How to escape the office, work online and travel the world

‘Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.’

– Merle Travis, ‘Sixteen Tons’, 1946

‘I’m free to do what I want, any old time.’

– The Rolling Stones, ‘I’m free’, 1965

In theory, we work to live. In practice, that all too often means living to work. The daily grind, the office, the nine-to-five that all too often ends up being eight-to-six or worse — and that can be on top of an hour or more commute each way. A lot of people spend half of every single weekday, and the vast majority of their waking hours, either getting ready for work, getting to work, or at work.

Sometimes this is fine. There’s a case for paying your dues, working the long hours, building a career or your own business — there aren’t any shortcuts to doing that properly. But all too often, we end up spending our lives in the office because… that’s just what you do. Office culture dictates that you put in the face time, and if you’re not around, you’re more likely to be left out when it comes to important decisions or passed over for the promotions that could have made it more worthwhile. Leaving just because you’ve finished the work you need to do ends up being counterproductive.

And then there’s the worse case scenario: wage slavery, and its close associate, debt slavery. Too many of us don’t work for positive reasons at all. We work because we have to. Not to build a better life, to pay for the things we need and want — a house, security, a family — but because we simply don’t have a choice. Our financial system and economic model ensures we are indebted long before we draw our first pay cheque, through loans for education, credit card debt and the high cost of living, as well as the share of the national debt we have each incurred in the course of the global financial crisis, bank bailouts and unsustainable public spending. That’s before we take out a hefty mortgage to buy a house, thanks to inflated property prices. A large and growing proportion of our working life is spent not saving money for a better future, but paying off our debts.

Thief of time

Particularly for millennials, who have higher debt and worse opportunities than previous generations, work can be a Sisyphean task with little appeal and no end in sight. Austerity, combined with an ageing population, means that many entering the workforce today will not retire until their seventies. The office is the thief of time, a devil’s bargain that steals your soul in return for the means to survive.

Even for those who are established in their careers, the office is a necessary evil, something they have to endure to pay for the lives they have chosen, or been forced into by circumstance and economic reality. And too often, there’s the nagging doubt: Does that work truly have a purpose? Perhaps it did one day but its positive impact has been progressively stifled by bureaucracy, along with any idealism. If you disappeared from the office tomorrow, would the world really notice?

According to David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, the answer is likely a resounding ‘No’. Graeber, an anthropologist famous for his landmark and illuminating Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, makes the case that a large proportion of jobs are simply unnecessary — they are work for the sake of work, a fabrication that helps keep the population occupied and under control. As The Guardian’s review summarises, ‘In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would enable us to work a 15-hour week. Yet we seem to be busier than ever before. Those workers who actually do stuff are burdened with increasing workloads, while box-tickers and bean-counters multiply.’

Graeber articulates what most of us have long suspected, in our darker hours: that what we do doesn’t actually matter. And yet we continue to do it, because that is the social contract into which we have entered. We collude with the fantasy, despite the fact that we know that there will be a reckoning one day. Look at it this way: how many gravestones express the deceased’s love for their family, rather than their devotion to the daily nine-to-five routine? Second on the list of deathbed regrets is the complaint: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Top of that list? ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’

If you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance you are one of the millions of people who have accepted that devil’s bargain of meaningless work to pay for a lifestyle you didn’t choose. You’ve got talents, skills and experience — they’re just not being used to their full. Odds are you’re tired of that life, but also too tired and indebted to kick it into touch and follow your dreams. Is there an alternative?

A Remote chance

One way to improve the situation is to work remotely, something an increasing number of people now do. Technology allows us to carry out many elements of our jobs as effectively from home as from the office, keeping up with email, collaborating with others and even attending meetings via videoconferencing. Although it can be a step in the right direction, this isn’t really quitting the rat race; it’s just moving the racetrack. Plus in most cases there’s no real substitute for actually being in the office, if that’s where everyone else is. You still miss out on too much.

So what about dumping the nine-to-five altogether? For so long, we have been wedded to a particular model of employment: commute to your place of work, put in an eight hour day, rinse, repeat. But this is a relic of an era when the needs of the economy were very different. The eight-hour workday originated back in the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, when very long work days led to a popular though ultimately unsuccessful campaign that ran with the slogan, ‘Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’. Later on, Henry Ford put it into practice in his factories, and the resulting increase in productivity convinced other manufacturers to do the same. In other words, we work eight-hour days because that was the optimal shift length on the first assembly lines, a hundred years ago.

