OPINION12 June 2023

Research on the move

Europe Opinion Travel Trends UK

Ella Fryer-Smith reflects on her experience of life as a digital nomad during a working holiday and shares tips for researchers looking to combine work and travel – from investing in an ethernet cable to keeping up a routine.

blue train going through station at dusk

‘I heard gunshots, Mum… Mum, I’m scared!’

‘Everything’s okay, let’s just step back from the window.’

It wasn’t exactly the scene I’d imagined some eight months previously when, on a whim, I booked two-month Interrail tickets at 50% off. Beaches; tranquil train journeys; gourmet food – yes! Tear gas; riot police; street fires; traumatising my eight-year-old son – not so much.

In February 2023 I launched Do You, a new venture and massive shift from the previous eight years as an independent research consultant. Then, in March, I set off on the aforementioned Interrail trip with my son and parents in tow. Had I lost my mind? Maybe. But I’d been having a pretty rough ride of things personally and decided that, despite the madness, I would make it work.

This is the story of what that looked like in practice, and if I were to capture it in one word it would be ‘messy’. But it deserves more than one word, because it proved to be so many things – messy, at times a bit shit, but also magical and revolutionary.

Alongside Do You, I’d also launched the Do You podcast, and that was something with proper deadlines and a real schedule, meaning fortnightly releases and all the promotion that comes with hitting that ‘post’ button. In truth, I probably could have marketed the podcast and the business a little more, but I was busy taking in the sights at Gaudi’s Parc Guell, or managing my kid’s meltdown on a train.

Here are some lessons I've learned about working while on the move:

1 ) Invest in an ethernet cable. There is nothing worse than a dodgy internet connection when trying to facilitate, but ultimately at any time. If I did it again, I would book into co-working spaces during the times I knew I had specific online commitments.

2 ) Be very clear about what needs to be prioritised and what can be let go. Time is particularly precious when trying to juggle multiple things at once. This sounds easier than it is and I’m not 100% sure I always got the balance right. However, being clear on the non-negotiables was a help.

3 ) It’s crucial to maintain some level of routine, or those small time zone differences will trip you up! I got up at least a couple of hours before everyone else in the mornings to check emails, write proposals and get stuff done. That meant that the rest of the day was freed up and I was still able to feel on top of work.

4 ) Plan ahead as much as possible, but be willing to accept that everything could change quickly. I had amazing, bespoke teams in place delivering on the projects that were ongoing and made sure that everyone was very clear on their role. However, owning the business means the buck ultimately stops with me and I had to make myself available to step in to cover any last minute eventualities.

5 ) Set yourself up for success with a pragmatic approach. I knew that, despite my good intentions, being able to reply to emails on the fly would quickly go out of the window if I was too busy enjoying the moment. And what was the point of the trip if I couldn’t do that?! So, I gave my wonderful assistant access to my inbox and had her text me if there was anything that needed to be addressed immediately.

6 ) Meet up with your international colleagues. This is an absolute must. It was amazing to be taken round and shown the sights by a local in Barcelona (see picture of me with the wonderful Martha Llobet, for evidence).

Anyway, back to those gunshots – which was actually teargas being used on crowds of people protesting the change of pension age in France, but, hey, French police do carry guns and look very scary, especially when you have about a thousand of them right outside your Airbnb. Did they traumatise my child? Maybe. Did he learn about French protest culture? Definitely. Will he become a revolutionary? It remains to be seen, but he definitely has the potential based on some of those tantrums on the trains!

But, the golden question: Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I do it again? Definitely.

Despite the trials and tribulations, those memories will last a lifetime, and I’m certain that in the long-run the business will benefit from a) my wellbeing and expanded headspace achieved via the trip, and b) the impact of being immersed in different cultures and languages for an extended period of time – great for expanding my emic/etic reflections.

Ella Fryer-Smith is founder of Do You Research