How a new breed of global travelers is doing business.
- By May 01, 2016
“In today’s world, you can live anywhere and not miss out.”
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.
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.”
His 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.
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.”
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.
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.”