Needless to say, times have changed. We might spend a similar proportion of each day at the office, but we don’t work that long. Much of that time is spent on activities like form-filling and meeting the arbitrary requirements of different protocols, and that’s before you get into ‘goldbricking’ — appearing superficially productive without doing anything of value — or wasting time on social media and other distractions. What is detrimental to business productivity is also harmful to our physical and emotional wellbeing. Aside from the Groundhog Day of commuting, and the pollution that comes with it, our culture is undergoing an epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression. Forced to rush to the office to carry out activities we know are ultimately fruitless, with serious consequences if we don’t conform, is it any wonder?

Going freelance

There’s an alternative. It’s not one for everyone, but if you have the motivation then there’s the opportunity to escape the rat race altogether. Imagine not only being able to do what you loved and were good at, but to be able to do it from anywhere — your home, a coffee shop, an AirBnB on the other side of the world…

‘Elinor loves traveling. But because the company she used to work for implements strict vacation leaves policy, she left and chose to freelance instead. This gave her the freedom and flexibility to work and travel whenever she wanted. To augment her business’ income, she offered translation, copywriting and marketing services on Freelancer. Now, she has traveled to more destinations and can finally afford to settle down in Spain with her longtime boyfriend.’

– Elinor Zucchet, Spain

As the effects of the financial crisis took hold, we have seen the rise of the so-called gig economy. This is often discussed in negative terms, pictured as a hand-to-mouth existence without any job security or the benefits of conventional employment. And, for low-paid and unskilled jobs, that’s often true.

But remote freelancing is the future of the recruitment market in the gig economy — and, if you know what you’re doing, then it can not only be more flexible and enjoyable but more lucrative than an office job.

For all the world has already changed in the last 50 years, the pace of change is increasing. Comparatively few people work in manufacturing any more. The workforce has instead moved towards services. In particular, the growth of ‘creative’ jobs is important because so many routine tasks are becoming automated, just as factories have been automated and their workforces moved on. As AI comes of age we are likely to find huge numbers of services-sector jobs automated too, from simple medical diagnosis to call center support. Not long ago the Bank of England’s chief economist suggested that 80 million US jobs might be automated.

As the UK’s Guardian comments, ‘not all jobs are created equally. In 2013, a highly cited study by Oxford University academics called The Future of Employment examined 702 common occupations and found that some jobs — telemarketers, tax preparers and sports referees — are at more risk than others including recreational psychologists, dentists and physicians.’ Knowledge workers in more creative jobs will be more insulated from this development than most. Better still, many of these can be carried out remotely. Coding, writing, graphic design, web development and all kind of other tasks can be undertaken from a laptop, anywhere in the world.

In tandem with this development, improvements in communication and connectivity mean that businesses are increasing hiring remote workers. There are many advantages to this. It gives them access to a global pool of talent, vastly increasing their chances of finding someone competent for a good price. They also do not have to hire workers permanently, but can adopt a more cost-effective contract or per-task approach. Experienced remote freelancers are more likely to be motivated, disciplined and prepared to put in the effort to deliver high-quality work, on time. For tasks (or employers) that require workers spend specific amounts of time on certain activities, there are any number of tools that can be used — time trackers, screenshots and anything up to and including mouse movement logging and screencasting.

In most cases, though, this kind of oversight or surveillance will not be necessary: one of the greatest advantages for both sides of such an arrangement is that the amount of time spent on the task is unimportant. What matters is that it is completed to a high standard. If one worker can write a document to the same standard as another but in half the time, what sense does it make to offer an hourly rate? A truly free market is meritocratic and the faster worker wins.

Whatever its dynamics, the gig economy is growing fast. And, if the example of the United States is anything to go by, the rest of the world may be in for a shock. In 2016 some 35% of the US workforce were freelancers, while the figure in the European Union was less than half that. By 2020, that’s expected to rise to 50% of US workers: the trend has a long way to run. Millennials, driven by both choice and necessity, are at the sharp end of that change.

Infrastructure is being built around the gig economy movement. Recruitment needs are naturally changing and online freelancer marketplaces (the best-known of which are platforms like Freelancer and Upwork) help businesses to automate many of the processes they need to access these services, and to connect prospective workers with appropriate tasks. However, platforms can be far more sophisticated than the employment equivalent of a dating site. They can take care of the payments side of things, ensuring that workers are remunerated fairly on completion of a task. They also include feedback scoring so that employers can rate their contractors — and vice versa — helping the best of each to access better opportunities in the future. The newest recruitment marketplaces integrate cutting-edge technology like blockchain to make borderless and efficient payments automatically when a task has been satisfactorily completed. These technological developments drive down the cost of recruiting, raise standards, pay and equality, and reduce abuse by workers and companies alike.

