Laptop on tray
Photograph by Clint Blowers

The Jet Set

How a new breed of global travelers is doing business.

In order for Todd Musgrove, ’10, to get to the office, he takes a plane, a train, and a car. And he likes it that way. Every two weeks, the Tokyo-based founder of Flight Digital Media, a digital marketing and mobile development firm, hops a nearly five-hour flight to his Metro Manila, Philippines, office. He doesn’t stay at a hotel. Instead, a corporate apartment in the city makes it easier to commute with only a carry-on. In Manila, unlike in Tokyo, life revolves around the business—and he embraces the grueling schedule. “I work crazy hours when I’m there because I try to maximize my time,” said Musgrove, who relocated from Chicago to Tokyo with his wife and two young children five years ago.

Musgrove is a supercommuter—a new kind of business traveler who often traverses multiple time zones just to get to the office. The career path is by choice, albeit not one without difficulties. Today’s so-called supercommuter is just as comfortable hopping on a three-hour international flight as his neighbor who may take the highway to work and spend 40 minutes in traffic. For supercommuters, it’s not simply about taking on a temporary assignment elsewhere: they are strategically flying to global hotspots in order to get ahead in their careers without uprooting their lives.

To be sure, business travelers have long said that this lifestyle can be a stellar career move. The fly-out-Monday-return-Thursday consulting path is a staple of post-MBA careers; but today’s supercommuters, many having reached the top rungs of their industries, say their travel can feel more purposeful and align more closely with a long-term career strategy. For one, they can plan far in advance in a way that’s not always possible for the one-project-at-a-time consultant. Successful supercommuters customize their schedules by blocking off weeks at a time for international travel then adding daylong business trips here and there, while still reserving plenty of time at home. The key is to maintain a delicate balance between commuting and personal obligations in order to avoid burnout.

Creating a long and increasingly global commute is part of a trend that helps minimize the need for a transcontinental move. Booth alumni who do it gain experience in multiple world regions without moving their home base, they say. Supercommuter alumni whom CBM spoke with say they clock anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 airline miles each year—an estimate that puts them close to circling the globe six times annually (though many regularly travel to a few key cities). Most are traveling between Asia, Europe, and the United States. In top metropolitan areas, including Singapore, New York, and London, supercommuting from both nearby cities and abroad is on the rise because of an increase in airline routes and a greater ability to work remotely when not on the road. The number of UK commuters who spent more than two hours getting to and from work increased by 72 percent in the past 10 years, according to a 2015 report from Britain’s Trades Union Congress. The number of commuters who travel more than two hours per day saw an increase of 75 percent, according to the TUC. 

The Ideal Schedule

Supercommuters often have greater flexibility in their travel schedule, said Manu Gupta, ’06, a general partner at venture capital firm Lakestar Capital in London, who mixes and matches his personal and work schedules in a way that allows him to be present for events at home. Gupta, who is expecting twins, often opts for a long, one-day commute to other European cities, which can be easier than staying the night and moving on to the next destination. He also plans jaunts to San Francisco weeks—and even months—in advance, said Gupta, whose clients have included top companies including online video network Maker Studios and mortgage start-up Lenda.

Nowadays, he visits clients including San Francisco–based Taulia, a supplier of payments software, where he’s a board member, and the Berlin-based GoEuro, a travel comparison site. He may navigate a 7 a.m. flight out of London to Berlin and be back home in time for dinner, he added. Even though Gupta takes at least one transatlantic trip per month and travels to see Lakestar’s various companies about 50 percent of his time at work, he’s been able to maintain a work-life balance. “I have full flexibility,” he said. “All of the pain is self-inflicted.”

In today’s world, you can live anywhere and not miss out.

Greg Eckstein

With an increasingly global workforce, there are now more opportunities to cherry-pick a convenient travel schedule for those willing to commute long distances, according to career experts. Alumni who do this say the benefits outweigh the drawbacks because the experience gained can serve as a stepping-stone to an executive role that may require international exposure and greater cultural competence, said Stacey Kole, PhD ’92, deputy dean for Alumni, Corporate Relations, and the Full-Time MBA Program, and clinical professor of economics. “It’s a way to demonstrate that you have certain skills, without the personal disruption of a move,” she said.

Executives who supercommute are often managing multiple territories for a firm. For some, the extreme commute serves as a tryout phase that ultimately leads to a long-term international assignment, she added.

Tricks of the Trade

As alumni commuters carve out their careers by purposely crisscrossing between different countries, time zones, and cultures to get to the office, the main goal is to create a schedule that’s both productive and low stress. The commute should start to feel almost mundane, they said. Banks Baker, ’05, head of global partnerships, product solutions, and innovation for Asia Pacific at Google’s Singapore office, estimated that he spends 60 hours per month in the air. The uninterrupted time on the plane has become the chance to focus on more complex reading or to problem solve work challenges that require plenty of brainpower. “The commute time has become a very focused period of work where I’m not interrupted. I can read all the things that I need to read,” Baker said. “I’ve gotten to a point where it’s part of the work schedule.”

Carry-on BagHis approach to packing—and constant repacking—is just as practical. Baker uses various smaller bags that he moves in and out of a suitcase in a modular style. When assessing the suitcase, he can look at a zippered bag and determine that one is for T-shirts and the other is for socks, and whether they need to be refilled. What goes inside the suitcase is simplified as well. “I pretty much wear the same thing all the time,” said Baker, who only packs black or gray-colored clothing in order to prevent clashing. “It eliminates any kind of variability”—key when space is tight.

Having airline status and speeding past the security line helps a frequent traveler’s trips go smoothly, but so does employing a few tricks in the downtime between trips.

