After putting the finishing touches on our newly renovated, 2004 Sprinter van, my partner and I set off to see if the “digital nomad” lifestyle was as attainable as the influencers on Instagram make it appear. The short answer? It’s not. But with a supportive employer, preparation, and a little luck, following your personal passion while pursuing your career is entirely possible.
We often see social media influencers post highlight reels of their lives without showing the hard work and preparation it takes to get there. Suddenly, they’re bathing in a hot spring, descending down a cave wall, or posting a selfie while they answer emails from a beach at sunset. But over the past nine months on the road pursuing an insatiable thirst for new rock faces to climb, I’ve come to appreciate and celebrate the hard work that goes into maintaining a nomadic lifestyle.
When a colleague or friend sees an Instagram story where I’m camped in the wilderness during what should be a workday, I often get the question, “How do you make it work?” Almost always, they ask another question after I tell them how it’s possible. “Do you think I could do it, too?”
Does a work-from-anywhere policy apply to a van on a mountainside?
My partner and I became avid climbers only six years ago. The first time we scaled a mountain together was in 2019. But I never thought I’d be able to integrate my passion for climbing into my life at the scale that would truly make me happy while also pursuing a career. I’d often scroll through social media during my lunch break and see people working from idyllic beach towns and blissful mountainsides. What’s their secret?
The company I work at, Aiven, has provided its employees with a high level of flexibility even before the pandemic demanded it. Headquartered in Helsinki and with hubs in Berlin, Boston, Paris, Toronto, Sydney, and Singapore, Aiven has always allowed its employees to work in a remote or hybrid environment under its flexible work policy. But it was the onset of the pandemic that made me wonder if the policy extends to working in a cliffside van. It says anywhere, right?
A longtime dream of mine was to turn a van into a place I could live, travel, and work from. If now wasn’t the right time to do this, I wasn’t sure when would be. But before we got ahead of ourselves, we ran the idea by our families and colleagues. When I explained the idea out loud for the first time, I was surprised by the reactions I received—no judgment, only support. And questions. “Is this a thing that people actually do?” “How will you access Wi-Fi on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere?” All of the questions were valid, but I knew we could figure it out.
Dozens of YouTube tutorials and months of planning later, we turned a 16-year-old van into what would soon become our home. In hindsight, it was naive to think we could accomplish this in just a few months considering our lack of experience renovating vans. In reality, it took about a year. But we had electricity, plumbing, a kitchen, a bed, and an admirable work-from-home setup.
Three things I wish I knew before becoming a digital nomad
The lifestyle we adopted is full of adventure and challenges. We’ve traveled to more than seven countries, met dozens of fellow climbers, and neither of us had to sacrifice our careers to do it. Regardless, the digital nomad lifestyle isn’t always picture-perfect.
The biggest stressors in my life shifted from work-related matters to basic human needs. Will we have enough water? Will there be enough sunlight to fuel the electricity? When you’re focused on challenges like these, how do you keep your work responsibilities top of mind? And what do you do when Mother Nature gets in the way?
While the obstacles we’ve overcome are worth it, there are a few tips you should consider if you’re contemplating the digital nomad life.
- Be transparent: There was a full year in between the time I told my coworkers about my plans and the time I embarked on my first trip. This gave them time to adjust to and accept the idea, as well as untangle some of the potential issues that may arise while I’m on the road. Fortunately, Aiven’s existing policies made it easier to figure out the details, but it also helped to have a strong plan in place with some of the specifics figured out before speaking with my team.
- Leave time to prepare: People living a digital nomad life are much more likely to show you their beautiful work-from-home view than tell you about the preparation involved to get there. Depending on the types of trips you take, you need the right supplies—and enough of them. Aside from food and water, it’s critical to have electricity, batteries, and a place to set up camp each night. Research thoroughly before a trip to avoid forgetting important supplies or details. One morning I ran out of battery during a meeting, and it’s safe to say I learned my lesson. Also, after several instances of car troubles that led to last-minute hotel stays, I recommend investing in a reliable vehicle.
- Prioritize your workspace: Two people working from one space isn’t an ideal setup. But with noise-canceling headphones and thorough communication with my partner about our schedules, it was possible. No matter where you work, you need a functional workspace, which was a top priority throughout the renovation process. We spent weeks taking measurements and building a setup that was usable and comfortable.
As someone who has taken this journey, I urge C-suite leaders around the globe to understand the power of encouraging employees to pursue their personal passions. Having this level of flexibility is the key to staying motivated and giving your best to the company. Especially during such a disruptive time in our lives, the support and freedom Aiven has provided me are better than any traditional corporate benefit.
Most people wait years to take their trip-of-a-lifetime—if at all. The ability to combine my passion and my career has brought joy and simplicity into my life that has made me an even harder worker. It may sound trite, but doing what you love leads to happiness, and a happy employee often means excellent work.
Laura Tiensuu is the marketing data & analytics manager at Aiven. Follow on Instagram @laksaaa