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Could You Live Abroad and Keep Your Job?

Barry Frangipane is living proof of the existence of the global village. Frangipane, a software engineer, telecommuted from his home in Tampa Bay. But he didn’t realize just how far telecommuting could reach until he read Under the Tuscan Sun, a book about an American who chucked it all to live in Italy. Frangipane decided to find out if a typical middle-class couple like himself and his wife Debbie could pack up and live abroad while holding on to his job.

They settled on Venice, and lived there for 13 months, sending e-mails to their friends about their experiences. Those e-mails served as the inspiration for his book The Venice Experiment—A Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad (www.veniceexperiment.com), a memoir that chronicles their time living in Europe while he telecommuted to his software job in the states.

The following is excerpted from an interview with Frangipane by his co-author Ben Robbins.
Ben Robbins: During that year we worked together, I think I only saw you in person twice.

Barry Frangipane: There just weren’t many times that I had to be at the office in Florida. I did have to meet face to face with clients in New York a few times that year. New York is a bit farther from Venice than from Florida, but nobody really needed to know where I was coming from—or cared for that matter. The changes over the past 10 years for telecommuters have been subtle, but together they have produced a tipping point making the idea of extreme telecommuting a reality. Advances in the quality of videoconferencing make meetings as effective as they would be in person. Google and Facebook have both launched free high-quality videoconferencing in the past year. I was gone for 13 months, and most of my clients never even knew I had left.

Robbins: From a business standpoint, how long did it take for you to adjust your work routine to your new location?

Frangipane: The biggest change was probably the six-hour time difference. I didn’t tell our clients that I was moving, and most of them never asked. I got away with it because I kept the same business hours that I had kept in the States. As a software engineer, pretty much everything I used before was still on my laptop, so not much else changed.

Robbins: What about Internet access?

Frangipane: Well, my first landlord had broadband already set up when we arrived, so I only missed one day of work for the move. We moved to a different apartment midyear, and there was a period then when I was waiting for cable to be installed. I had to rough it, working from an Internet café, sitting at a table near St. Mark’s Square. They had great coffee and pastries, and the view wasn’t bad. Email, conference calls, programming—all that stuff—it works the same no matter where you are.

There were times when someone back at the office had to help me out with something I just couldn’t do from Venice, but those occasions were pretty rare. The benefits far outweighed the costs—for both me and the company.

Robbins: What were the benefits?

Frangipane: First, I no longer spent any time commuting. Plenty of that became free time for Debbie and me, but the company got a lot of it, too. Plus, not being in the office actually helps me focus on the task at hand. Voice and video conferencing make it as if you’re in the room for meetings, but once you disconnect, you’re thousands of miles away from all the distractions. My productivity in terms of sheer billable time actually went up. Also—though this wasn’t the case for me—for certain types of companies, having employees in other time zones is a way to extend your coverage for customer service and support hours. The company could have given my office away if they needed the space. My feelings wouldn’t have been hurt.

Robbins: Since your experiment, some members of your team have moved to other places and work remotely now.  How does that work for you as a manager?

Frangipane: Well, it’s not like I’m in a position to object! Kidding aside though, it really does work well.  I see those same advantages as a boss that I saw as an employee, meaning more productivity when we eliminate the distractions of the office. It does require a certain amount of deliberate communication though, to keep people working remotely from getting left out of the loop—something I have a special appreciation for.

Robbins: Based on your experience, who do you think this kind of arrangement would work best for?

Frangipane: There’s just not much in a cubicle anymore that can’t be packed up into a laptop. These past few years I’ve seen lots of companies hiring thousands of people to work from home doing things that used to be done by multiple shifts sitting in expensive office space. Telecommuting isn’t just for computer geeks anymore. It’s really just about connectivity and productivity. Connectivity is virtually everywhere now, and employees should be judged on productivity anyway. Nobody should get points just for showing up.

Robbins: What advice would you give to someone reading this who might want to try telecommuting, but for whom it would be breaking new ground at their company?

Frangipane: The first thing I did was talk to my boss. He knew I had a track record of producing results, and I knew that results would be more important than ever once that was all anyone could see.  I would recommend to anyone that they present the benefits that the company will enjoy and volunteer to be more accountable for results. If one of my employees came to me and said, “I want to be more productive than ever, and I want to make my productivity more easily measurable,” I would have to be crazy not to want that. Show your boss how it benefits the company, and then just make it happen. You can make it work. I did.
For those of us who telecommute to work, we can now live out our dreams, and live most anywhere in the world. I would say to someone, “Ask yourself: do you have any real concrete reasons you can’t go? Or is it just that you’re afraid you might like it too much?”

About the Author(s)

Barry Frangipane is the author of The Venice Experiment—A Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad (www.veniceexperiment.com).