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I chased the work-from-home dream -- and ended up in Tasmania

Even popes need time out. Picture: Getty Images

Before I go any further, here’s a bit of an eye-opening chart:

That’s the clear finding from the latest Labour Market Outlook from, the world’s largest job site, which is saying a lot of Aussies have clearly had a gutfull of trekking into work.

It is, almost literally, off the chart. An increase of more than five times the global average in the past two years.

It could correlate with any number of factors. Technology, particularly of the collaborative kind. Or lazy Gen Xers finally getting around to having kids at just the time they’re shifting into “highly skilled” phase which allows them to consider such things.

It certainly corresponds with rising house prices pushing prospective home buyers to search further away from the CBD, where they may have discovered reasonable prices for startlingly large homes and actual, real “green space”.

If only they could kill that commute…

Because wouldn’t it be nice to work from a couple of acres, maybe with a creek (not too far away from the shops, mind), room for the dog, kids, a veggie patch and a ridiculously oversized verandah?

No neighbours, so you can do a bit of shouting when required. Some nudity, maybe.

I thought so, anyway.

Let’s do it.

This is Tasmania’s second biggest city, Launceston:

Picture: Darren Grattidge

It sits at a conjunction of three rivers roughly equidistant from the state’s north-east, north-west and southern population centres.

It’s notable for some gorgeous architecture, loads of trees, an incredible natural gorge attraction within walking distance of the CBD and proper pubs with solid, cheap fare and real bars you can stand at while enjoying one of the country’s finest local beers.

It’s also not Sydney.

That might sound ridiculous, but it’s actually very, very important, because when I dragged my family here a year ago, we knew exactly where we were heading and what it entailed for us.

I was born in and spent my first 20-odd years on a farm in northern Tasmania. It was nearly half an hour to Launceston, but trips to town were so rare, all I wanted to do when I got there was to visit Myer so I could ride the elevator. Whoopin’ an’ hollerin’.

Outside of school – which was an hour bus trip – my only human contact was the odd beating I got from my elder brother. My days were filled with things like walking up to the back paddocks to see if they’d changed with the passage of time, and cricket.

Easily entertained, is what I guess I’m trying to say. That is also very, very important.

In 2003, I got out. Money lured me to Canberra and a couple of years later after a bit of job-hopping, we found ourselves in a tiny two-bedder in Sydney with a one-year-old boy and another on the way.

Around the end of 2006, I started reading my news online and it immediately dawned on me that all I really needed for a career was a computer and an internet connection.

Yes, I absolutely started planning this move 10 years ago, although at the time, I thought I could free myself from the city and, ugh, people, within a year.



Seven years later. We’d made a life out of the city (an hour and a bit down the coast), but the commute in to work in the city still sucked and I couldn’t deal with the fact I was out of my home for 12 hours and only getting paid for eight.

In case you hadn’t realised, I’m an online journalist. That has its cons, but they’re far outweighed by the pros, one of which meant that a few strategic moves had me phasing my office life into my home life. Yes, I’d do the night work, as long as the weekend components were from home.

That gave me the chance to prove I could be trusted to work “alone”, which is crucial. If you get that chance, don’t stuff it up. I like to think I eventually got the full-time work-from-home gig because I worked damned hard from home.

Building a little office is also essential. Much to the kids’ dismay, I opted for their cubby house, and eventually had to build them a treehouse to seal the deal.

Despite a massive mortgage, life was generally pretty good for a couple of years. The reality was a lot of the pressure was being soaked up by my hot genius wife, whose home-grown consultancy covered the bills while I handled the cakes, lawns and school pick-ups.

That’s another thing you need to know about working from home. You’re expected to be part of home life too. That’s only fair.

You might actually be a bit shocked as to how much more tired you’ll be when you get around to bed, without that luxury of a couple of hours of uninterrupted Me Time on the train to read a book or watch a few episodes of GoT.

For a couple of years, a larger backyard and home office were perfect. But there were three chief concerns looming fast:

  • School. We didn’t necessarily want to go private for the boys; we just wanted better than their tiny, resource-strapped – albeit delightful – school could provide.
  • Family. We’d spent 10 years calling it in from Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland. Too much.
  • Land. The produce was getting either increasingly appalling, or increasingly expensive. We wanted food security, and we wanted to lock something away that we could live off a) if we had to and b) because we wanted to.

And we wanted our kids to know that life was not all beaches and Minecraft. As awesome as that sounds now, looking back on it.

