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Technology Enables the Long Distance Commute

Technology Enables the Long Distance Commute

airplaneThe Boston Globe carried a story in its business section today that really resonated with me: “No-Move Moves.” Katie Johnston Chase writes about several senior corporate executives who work at companies hundreds or thousands of miles away from their home and family.

While I’m not the CEO of a company with tens of thousands of employees as some in the article are, I do live 500 or so miles from my office and spend part of each week on the road. Many of the experiences described by Ms. Chase — like becoming friends with hotel staff — absolutely ring true. Gerald Fine, CEO of Schott North America, put it well:

“It’s a lonely life on the road, and there are a lot of people having that life, so there’s a sort of camaraderie in it.’’

For much of the past decade I have found myself traveling on a weekly or near-weekly basis. That’s because I choose to live with my wife and children in New Hampshire, but the needs of the companies I have founded or worked for demand my presence in other places. Washington, DC, in particular has been a frequent destination for me. I lived there for much of the 1990’s and have done a lot of business there since. As Chief Digital Officer at DCI Group in our nation’s capital, I’m there almost every week for a few days.

Technology is the Enabler

Technology makes this possible. Indeed, it is even easier today to live hundreds of miles from one’s office than it was when I started out on this path more than ten years ago. More and more people are taking advantage of electronic gadgets, high-speed Internet connectivity, and other tools to achieve a unique kind of work-life balance.

It has become increasingly possible to work from virtually anywhere. In fact, except for in-person meetings, even my own team often doesn’t know exactly where I am when they reach me via email or my find-me-anywhere telephone number. My productivity is high whether in the office or on the road, although the type of productivity is very different. In the office, it is much more interactive while when working from New Hampshire it is much more head-down solo tasks.

Plenty of Pitfalls

Others often look at me with envy when they hear of the arrangement I have. There’s a tendency to glamorize the notion of the 500 mile commute. They see it as having the best of both worlds; in some respects, that’s true. I have the opportunity to work hard and play hard when on the road, and I get to provide a good home environment for my family and spend quality time back in New Hampshire with them for half the week.

But that half a week or more than I am on the road can be challenging for everyone. At home, my wife no doubt feels like a single mom, trying to deal with taking care of the children — everything from ferrying them to school and events to enforcing discipline. I miss things that I want to be at (or ought to be at) like school functions, my kids’ games, and more. I’m often on the road for birthdays and other milestone events.

Beyond the home front, there are other challenges. On the road, life can be lonely. I have had countless meals alone at a bar — not because I don’t believe in the “Never Eat Alone” concept but because some nights I just don’t feel like networking. The road lacks many of the comforts of home. There’s no porch to enjoy a nice summer evening, or a favorite chair to sit back and read a book in. One of the side effects to eating out every meal and scheduling too many meetings is that the road is a good place to put on pounds. That’s something that has plagued me over the years, and I need to actively combat it.

I have found substitutes, of course. I call home daily to get a taste of home and trade stories of the day with my wife and kids. I have befriended bartenders and other hospitality staff in cities like Washington and New York that a I frequent most often. But it’s not all sunshine and roses.

Gerald Fine nailed it when he told the reporter: “Anybody who told you they enjoyed it is sick.”

Achieving Balance in the Long Distance Commute

I’m hardly an expert in providing advice on work-life balance, but I do have a few tips from my decade of work on the road.

  • Find Familiar Places and Faces on the Road. Visiting the same hotels and restaurants regularly helps make you part of the “family” in many places. It makes it feel a bit less like you’re yet another nameless, faceless number passing through and builds a bit more of a human connection that can be useful when you’ve had a bad day.
  • Set Clear Expectations. Your colleagues and family both need to know what to expect. I share calendar information freely with both to be sure everyone knows where I will be in the week ahead. But long term expectations are important, too, so one must be clear about the anticipated frequency and duration of travel. For me, it has fluctuated a bit over the years, and I do my best to keep everyone in the loop when it changes.
  • Carve Out Family Time. I’m not likely to ever win a Dad of the Year award, but I do work with my assistant to explicitly schedule time for family events. My wife knows that she can always make a claim on my time as long as I don’t have a pre-existing conflict. (And if I do and the timing is important, I do what I can to clear it out.)  But I also take time each day to call my wife and kids and chat with them. It’s not the same as being there in person, but it does help. I’ve toyed with trying video conferencing, but haven’t gotten to it yet. (I’d be curious to hear from other on-the-road parents if they have tried this and how it works out.)
  • Make the Best of It. I can’t stand fellow travelers who whine about it. For most of us, it’s a choice we make voluntarily. Sure, there’s room to complain about specific things and to commiserate over the challenges, but nobody wants to hear you whine about it. Not your fellow travelers on the road and certainly not your family back home. Instead of complaining, find the silver lining. I try to go to baseball games when I travel, for instance, to at least take away a fun, non-work experience. Sometimes I take photographs to relax. On the family front, take them along on some trips if you can. My own family joins me periodically in DC, and my oldest son spent the better part of a week on a multi-city business trip with me last summer.

If you’re also a long distance commuter or regular road warrior, go ahead and share your thoughts, advice, and tips in the comments below.

Photo credit: photo by davipt via Flickr

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  • Frank Stovicek

    Definitely try the video-conferencing route. My wife used to do weekly phone calls to her family in Germany and now does Skype video. After the first couple of times she and her mother tried it, they both said they couldn’t imagine NOT video conferencing.

    We also set up a “baby cam” over the crib when our son was first born. Even if it were only for a minute a day, I got to get a dose of my son from work while he dozed. It was a real pick-me-up for my work day!