone that worked, more or less, with the UK. Travel had been so uncertain, but when I saw the digital nomads initiative, I knew it was for me.”

Keisha gets up at 4am, to be on time for the UK’s 9am start, and works in UX and UI (user experience/interface) for a British digital company. “I’m an early bird anyway, so it’s fine, and it means I have time to explore Antigua in the afternoon. I sometimes even work on the beach — I can’t resist a hammock. There are the obvious issues of avoiding screen glare or sand in the keyboard but I’ve no concerns about productivity. In fact, I think it makes me work harder, and over-deliver, because I’m very conscious of how my setting might be perceived.”

Joining ‘meet-up’ groups on social platforms like Facebook has allowed Keisha to find like-minded people. “But I also just ask around — it’s the best way to get info on where to eat or where to hike, from locals who have their favourites. And meet-ups often include locals that ex-pats have befriended, so it’s a great mix. I’ve met some brilliant islanders. There’s a Rasta community that lives in the interior — they’ve been so welcoming, really open to telling me about their traditions and culture. I don’t think you should come to an island and stay on the beach all the time.” 

St Lucia, with its white sand beaches and lush jungle, started a 'live it' initiative which has been hugely popular.

Photograph by SLTA

Work-life balance

As the world moved from typewriter to tablet, and wi-fi crept into even its remotest corners, the number of gig-economy employees and ‘portfolio careerists’ also grew — the way we work shifted. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and that shift went up gear. Digital nomadism is no longer the preserve of Instagram influencer accounts. According to a recent YouGov survey, 68% of British employees had never worked from home prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, but once the crisis is over, four in 10 now say they want to do so. In fact, most people (57%) say they want to be able to continue working from home.

“The pandemic started discussions that weren’t taking place when we all had our noses to the grindstone,” says John Graham, who recently relocated from London to Northern Ireland. “London is the primary city of business for me, but do I need to sleep there every night? No. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all solution, though. Remote working came at the right time for me and my wife, since we’d just had a baby. Pandemic travel restrictions meant our parents, who live in Northern Ireland, could have gone a year without seeing their grandchild. We decided we didn’t want that. But things would probably have been different if I’d been younger or lived alone and needed a more social environment.”

John, who’s in his thirties, works in financial trading and his office has been closed since March 2020, with all employees working remotely. “I discussed the move with my company; transparency is needed now more than ever to retain employee-employer trust. My manager really pushed for it, and I’m so thankful she did. She felt that the opportunity to spend time with the baby, among close family, and while my wife takes a career break, was unlikely to come up again. And one of my oldest childhood friends has just done the same — he’s moved in next door to us and has a young son of his own.”

Despite the likes of Goldman Sachs CEO, David Solomon, publicly declaring remote working an “aberration”, many British companies have embraced the idea. HSBC, one of the country’s biggest employers, is planning to axe 40% of global office space. Lloyds, which has some 30 million customers in the UK, is set to cut 20% of its offices by 2023, with three-quarters of its staff keen to work from home three or more days a week. Exactly where ‘home’ is, however, remains up for grabs. 

More than 1.9 million British people could be working from abroad next year, according to research from PagoFX and YouGov. In a survey of more than 1,200 UK adults in employment, conducted between September and October 2020, 45% said they could do their job just as well from abroad while 19% said they could do so if they stayed in the same time zone. The survey also investigated what requirements British people look for in a perfect ‘work from anywhere’ destination. The top three were: a fast and reliable internet connection, access to quality medical services and warm, sunny weather.

A little closer to the UK, Avô is a scenic municipality in Coimbra, central Portugal, with a remote, off-the-beaten-track feel. 

Photograph by Alamy

Remote revolution

Tourism bodies and travel companies have been quick to capitalise on the growing interest in long-distance remote working. Anguilla, Barbados, Bermuda, Canary Islands, Cayman Islands, Croatia, Dominica, Dubai, Estonia, Iceland, Ireland, and Mauritius: the roll call of destinations that have lately created new visas welcoming visitors to work or study, from a few months up to a couple of years, grows ever longer. Likewise, resorts and hotels worldwide are tailoring offerings with long-stay working guests in mind, offering ‘workcation’ packages and rooms that double as office suites. 

“We’ve seen a surge in bookings for Airbnb-type properties,” says Tim Gunstone of bookings site, HotelPlanner. “This could indicate an emerging trend towards extended-stay telework nomadism — what some are calling the YOLO (you only live once) economy, where employees have a pent-up desire to get out of their homes and see the world, while still earning a salary.”

Original Travel, meanwhile, is refocusing some of its adventurous trips for this growing demographic with ‘working from home from abroad’ offerings that include such tempting spots as Paris, the Maldives and Indonesia.

