A developer who started working over 4,000 miles away from his office explains what it takes to succeed at a distance

Courtesy of Ben SchmidtkeBen Schmidtke backpacking in the Condoriri mountains in Bolivia.

Mornings are pretty standard for Ben Schmidtke: He wakes up, checks his email, showers, and heads to work between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. 

However, he’s waking up in Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, or Peru. Right now, it’s Prague. For him, “work” is a remote workspace operated by Remote Year, a program that shepherds 100 remote and freelance workers around the world. Most of the emails in his inbox are from his office, more than 4,500 miles away in Chicago.

“Probably for the last two or three years I have wanted to figure out how to work remotely, but there wasn’t a definition of what that was,” he tells Business Insider.

When the opportunity arose to join Remote Year for its second trip, which left the US for South America in February, 37-year-old Schmidtke got on board. 

He’d been with his employer, enterprise company Digital Primates, for about seven years, and was fortunate that it already offered a flexible work schedule: “core hours,” which require employees to be present in the office between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. but work the rest of the day according to when they’re most productive, and a one-day-a-week “work from anywhere” policy.

Of course, in Schmidtke’s case, “anywhere” would be another continent. 

Once he secured permission to go (“the biggest concerns were tax consequences”), Schmidtke packed everything into storage in Chicago and set off for Montevideo, Uruguay with about 75 other remote travelling workers.

He’s about halfway through his adventure, and says he has a routine. “I know a couple things about myself when it comes to working,” he explains. “I know I don’t like to mix my work and personal environments, so I don’t want to work out of my hotel room or where I’m living. I also know it’s important for me to maintain a schedule. I wake up, go to work, put in 8-10 hours in the workspace, close my laptop, and go about my day doing whatever it is, whether that’s exploring the area or working on a personal side project.”

He’s a senior developer and consultant and is currently working with a client in the same time zone, which simplifies his schedule. When he was in Montevideo, before daylight savings time, he was three hours ahead of his clients and by heading into the office at 7 a.m., he could secure three solid hours of work before his clients got online. So far, he’s found international communication to be simple — barring the occasional internet problem in a new workspace — and has his calls forwarded from his desk in Chicago to Skype.

So far, he’s found that by sticking to his schedule, he’s been able to produce the same quality of work he had in Chicago. “I know that I need to hold myself accountable,” he says. “I really love what I do and the company I work for and I want to maintain that relationship with my employer and not become lax or lazy. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, ‘I’m going to take the day off and go exploring.'”

That’s not to say that Schmidtke isn’t taking advantage of the “remote” part of his remote work. While the group was based in Buenos Aires, he took a nine-day backpacking trip in Chile. After work on a standard weeknight, he might explore the group’s current city and check out some of the local restaurants.

And he’s learned about himself along the way. Three months in, there was a shift, he explains, “for people who are very self-aware, that glossy romanticism of coming on Remote Year is beginning to wane — now people are really having to start to ask why are they here.”

For him, he reflects, “I know I can do my job remotely now. I’ve proved I can maintain the relationship I have with my company and clients and still produce the same quality work. I can live in a country where I don’t know the language and get by.”

While he caveats that he can’t speak for everyone, Schmidtke says transitioning from in-office work to remote work requires conviction, determination, and focus on your job. “Somebody needs to have a certain amount of hustle in them if they’re going to excel,” he explains. “I think about it like, if I was my own employee, how would I behave? Is what I’m doing technically and morally good?”

And when it comes down to it, he adds, sticking to a schedule is different when it’s one you’ve set yourself. “I like it as opposed to going into the office and having a schedule imposed on me,” he says. This is a little more laid back — they know when I’m working and I have to sign in on Skype — but the experience is a little different, and subconsciously, it affect you a little differently.”

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