Extreme telecommuting: how to move to Italy and keep your day job

Scroll through past posts on GigaOM and other tech sites and you’ll see a litany of new gadgets, gizmos and apps. There will be plenty of speculation on new ways of working and no shortage of predictions for the future. All of this is fascinating, but it sometimes makes you wonder what all of these new technologies and ideas add up to on the ground. Is the future of work really just the jabbering of pundits, or is all of this actually making a difference on the ground?

For those moments of doubt, there is no better cure than a conversation with Barry Frangipane, the co-author of The Venice Experiment: A Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad. A middle-of-the-road computer programmer living in Florida with a full-time job, Frangipane decided to see if he could make all the advances in remote collaboration and increased acceptance of telecommuting work for him — by moving to Venice for a year with his wife and keeping his day job.

Sneaking up on the boss

Frangipane knew better than to spring a transatlantic move on his boss all at once, opting instead to inch his way toward greater freedom by slowly proving that, for him, the office was only a hindrance.

“The first thing I did was I started working a day a week at home,” he explains, “and then that gradually grew until I was spending the entire week working from home. Home being five miles away from the office.” From that point it was a surprisingly simple leap from Florida to Italy.

“Once you iron out the technical details and your employer can see that your productivity is actually increasing working from home, then at that point approaching the boss and saying, ‘look, I’m thinking of moving my home. Oh, and by the way, that home is Venice,’ well certainly it’s a little startling, but when the discussion turns to just the facts,” the boss has no reason to disagree.

All upside

Did Frangipane’s customers revolt? Did he miss the office banter or feel like his career was suffering because he was 4,000 miles away? Quite the contrary. “I would say it was all upside,” he says. Leaving aside the benefits of spending a year in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Frangipane actually felt he got more done living abroad.

“In an office environment, there are so many interruptions. One of my partners once said that 32 15-minute interruptions is the entire day. And it makes you think a little bit,” he says. “When I’m working at home people don’t just stop by and stand in my doorway to talk about the ball game. I find myself substantially more productive because I can focus for longer periods of time.”

Dare to dream

Frangipane is adamant that there’s nothing special about him that allowed him to succeed at extreme telecommuting and insists that while living abroad for a year isn’t for everyone, it is for way more people than you’d think. “There was a time when this was just for computer people — web designers and programmers and things — but not so much anymore,” he says, citing the case of a neighbor who works as a customer service rep for a big-box store and has never set foot in the company’s offices.

“It wouldn’t even be noticed if she moved to another country and just continued answering the phone,” he says.

And if you think that Frangipane is simply braver than the average joe, he replies that simply setting a date to leave, informing yourself about your destination and carefully planning your move does wonders to embolden the timid. “Before you go, check the blogs online, check websites and talk to people who have already done it and ask them questions. You’ll see that many of your fears will be allayed,” he insists.

Once he and his wife started learning more about life in Venice, “you start realizing that they’re really just not that much different. Everybody puts on their pants one leg at a time.”

Learning to think Italian

International similarities in dressing aside, there were differences between the Italian way of life and the American, according to Frangipane, and these made a deep impression on him. “I find that things that used to be considered big issues for me, office politics and things, just slide off my back now,” he says. And Italy also changed him in other ways.

“Venice is a town of only 60,000 people and functions as one big family. Everyone knows everyone. They’re happy to shut their stores for a half an hour and just take you to the local coffee shop. They value the relationships so much more than the money that that has certainly changed my focus,” says Frangipane. “I’ve learned that earning that last $1,000 or $10,000 a year is not as important as the relationships.”

How much so? He and his wife already have their eye on Paris for another jaunt abroad.

Image courtesy of Flickr user melename