What We Learned From A Month Working Abroad
By Kevin Vela
August 5th, 2022 marked the end of Vela Wood’s first month working abroad, and it was the first of many more to certainly come.
The idea to relocate our entire law firm overseas to work remotely for a month sprung out of a remote work concept that was hatched seven years ago. The inspiration came from one of our now partners, Jenny Young, who left her position at a mid-sized firm in 2016 to join VW. Never short on bravado, Jenny’s response to our offer was along the lines of, “Sure, I’ll join VW, but by the way, I’m going to be traveling and working remotely for the next year.” And she did travel, and she did work remotely. We structured her as a contractor at that time, but when she returned, we thought, why can’t we do this with our full-time employees?
In 2017 we initiated a policy that allowed any full-time employee to work remotely from another country for one month every two years. VW paid for a co-working spot, internet, and flights, and several employees took advantage of it. From 2017 to 2020 VW employees worked remotely from Lima, Lisbon, London, Zagreb, and Valencia, to name a few places. We found that the employees were fractionally less productive from a billing standpoint (for the employees who billed by the hour), but unmeasurably happier and more motivated upon their return. The program was a bona fide success, but one that would be difficult for someone with a family, like me, to take advantage of.
Eventually we asked, why not take the whole firm? Why couldn’t we transport an entire office overseas for a month? Our practice is entirely run through cloud-based technology, so we have the infrastructure in place. We could go during the summer when work flow generally slows down (at least a little). And we could encourage everyone to bring their families to make a longer stay more tenable. And with that, we started planning. The pandemic delayed our work abroad plans, but reinforced the ability of our employees to work remotely. Finally, in the summer of 2021, the trip really began to solidify. We floated the idea to the firm, took feedback, created a planning committee, and settled on Lisbon (a beautiful, coastal European city with a low cost of living) as our abroad destination.
- Employees could choose to go for 2, 3 or 4 weeks.
- VW would provide a stipend of $1,500 for 2 weeks, $2,000 for 3 weeks, or $3,000 for 4 weeks. We calculated $3,000 as enough to cover a round-trip ticket (about $1,200) and a one-bedroom apartment for a month (about $1,800).
- Employees could not take planned PTO during their stay, but they could leave early on Fridays for a weekend trip if resources and client deliverables allowed, and they could extend their trip on either the front or back end for vacation.
- We rented desks and rooms at a co-working space in the heart of Lisbon, central for everyone.
- We contracted with an IT company to deliver monitors and adapters, and everyone brought their laptops.
- We prepared and distributed information on COVID policies (Portugal lifted its mask policy two weeks before we arrived), health care, transportation, neighborhoods, and entry/exit requirements.
- We worked Lisbon working hours and the occasional odd hours when needed. Being six hours ahead of Central time allowed for four hours of overlap with clients.
- We planned three required events – a welcome dinner, a happy hour with Startup Lisboa, a local startup incubator, and a closing dinner.
- We helped coordinate evening and weekend events for those who were interested, including a beach day, cooking class, soccer game, wine tour, and weekend trip to Fátima and Porto.
- We liberally used Google Docs and Sheets to share ideas including local restaurants and activities, as well as weekend trip recommendations.
- We created two Slack channels to communicate – one for the planning committee, and one for anyone who wanted to attend.
- We alerted our clients about the trip and time zone change, and invited them to join us.
The trip was an overwhelming success. We had 24 employees attend which is roughly half of our full-time staff. In fact, although we were 5,000 miles from home, many team members from different offices were able to work alongside each other for the first time.
There were over 50 people who visited in total (families that came for the entire trip, or visited for a while, for example – my parents came for a week, and two of my wife’s relatives came for a different week). We invited significant others to work with us at the coworking space (we rented extra space) and employees brought their kids ranging from 20 months to 12 years old. The spouses who weren’t working during the trip gathered with the kids during the day and one team member’s lovely mother and aunt created a wonderful, interactive curriculum for the kids during the month.
What We Learned
What Went Well
- Lisbon was perfect. It was beautiful, on the water, easy to get around, and affordable. Almost everyone spoke English so there was no communication barrier. The people couldn’t be nicer, the food couldn’t be better, and there is so much history to explore. I could go on and on.
- The planning was fantastic.
- The startup/venture community was incredibly welcoming. (I’ll note that this has been my experience in multiple international cities.)
- Three required events over four weeks was plenty. Naturally, everyone spent a lot of time together at the co-working space, and most evenings and weekends people grouped together for spontaneous dinner or sight-seeing plans. Any more “required” or even “encouraged” events would have felt like too many.
- The bonding between employees over the shared travel experience turned out to be even greater than we had hoped.
- Communication with clients was great. There were a few evening calls and late nights, but nothing out of the ordinary for a transactional firm like ours.
- We were more productive than anticipated. We had our best billing month in the firm’s history, and that’s in light of greater than usual summer vacations. Our team was highly motivated and efficient.
Improvements For Next Time
- The co-working space was not quite what we were hoping it would be. Next time we’ll send out a scout team a few months in advance to find a great workspace.
- We will get a senior contact at AirBnB to help with ongoing issues. We had two employees with material AirBnB problems and AirBnB’s standard support system was far from helpful.
- We will pay for one AirTag/Tile for each employee to track luggage.
In closing, we proved that VW can be highly productive even with half of our team across the globe from our co-workers and our clients. We believe this is a model that we can continue to replicate. Working from Lisbon was an unforgettable experience; but fortunately, one that we will continue every year.