“Hey Ham, how’s this remote work thing going for you?”
I often heard this question after starting a new job at Stack Overflow remotely more than 1.5 years ago.Sometimes people asked out of genuine curiosity. They couldn’t imagine how working without ever being in an office could be a thing.
Other times people seemed to be concerned about my well-being, wondering if I slowly turned into a hermit who never got to see the sunlight again.
A year later, after the global Corona pandemic forced a lot of people to work from home for the greater part of 2020, that question had been replaced with
“Does your remote work experience suck as much as mine?”
All I can say is: It’s going great. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And I wouldn’t want to change it back.
Quitting my job and moving to the countryside was a big step for me and my family. It was packed with concerns and anxiety. Would the new job be fun? Is working remotely something for me? Will rural life become boring after a few months? Looking back on 1.5 years of living this life I’m feeling grateful, content and happy with how well things turned out. As the year is coming to an end and I have some free time, I’m going to reflect on how leaving the city for a remote job and living in the small town I grew up in changed my life - and because the year has been enough of a shit show, I promise it’s going to be really positive.
Working remotely comes with one fundamental advantage: I save a lot of time. Instead of spending 2 hours on public transport on a typical weekday (or worse if I was travelling to clients) my daily commute now consists of grabbing a coffee and going from the kitchen to my office. That’s 2 hours of extra time each day. 10 hours each week. And I can use them for whatever I want, not whatever my commute permits.
Having more free time has a compound effect. More free time means more time for my family, for myself, for hobbies, exercising, sleeping well, reading, running errands, doing chores. All of these things help improve my mental and physical health and I can feel it. More time is the foundation for all the other benefits I’m seeing in working remotely.
I grew up in a small town where rent was affordable. Being a home owner was common, not a privilege for the richest 10%. Growing up with this kind of perception of the world made accepting cost of housing in a metropolitan area extra hard for me. There was no way how our combined household income could ever allow us to buy a house or an apartment we liked in Hamburg.
Working remotely allowed us to escape the ridiculous rents and costs of living in a large city. A year after moving back to the small town I grew up in, we bought a house that was both cheaper and larger than anything we’d have gotten in any metropolitan area.
Besides a bigger place to live in, I benefit from more space in general. Nature is just a step away and I can go for nice long walks easily. I enjoy being outside, experiencing nature and the sense of calm and solitude. Especially if I get to enjoy sceneries like this regularly:
A shot from one of my evening walks in fall 2020
My dog, Lenny
With a home, a yard and a lot of surrounding nature, it felt obvious that a dog would be a great companion for our family. I’m at home all day and on some days wouldn’t have a real reason to leave the house. With a dog by my side, I’d have a buddy hanging out in my office with me each day, someone I could talk to and, most importantly, I’d have a reason to get out multiple times a day.
So about half a year after I started working remotely, we got Lenny, a Labrador mix, and he’s the best buddy I could imagine.
My dog, Lenny, snoozing in his bed
With Lenny, I get to enjoy nature every day. My wife and I usually walk the dog together and it’s become my favorite ritual to start and end the workday.
Exercise has become an important aspect of my life about 7-8 years ago. As a young adult, I struggled with obesity and unhealthy lifestyle choices until health problems made me change my habits and lose a good amount of weight. I joined a gym, started to go running and be more mindful around the stuff I’d put into my mouth. About 3 years ago, I saved some money to invest in a small home gym setup that I put together in the basement of our rented apartment in Hamburg. Nothing fancy - a rack, a barbell, some weights and a bench - but good enough to keep me moving and improving my physical fitness. I experimented with different workout plans and managed to get the occasional workout in each and every week but I was nowhere as consistent as I wanted to be.
Now, with a remote work setup and more time at hand, I have the luxury of more routine that allows me to exercise more regularly. This year, I pretty consistently managed to work out 4 times a week for about 1 hour each time. Usually, I’ll take my late morning or lunchtime hours when the majority of my colleagues in later time zones are still asleep to step away from work for an hour and work out in the garage gym. This has worked incredibly well so far and allows me to work on my physical health, get some quality time away from work and come back refreshed and ready to tackle the second half of my workday.