For Sam Kwei, ’14, who is in a rotational leadership program at Intel with a regular commute between parts of China and the head office in Santa Clara, California, this means a novel take on the concept of a balanced diet that works for him. The stress of finding healthy meals while traveling and meeting project deadlines can make it especially difficult to eat well. And business dinners are often filled with rich foods and impressive wine lists. “When I travel with clients I eat a lot of protein,” he said. “When I return [from a trip], I may do a detox of just vegetables and lots of water.”

Another trick is maintaining a healthy sleep schedule between trips, which can help your body bounce back faster once off the road and increase overall immunity, said Nancy Rothstein, ’79, a Chicago-based sleep expert and wellness consultant for Fortune 500 companies. During travel, establish a routine for sleep, she advised. While in a different time zone, stay consistent with your “sleep and wake times” because it can make it easier for the body’s circadian rhythm to adjust and enable better quality sleep. Avoid using electronics an hour or so before hitting the pillow, she said. “The blue light from these devices impedes your melatonin,” said Rothstein, who recommended that travelers read a book or magazine to unwind instead.

A Flexible Home Base

If there are few rules when it comes to the supercommute, there are even fewer rules when it comes to planting a home base. After 23 years of living in Singapore and traveling throughout Asia on a weekly basis, Greg Eckstein, ’04 (AXP-3), relocated to a place better known for its beaches than its business climate: Bali.

Moving in to what was once the family vacation home has helped Eckstein start to enforce a few more personal boundaries to spend time with his wife and two school-aged children. “We have better work-life balance than living anywhere else,” he said.

You’ve got to find those pockets and take time for yourself.

Banks Baker

But there are some sacrifices that came with lengthening his commute. With fewer connections available from Bali, Eckstein estimates he’s on the road for more than two weeks per month—he typically flies in and out of Singapore for most major travel. Last year he visited many of the world’s hotspots, including Istanbul; Tel Aviv, Israel; Tokyo; Bangalore, India; and New York. He still flies to Singapore for one to two days a week and travels throughout the Asia Pacific region, but he’s often home by his kids’ bedtime, he adds. “In today’s world, you can live anywhere and not miss out,” he said.

Others have had to get even more creative when it comes to making it work. After relocating from Google’s headquarters to Singapore, Baker now travels regularly through the region with frequent stops in Shanghai, Beijing, and Sydney. To take advantage of his time in the region, Baker sometimes travels alongside his wife and three children to the cities where he conducts business rather than leaving the 14-, 12-, and 9-year-olds behind in Singapore. This year, the entire family has already spent extended time in Japan, China, Indonesia, and Australia. In Australia, Baker rented a beach house for a month-long stay in Sydney. The family will enjoy beach time while Baker continues to commute to the Sydney and Singapore offices. He said embracing distance learning as a schooling option for his children is key. “If we put them in a structured [school] program in Singapore, I would never see them,” said Baker, who adds that the cultural immersion for his children is an added bonus.

Setting Personal Boundaries

Eventually the fast pace can become difficult to juggle with the responsibilities at home, said Cindy Nguyen, ’02, a consultant at PA Consulting Group in London who spent 15 months taking bi-weekly flights from London to New York. Still, her time spent traveling as a supercommuter to Manhattan meant she felt like she could access two global hotspots at once. “In some ways you kind of miss it,” said Nguyen, who flew more than 150,000 miles one year and was also able to use the perks for travel outside of work.

To avoid burnout, personal boundaries are key. To decrease time spent preparing for a trip, Eckstein uses a personal assistant to book travel, plan meals on the road, and pack his suitcase. The process, he said, is not unlike preparing for a meeting with colleagues. And after 23 years of travel, he’s now more focused on work-life balance. “There was a time when I’d want to get the first flight out so I could work the entire day,” he said. “Now it’s not like that anymore; now it’s about doing what’s most convenient and in sync with my personal life.” When returning home, he also books the afternoon flight to ensure that he sees family that evening.

On days at home, Baker often shows up for video conference calls in a simple T-shirt or takes time away from work after an especially grueling period of travel. The key is diagnosing exactly when you need a break, and finding a way to fit it in despite a heavy workload, he said. “You can’t do this [kind of travel] and maintain the stereotypical work schedule,” Baker said. “You’ve got to find those pockets and take time for yourself.”

Most supercommuters agree that face-to-face conversations are still the best way to do business. And many can’t imagine slowing down. This year, Musgrove joined as CMO of Kenzai, a health and wellness start-up focused on training programs for busy professionals, with offices in San Francisco, Manila, and Hong Kong. Musgrove has now added bimonthly trips to Kenzai’s new headquarters in San Francisco’s RocketSpace, a coworking space and start-up hub with more than 75,000 square feet of office space, to his travel rotation.

Despite the grueling schedules, not arriving on time to see a client or skipping an in-person conversation to meet remotely can ultimately negatively impact the relationship, Musgrove said. Setting up two businesses in Manila means access to labor that’s less costly and a deep talent pool as the city becomes a hotspot for both outsourcing and technology. But forging new relationships can be difficult if you’re not spending a meaningful amount of time on the ground. As an entrepreneur, he subscribes to the same travel philosophy that he used during his management consulting days: “You just have to figure out how to make things work. If you’re not there, you can get in trouble.”

For Gupta, finding the right balance between traveling and setting up a virtual office in the atrium of his favorite hotel in his hometown of London has been a work in progress. Five years ago, Gupta would often fly thousands of miles seeing clients, but has reined in his travel to a maximum of three nights away from home, because he realized it wasn’t sustainable. Plus, he said, “I knew what the peanuts tasted like on all of the flights.”

—By Alina Dizik