With its relatively low rates of Covid-19, outdoors living and a wide choice of work-stay visas, the Caribbean is proving popular with British remote workers. Taking advantage of St Lucia’s ‘live it’ initiative for extended stays, are Jason and Heena Cornwell, a couple in their thirties who’d been on a Latin American overlanding trip travelling in Colombia when lockdown happened in 2020. 

“If you had to get stuck, that’s the place,” laughs Jason. “But we were getting itchy feet. Once borders opened, we booked the first flight out, to St Vincent, which got cancelled the day before. With our bags already packed, we got the next available flight, which happened to be to St Lucia.” 

The couple stayed from October to December, returning to the UK for Christmas, but having loved the island, went back to St Lucia in early 2021. “The companies we work with, UK-based nonprofits, have been really supportive,” says Heena. “Office hours vary, but we try to align ourselves to UK time, starting at 6am and ending early afternoon. Perhaps because of our backgrounds — Jason is British-Mauritian and I was born in India but moved to the UK in my early twenties — we’re interested in learning about different cultures. So, it was important for us to have time to get out and really explore the island. We’ve learnt all about local sea moss farming, had a tour with a mural artist, found out about an incredible local bakery and stayed at Balenbouche, an eco-cottage conversion of an old sugar plantation.” 

Introductions made by locals and recommendations from friendly locals and ex-pats helped the couple line up these experiences. “You need to be confident,” says Jason, “go into local restaurants to chat to people — and that’s always where the best food is anyway.” The couple has decided to continue remote working while building their online resource for like-minded globetrotters, confusionofcultures.com. “Having worked for nonprofits, we’d like to take it further and use our skills to develop sustainable tourism initiatives with island businesses,” says Heena.

Life on the road, it seems, can take you in directions you never expected. In early 2020, Tom Bainbridge and Alison Melvin, a couple in their fifties, set off from London on a six-week European road trip in a specially converted van. “We wanted to stay on wild coastlines and hilltops where there’s nothing, so we needed to be self-sufficient and comfortable,” says Tom. And then lockdown happened. “Borders were closing pretty much just after we went through them each time,” he says. “But we were more than happy in the van.” The couple got as far as Portugal before parking up and staying put. “I run my own business, as a lawyer, so I had an understanding boss,” laughs Tom. “I worked in the van with solar panels for power, filling up the water tank every couple of days, using an MIFI box for internet connection for Zoom meetings. We had a proper bed. We couldn’t have been better set up, really. Ali is a yoga teacher and managed to start giving classes online.”

Home is now a dilapidated farm building in a remote part of rural Coimbra that the couple have decided to renovate. “It was land that my late husband and I had bought years ago,” says Alison. “I was intending to sell it, thinking it was madness to do anything else. But here we are! And we’ve learnt so much, not just Portuguese (we’re taking lessons online, and from our builder; we have a very odd vocabulary of technical construction terms), but also what matters in life. It’s about jumping in at the deep end and totally committing to wherever you are.” 

Once lockdown is over, the couple will set off again, to explore the Iberian peninsula. “Living in the camper showed me that you can do a lot more with much less,” says Alison. “We only packed for a few weeks and have survived with the small bags we took away. All that stuff in our two flats back home? We don’t miss any of it.”  

Don’t leave home without…
 

1. Buying travel insurance
All our interviewees said they wouldn’t have done without it, and that while it was a little more expensive due to pandemic, most policies were no more difficult to set up than usual and covered most eventualities, even during a pandemic.

2. Being bank smart
Unless you decide to stay long term, like most remote workers you’ll likely keep banking at home. Consider opening an account with companies such as Monzo or Starling, which don’t charge for foreign transactions or withdrawals.

3. Talking to your employer
Trust is key to successful business relationships, so be clear about your intentions to work overseas, not least as it might have tax, insurance, business licence or data protection implications for both you and the company you work for.

4. Getting advice from an accountant
Those temporarily working abroad and employed by a UK company will pay tax as usual through PAYE, and the self-employed will still need to declare their income as usual, regardless of whether that income has been generated in the UK or overseas. However, as every country has different tax rules, it’s best to seek the advice of an accountant.

5. Checking current travel restrictions
During the pandemic, ensure that you’re allowed into your destination, and check if there are any test, vaccination or quarantine requirements for entry. If quarantine is up to two weeks, in a government-provided hotel, and you’re away for only a month or so, your destination choice might start to look less attractive.

6. Assessing rental income
If you own a property and are renting it out while you are away, you’ll need to file a self-assessment tax return. Tax will be due only if your total untaxed UK income exceeds £12,500 during the financial year.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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