Making a Working Sabbatical Work Part 1: Space, Time & Clients / by Julie Schumacher

Hello from Alsegrund, the 9th District of Vienna!

Outside the Palais Lichtenstein, down the street from our apartment.

Outside the Palais Lichtenstein, down the street from our apartment.

That's our daughter, a-twirling the day after we arrived in mid-June.

Over the course of seven years, my husband and I have taken five working sabbaticals, relocating to a new city for a month while still working. We're both independent creatives (he builds websites, I write) and we take our kiddo, now six, with us. We've done international trips (Iceland, France, and New Zealand) as well as domestic adventures (San Francisco, Washington DC).

We get a lot of questions on how we do it (and a few on why) so I thought I'd share a bit with my favorite creative community.

With the more frequently asked questions, we tried to group them in ways that make sense. If you have another question, leave it in the comments, and I'm happy be answer whatever I can!

Managing Productivity

Workspaces, Times Zones, Motivation

First, folks tend to ask about logistics. Three pieces that pop up when we talk about the day-to-day include where we work, when we work and, quite emphatically, how the hell we work. 

You Asked: Where do we manage to work?
We seek out apartments, houses or yurts (just kidding, we've stayed in a yurt but not during a working part of our vacation!) that have some kind of dedicated workspace, even if it's less than perfect. In DC, that meant a small dining room table but the kid was out of the house. In San Francisco and New Zealand, the homes had a dedicated office. Here in Vienna there's a desk in a third bedroom that tends to stay cool (we're in the middle of a heatwave) but I'm totally working at the dining room table a buncha days. Our daughter is used to parents who work from home so piles of cables or laptops out are generally respected by her tiny hands. 

The light in this place is cuckoo.

The light in this place is cuckoo.

We have nixed plenty of houses because of the lack of a workspace. AirBnB has a "laptop friendly workspace" amenity filter, I suggest you eyeball those photos carefully. Ask questions, too. Most owners are happy to be honest before you book to avoid a negative review.

And, yes, coffee shops exist almost everywhere. Cafês are great but not every country is Starbucks USA. In Vienna you are welcome to spend the day nursing a cup of coffee but plugs are in high demand. 

Now, if we didn't have a kid and needed to be productive out of a smaller apartment/house during the day, I cannot recommend coworking spaces enough. You can connect with locals, get shit done and feel like a part of the community. (PS: Full disclosure, I write for them but Deskpass is an awesome flexible option if you are trying out working in LA, NYC, Chicago or Denver.)

You Asked: How the heck can you be motivated to work when you are in ____________?!

I know, right? Who wants to work in Paris!? Or anywhere, ever, really? So we've got the workspace sorted and now we need to, you know, work.

For starters, in some ways it's easier. Being some place pretty can be good for your creativity. Talk about busting up your usual yoga pants / couch experience. At least for yoga pants on a foreign couch.

In an ideal world, we'd be fabulously wealthy and not ever need to work. Since we do need to work, we spend a good chunk of time planning out how to eek the most out of our time. We leverage time zones to take afternoons or days off. We work nights and sometimes crazy early morning.

We're both wired to be high achievers and pleasers, and while there are times that's exhausting and frustrating, it also makes us very good at being independent, wherever we are. We maintain deep respect for each other's work. I have a call, he is happy to do bedtime. If he was up late, I'm happy to run interference with a chatty kid in the morning.

Hanging out at Palmenhaus so dad can take a standing weekly work check-in.

Hanging out at Palmenhaus so dad can take a standing weekly work check-in.

A kid! Having a kid means we're not out at night most of the time, it often lines up with mornings or afternoons at home and as I told one friend, wanting to do all the things makes being insanely productive a must during the hours I got.

In part, it's why the month makes sense. Over the course of a glorious 28 days we do way more (beyond night culture) than we'd likely fit in in a week, whether because of jet lag or weather or whatever. 

On the way to Schönbrunn Palace as a family.

On the way to Schönbrunn Palace as a family.

And, we take a full week or more off at the end. This year we're driving through Austria down to Venice, across Slovenia and back. That alone is a dream trip. This month is a dream trip. I know working lets these trips happen, so I'm happy to make work happen.

Most of the time I work a tad in the early morning and a good chunk at night. Brett's a developer and having unbroken blocks of time is more helpful for him. Still, I like a good chunk of hours too.

We've worked it out so that I have a full day on Wednesdays to work with no one else home. I move around a ton in the apartment, the back room is cool in the mornings, the light-filled living room great in the afternoons as the sun moves to the back of the building.

I wrote about how we schedule our days and nights on our family blog if you want a more detailed breakdown of days and nights.

You asked: How do we navigate time zones?

Right, now that we can and want to work, how do we do it when it's daytime there and nighttime here (wherever here and there are).

More and more this is something folks are navigating all the time if they run any kind of service-oriented studio or consultancy with more than a local reach.

I work on one all-remote team with members across the continental US. While we were in New Zealand, we had a client in Hawaii. While I was in DC, we had (and continue to work with) a client in France. 

I feel like most weeks I'm coping with time zones already. Anyone else?