January 17-26, 2015

The transition was easy. Easier, admittedly, than it might be for just about anyone else shifting out of Sydney.

We knew which school we wanted the kids in, mainly because it was the school I’d always dreamed of attending when I was their age. We knocked on the door and the wait time to get into one of Tasmania’s premier private schools was about as long as it took to fill out the forms.

We had a family house to shift straight into, but even if we didn’t, there were about a dozen homes – proper ones, with back yards – within a 10 minute walk to the school on the rental market.

About three months in, we had our offer accepted on exactly the bit of land we came to Tasmania to buy. Except we didn’t just buy “a bit of land” for the kids to go mad on. We bought 128 acres.

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

And on that 128 acres were about 2100 apple trees and 400 pear trees. Two of the biggest sheds I’ve ever seen. A backhoe, forklift, tractor, sprayer, spreaders, dics, a rotavator, slasher, an old-time service station fuel bowser and tank and about a thousand spanners. And a walk-in coolroom.

So, the money.

I hate talking about my personal finances only slightly less than I hate hearing about yours.

Yet at some stage in the past 10 or so years, it’s become acceptable for people to ask me what I paid for my property, or how much I made off it.

It’s vulgar. We never used to do that, Australians, and I hope we wean ourselves off the habit again once everyone’s satisfied they’ve made as much in the boom as their friends have and we can get back to talking about the cricket.

Unfortunately, there’s no avoiding talking about the money here though, because a) this is a business website, after all, and b) this whole adventure wouldn’t have happened if money were no consideration for us.

So no details, but here’s a rough guide. For the median price of a Sydney house, we moved, bought a farm on the Tamar River 15 minutes out of Launceston, and will send all three of our boys to a fantastic private school for a combined total of 25 years.

You do the math. And do it keeping in mind we paid about twice the median price for a house in Tasmania.

What happened next

We’ve been here a year to the week, and it’s pretty obvious we did the right thing.

In one week, we’ll start selling the first of our apple crop, and there will be more about that when it happens.

And there’s one exception – we managed to buy perhaps the only house in the suburb not only without an NBN connection to the home (Tasmanian benefits), but no ADSL connection at all.

Apparently, the dear elderly couple who owned the house before us ticked the “opt out” box when fibre-optic was being rolled out last century.

Oh, we had an NBN wifi tower, agonisingly within sight of my office, but while it had been physically standing for a year, it would do so inactively for another year until someone found the paperwork giving them the right to flick the On switch. Torture.

I got through for six months on an air card before the ADSL man could find some time for me.

So first, here are the other negatives about chasing your work-from-home dream:

For starters, if you’re a man, it’s still broadly considered something of a career-killer.

Clearly, the thinking is changing on that, but for now, it’s best not to pretend that you’ll be taken as seriously at work as the people who actually front up for the office. Whether it’s fair or not, you’re waiving your right to be considered embedded in office culture.

Just keep in mind that nothing is permanent and if you have to head back into the city to rescue things, at least you tried. Life is not a dress rehearsal, as a clever friend once told me.

If you’re on a farm, sometimes work just has to wait:

And again, it’s not Sydney. It’s not Melbourne, not Adelaide, not even Wollongong. Dare I say it, it’s barely Canberra.

If you’re a city person, don’t even consider this. If you live for…

  • coffee
  • $700 a meal international chefs
  • after work drinks
  • cheap, convenient public transport
  • retail options that aren’t online
  • climbing any kind of corporate ladder
  • lots of other people
  • sports
  • shows
  • variety
  • Snapchats
  • pub conversation with modern sensibilities, and
  • anything or anyone that visits from overseas

…you’re in the wrong place.

And before any angry Tasmanians start writing in with their real biros, I don’t see any negatives jumping out at me from the list above, and neither should they.

How’s the work-from-home thing going?

I’m glad you asked. That’s what we’re here for, after all, to gauge whether anyone absolutely needs to commute to an office, in a city somewhere.

Of course they do. Loads of people do. Think about it – retail alone is a $24 billion industry in Australia, and those customers won’t serve themselves. (Until they do, online.) Nearly 1 million workers in Sydney alone simply have to be on premises in retail, warehousing and hospitality jobs.

But there’s a rapidly expanding workforce of paper-pushers, professionals, artists, designers – anyone who simply uses an office as a place to sit in front of a computer for nine hours a day – who don’t have to be there if they’d prefer their morning break to consist of a brisk walk up to the back paddock:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

Collaborative software is a remarkable thing, these days. Group conversations running all day in HipChat can actually get so animated as to make you less productive than if you were stuck back in the old cubicle.