Thanks to regular exercise paired with walking the dog daily, I’m feeling happy, energized and more resilient than ever before in my life. With a job that’s mostly mentally exhausting and otherwise involves sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day, I feel it’s really important to strike a good balance and make sure you get your body to be properly exhausted as well.
I noticed that I spend more of my free time in ways I’d consider quality time: time spent with my family, with friends, working on things that are important to me, building meaningful connections, picking up new hobbies.
Part of this is possible because moving meant that I’d live a lot closer to a big part of my family and my friends. Many of them live within walking distance from my home now. Being physically close to family and friends allows to drop by frequently and spontaneously. I can visit my parents, bring a bowl of soup I cooked to my grandma (you should see the joy!), help a friend with renovation work when they call and ask for help, meet at the pub to play a round of Doppelkopf and have a beer or two. All of this is far away from my day job. No computers, no programming, no digital anything. Just people, human relationships, getting your hands dirty or grabbing a beer with friends.
I often compare this to how I spent my free time during my previous job. I moved to Hamburg for the job, so naturally the vast amount of connections I had came from work - that’s how you meet people as an adult. With some people I felt like I’d have made rather meaningful connections and I love them dearly. Still, whenever we’d meet up, we ended up talking about work and work-related stuff.
A tight-knit community
As a small town kid I was used to the fact that I knew a lot of people around me and people knew me. This is both fun and frightening at the same time. When I left after graduating from school I was certain that I’m never going to miss the fact that everyone knew anyone.
And yet years later I started missing it. Being a totally anonymous person when buying bread at your baker, not knowing your neighbors (or caring about them at all) and being able to live side by side without ever bothering to get to know each other even in the most shallow way was bugging me ever so slightly.
I learned that I get a sense of joy from being part of a tight-knit community. When I buy bread from the bakery they know my name, we have a short chat about what’s going on in town and occasionally they’ll shove an extra sweet raisin bun into my bag. My neighbors care about each other and invite us over for a beer and barbecue on summer nights. If I need fresh eggs I send a text message to a buddy who’s got chickens in their yard and they’ll leave a pack of eggs out on their porch for me to pick up in exchange for a glass of cherry jam from my garden. If I need firewood I know this guy from the next village I can call who’s got plenty waiting to be picked up. Every so often, people need help with renovations, moving or work around the house - and they’ll just call and ask for help. Need a hand? Ask around and people will show up in no time. Need a tractor for some nasty yard work? A friend of a friend’s got one, ask and they’ll be there. It’s all about small favors and giving back every once in a while. This may sound cheesy to some but to me this feels like I belong to a community and it feels really nice.
Small town living is not all sunshine and rainbows, of course. Living in a city does bring its benefits and the most obvious one is certainly the vast choice of bars, restaurants, cafes, theatres, museums, concerts and other things to choose from. Over here, there’s merely a handful of pubs and a similar amount of restaurants to go to. Museums, theatres and cinemas are rare.
I can cope with the limited choice just fine. When I’d go out for a drink in Hamburg it’d usually be one of the same five bars. I’m not getting a huge kick out of posh restaurants or the latest foodie trends. And if I want to go to a concert, I’ll have to get tickets for a show in another city and drive there or get a place to stay for the night. For me, this works just fine but I acknowledge that 2020 has been an extreme outlier where a lot of public places have been closed for the better part of the year anyways.
A steady pace
Looking back on 1.5 years of working remotely from a small town makes me feel like I’m at a happy place at this point in my life. After quitting my previous job due to burnout, I try to consistently do a pulse check to see where my mental and physical health is heading and whether I’m still on the right track. After starting a job remotely, I feel like I’ve been running at a healthy and steady pace. I’ve got rich interactions in my daily life, within and outside of work. I feel a great sense of belonging, spend more quality time with my family than ever before and still have plenty of personal time. All of this is happening while I can still work on interesting things at Stack Overflow that impacts the life of a lot of people out there.
I’m truly grateful to be where I am today.