Still, yes, I get it. I'm not working 8 hours a day at the time zone I usually am. And that can trip folks up, me included.

Easier to be available on Slack at night with al fresco + view vibes.

Easier to be available on Slack at night with al fresco + view vibes.

One of two things helps.

First, I set times when I am available for calls. Here it's M-F, 10-4 CDT. I've always been a night owl (and a morning owl, I just don't get/need a ton of sleep all the time). That's a pretty wide swath of Chicago's work day and includes East and West Coast reasonable times.

Two, and related, I'm trying Calendly this summer to book calls. That way I can block days out if I know I have a writing thing I need to focus on or we've booked something for the night. (I'll be sharing more awesome tools next post).

And there's a third thing. I just flex. If someone really wanted a 8 am call Chicago time, Brett and I can figure it out. If someone wanted an 8 pm call, I'd figure it out. Exceptions are just that, the once in a while-s we do to have the most of time-s. I've done 4 am conference calls in the foyer of our apartment in Auckland. Because when it was done, I was still in Auckland and it was awesome.

Managing PEOPLE

Talking & working with Clients while away

So, now you know it's possible to get work done in a foreign land. It really is! But those other people...clients...do they get it? How does it work with them? 

This seems to be the source of the most it'll-never-work anxiety.

Thus far, I've had really, really limited negative impact from our trips. I think there is one project in seven years that I had to pass on because I wasn't sure if it would be a great fit.

In part, it's because we're already pretty choosey about work. I don't typically work extended onsite engagement as is, Brett rarely does. So being remote isn't something that is a huge hurdle for us or our clients. It's more the normal stroll we're on together. 

You Asked: How do you tell them you are going?

I'm not going to prison. So, I kinda just do? As a project starts if it falls during the trip I let the organizer or project manager know. If a project is slow and delayed (that never happens, right?) I give a head's up with a reminder that it's not a big deal. Because it's not.

We've both built great relationships with our collaborators and clients (see high achiever / pleaser above). So for ongoing projects and collaborations it's part of the larger conversation.

For the most part, clients and collaborative have responded not only positively but enthusiastically and usually (dare I admit) with some envy.

I do have some who wish me a wonderful, extended vacation. I have to remind them I'm working, which is not what I expected to have to do. The most impactful pieces of the trips to date has been reminding clients I'm not unavailable. I'm here! Let's do this!

You Asked: How do you manage them once you are there?

First, I add all the timezones for Chicago and for all the people in various places for project into my phone. I really should to that all the time.

Then, I do things in the exact same way I do at home. Open, honest communication. A dash of humor. And then I meet every damn deadline.

We have a kid, she gets sick. Things come up. Life is messy. Being a responsible and reliable independent is essential wherever I am.

If it's someone I've worked with before, they're aware of the trip as soon as we book tickets since I tell them first the week I'll be offline at the end and then remind them the month before I'll be available, but away.

If it's a new potential client I frame things accurately and set expectations. I offer the caveat that if an in-person is essential, I can start on X date. Again, I've never had someone pass that I can think of. That may be because folks are flexible or because so much of my work comes through referrals.

I also back up what I say I can do with third party proof. Often I can reference that the person referring me collaborated with me while I was abroad and can share how it worked for them. Or I have a handful of folks who I know I can ask to speak on my behalf wherever I am when a project starts.

Then, it's business as usual.

Here in Vienna I can take a call with some advanced notice anytime between 5 and 11 or 11:30 pm, earlier or later too if need be, and everyday Monday-Thursday. I've had folks with way less availability than that stateside so I feel good offering a pretty big window most days of the week. 

If I can manage a jet lagged 6 year old, I can manage clients.

If I can manage a jet lagged 6 year old, I can manage clients.

The schedule changes with each trip, in New Zealand calls tended to be super early morning or post bedtime. But, seriously, things just work out. There's always some overlap of times.

To be honest, I found navigating part time childcare at home with a toddler way trickier and less "acceptable." If there's an emergency on either of our ends, we blow up that schedule I mentioned and figure things out just like we do at home.

Now, I don't deal, not does my hubs really, in physical products with warehouses or expiration dates.We don't have employees. Or pets. I own that that makes things easier in some ways. I'm sure there are smart ways to build teams and have helpers and assistants and in some ways that may make product-based independent traveler super duper possible. 

I just kind of think it's all possible. In the exact way you want with no compromises? Ha, no. But in a fantastic way that fuels your ability and desire to work independently or with flexible companies that support employees developing as cooler humans? Sure, sure..

What About TOOLS & MONEY?

I feel ya. Next post, I'll be sharing the tools we use on the regular as well as some of the things we do financially to make it work. No smoke and mirrors, no trust funds. Just lots and lots and lots of planning and conversation.

Till then:
If you want to read more from our trips, head over to We Made This Ourselves, our blog.
If you want to see more from our trips, head over to Instagram.
We're in Prague this weekend so I'll be sharing some of the highlights on Stories and then recapping on the blog.

And, again, ask questions! I am a zealot about very few things. Figuring out how to travel on your own terms is one of them. I'm always happy to try to help folks figure their paths out.

At the Globe Museum planning future journeys.

At the Globe Museum planning future journeys.