FaceTime is as face-to-face as it gets.

But there’s at least one day a week where I miss people, all with their muffins and gossip and smoke breaks and rest of their bodies. Things you just can’t replicate online.

Those you just have to suck up and focus on the benefits the other four days bring.

Was it difficult?

That’s the question I’m asked most of all when I’m back in Sydney.

Honestly, it’s gone a lot smoother than I anticipated, but not having to find another job on arrival played a large part in that.

If your work is transportable – and you can pass on all the things above – you’re unlikely to regret a move to Tasmania, or anywhere that saves you devoting the rest of your days to paying down a monumental mortgage.

But here’s what you’ll find in Tassie.

You’ll see a lot more of your kids. A 20 minute commute has put us far enough out of Launceston to be able to set them free on 128 acres of rolling hills, bush, creek, sheds and apple trees. It is every bit as idyllic as it sounds, including the fact that there’s still a KFC about 90 seconds away. Yes, I’m that shallow – a couple of weak-willed days a year.

There is no more crawling home through traffic or being stranded on a train, arriving just in time for a bedtime story. Or worse, the apologetic hug after they’ve already nodded off.

You’ll eat better. Despite the proximity of the Colonel, and not because the food’s actually any better – Launceston has Woolworths and Coles as well. But the farm/fishing boat-to-table produce is just so much more accessible, and in many instances, actually cheaper than the warehouse/coolroom stuff. Here’s 10kg of pure honey I just bought from my brother’s mate for $75:

That ironbark on the right is the business.

A leg of deer I swapped for letting some shooters access the bush across my property:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

Barter can be a beautiful thing and it’s still in full swing in Tasmania.

On that, there seems to be no such thing as a middle man. Surely, half of Tassie’s economy is cash only. There doesn’t seem to be anything you can’t buy from a mate, or mate of a mate.

And there is a standard rate for a tradie callout – $50.

“How much to take the hot water cyclinder out?” “Ohh, $50?”

“How much to wire in the stove?” “$50 should do it.”

If it’s not 50 bucks, it’s a carton. Of Boag’s of course. Of which you get to drink the iconic XXX:

You’ll never be stuck for something to do on the weekend and it probably won’t cost you a lot more than petrol.

How many “mini-breaks” have you enjoyed getting out of Sydney, only to have all that stress wash back in when you find yourself stuck for three hours trying to get back in off the M1 with all the other mini-breakers early Sunday evening?

Drive for three hours in Tasmania and if you’re careful, you won’t end up in the ocean. Launceston, in particular, is 90 minutes from several stunning World Heritage forests, an entire highland lakes system, two of the world’s top 20 public golf courses and scotch distilleries, miles of deserted, stunning white sand beach and hundreds of acres of award-winning pinot, chardonnay, gris and sparkling.

You’ll never be stuck in traffic. There’s a 10-minute window getting in and out of Launceston – around 8.40am and 5.15pm – where you might have to sit through a green light. Oddly enough, Tasmanians are still some of the angriest ants on the road, and they will never, ever let you in. Don’t even try it.

You don’t get sick so often, because you’re not sharing germs with 50 other people. You’re not responsible for wiping out half of your own workforce.

And even if you do wake up with a sniffle, you just sit down and carry on because, well, it’s not like the day’s going to go any faster while you’re lying in bed.

Productivity. There it is again.

Is it for you?

First of all, we’re not committed to this for the rest of our lives. Maybe not even for five years. It’s simply a moment in time for us where we wanted to spend as much of it as possible with our kids while they can still stand to be around us, and give them the kind of education that we feel will suit them best.

When these times change and the office calls again, we’ll be ready for that, too, mainly because we now know it’s possible to switch in and out.

This is my favourite photo of our “adventure”:

Real people – overrated.

That’s my wife liasing with clients in several states for her “real job” while selling the odd kilo of apples to the odd customer wandering in off the highway.

Yes, there’s great chance your wage will take a hit as part of negotiating your home office job. But if you’re patient and up for a new challenge, you might find a way to use those couple of extra hours a day topping up with a small side venture.

My feeling has always been if you only have one house, it should be your home. Not “all you can afford” in the city or “an investment” – that’s the next level. If your dream is to own a home away from the city, it is entirely possible to not let work get in the way of that.

Get your home right, and productivity – of a kind – will follow. I like to think of that as a benefit for my employer.

But most importantly, at this stage in our lives, it’s a huge benefit for our family.

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