How to get started as a remote freelancer

If this sounds attractive but too much of a risk, don’t worry. You don’t have to jump in with both feet. Plenty of people get started with the odd gig on the side to earn a little extra cash, learn the ropes, establish a reputation and decide whether they are suited to the lifestyle before they take the plunge.

‘Back in 2004, one of my University professors mentioned how he had met a Caucasian entrepreneur who was running his HR business from a beach in Thailand from his laptop. I had no idea I would, one day, be able to work when I want, with whom I want and wherever I want. But within few months, I had ditched my internship and began working online after getting a project that paid several times more than the petty $26.04/month stipend the internship paid.’

– Syed, Digital Nomad

Start by understanding the value of your skills, experiences and preferences: what do you enjoy doing, and what are you good at? Learn and develop your skillset if necessary. There’s often no reason you can’t do that along the way.

When you know what you want to do, it’s time to analyse the market and find the best way or ways to monetise your skills. There’s a sweet spot here, and you may well have to compromise, but keep the old saying in the back of your mind: find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day again.

Now it’s time to go for your first job as a freelancer. Unless you have very specific connections, you will need to find an online recruitment marketplace. As you’ll appreciate, there are plenty of these around, but they differ markedly. You can sign up to more than one, of course, but you’ll need to find the right balance of factors. Chronobank’s LaborX marketplace is a great place to start for various reasons:

  • Broad, global market. Some platforms are sector-specific, others very general. You need one that caters to your interests and offers you new opportunities if you plan to spread your wings.
  • Efficient payments. Working across borders can be a headache, and conventional payment processors take unnecessarily large commission fees. Moreover, there can be long delays and unfavourable exchange rates involved. Cryptocurrency payments sidestep many of these issues. Moreover, LaborX’s solution avoids the volatility inherent in crypto payments, giving you the best of both worlds.
  • No gatekeepers. As a decentralised platform, LaborX allows you to forget about unfair moderation or unnecessary intervention. You’re connecting directly with businesses who need people like you.
  • Automated processes. Smart contracts mean that payments are made automatically when the work is done, or at agreed milestones along the way. There’s little scope for employers to withhold payments unfairly.
  • Robust reputation system. If you’re better than 90% or 95% of the other freelancers on the platform, you should be able to access the top jobs. That’s why a reputation system that’s fit for purpose is so important: without it, you’ll be unfairly held back and passed over for someone who doesn’t deserve the work you can do better.

The platform’s reputation system is therefore one of the most critical factors for growing your online career, and LaborX again excels here. You don’t want to be subjected to an arbitrary set of criteria that require you to ‘pay your dues’ before you get the best-paid jobs: if you’ve completed a relevant task, that should immediately be reflected in your score. It should also be difficult or impossible to game; negative scores should be retained until the recipient has offset them with good work, and it should not be possible to delete a profile and start again if reputation is poor. A mixture of decentralised identity verification and peer-to-peer reviews ensures this is the case with LaborX.

‘I’ve always valued time with my family and have always avoided high-pressure jobs with a long commute for that reason. I hate the idea that so many people travel and work such long hours that they barely get to see their kids in the week — then they’re exhausted at the weekend. For years I freelanced alongside regular employment so that I could stay local, enjoying the degree of freedom it gave me, but the communications jobs I picked up paid a limited amount and I couldn’t afford to ditch my office job — the risk was too high. By moving progressively into the blockchain scene in 2014 I was able not only to access opportunities from all over the world, thanks to the efficiencies of using cryptocurrency for payments, but to carve out a niche as a creative in a fast-growing industry. The result was that before long it made no sense to keep the office job: instead of it being a safety net there was now a significant opportunity cost to continuing that work. Now I get to work from my garage office, run, meet friends, see my kids grow up and be closely involved with their lives — not just a weekend fixture.’

– Julian, UK

Get started now!

None of this is rocket science. The people who make a success of remote freelancing aren’t a different breed — they’re just people like you who decided they didn’t like their jobs and that it was time to change their lives for the better.

Take your first step to a better life now! Subscribe to the Chronobank newsletter and follow the project on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels (see the website). You can also try out LaborX demo and become an early adopter of this groundbreaking new marketplace and the opportunities it offers as you start to explore your new career.

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