Matthew Bird never wants to go back to corporate office life. He used to work for a firm helping Microsoft design live events, and before that, he worked as a designer for Amazon and Target. Like many, he lost his job during the pandemic and hit the road for a cross-country driving trip. It was while hiking Big Bend that his partner turned to him and said, “Let’s live full time on the road.”
They moved out of their house in Seattle, bought a cargo van and spent six months transforming it into a mobile home — those quick #vanlife TikTok transitions mask how hard this process really is. Bird works as an independent design contractor, and his partner Nicole Koleshis runs a yoga business virtually. “We can be flexible,” Bird said. “Are you looking for a change of scenery? Do you want to go do something? You have the freedom to do that.”
We’re used to these kinds of stories at this point in the pandemic. Digital workers have taken their companies’ remote work policies and run with them, all the way across the country. The unpredictability of the pandemic has, until now, kept the office return date out of reach. With a dramatic drop in cases, though, tech companies are setting return-to-office dates again. Apple just announced it will require in-person work starting April 11. Bird acknowledged that for full-time tech workers, the van lifestyle might become impractical.
But despite company plans, our changing attitudes and ideas about work remain. The van/RV lifestyle is very much in the zeitgeist. Some, like Rock CEO Kenzo Fong, have fully embraced it, experimenting with synchronous and asynchronous methods of working. “The RV industry itself has been blowing up; everyone wants to be out in an RV,” said Paige Bouma, executive vice president at Trader Interactive, the parent company of RV Trader. RV Trader polled over 2,100 people last week and found that 44% work from their RV more than 20 weeks out of the year.
As expected, people are still figuring work-from-van out. Protocol has rounded up some advice for those hoping to embark on their own van or RV journeys.
The most important aspect of working long term from a mobile home: planning ahead. There are the practical lifestyle obstacles you have to think through: health care, meal planning, showering. Rather than building out a van from scratch, you might want to rent an RV for a shorter period of time to test the lifestyle out.
WiFi and cell service are unreliable when you’re on the road. Setting up a mobile hotspot is a given, but you should also suss out your location’s signal and your remaining data well before an important call. You’ll need to plan around the schedules of others in your van as well. This was the biggest headache for Bouma, who spent six weeks in an RV with her family.
“How many people are going to be able to utilize that WiFi before it starts to be super slow and laggy?” Bouma said. “That definitely caused us some issues and some concerns.”
Hardly any job requires printed-out documents anymore. But if you do need a printer, Bouma said scouting the closest FedEx is your best bet.
Meetings are the hardest aspect of working from a mobile home. If your job requires you to be online and in calls all the time, van life probably isn’t for you. Bouma recommends hopping on calls 10 minutes early to make sure everything works. Koleshis manages yoga instructors from the road and always asks if they want to meet on Zoom or over the phone. They choose voice calls most of the time, which is easier for Koleshis.
Koleshis has found that managing people remotely from a van helps her business. She says her team of contracted yoga instructors has become very self-sufficient. “They're more motivated to make these classes their own while they're still working for Seattle Kids Yoga,” Koleshis said. “Because I'm not there, there’s more of a sense of ownership over what they're doing.”
Staying motivated when you’re in a beautiful locale is tough, Bird said. He and Koleshis have taken their van to some incredible places, like Sedona with its otherworldly red rocks. “You'd rather just be out hiking or swimming or surfing or snowboarding, whatever it is,” Bird said. “It’s kind of hard to separate work and life. It’s really a working life.”
To tackle this, Koleshis recommends setting daily work goals. Avoid cramming too much into a day, Koleshis said. She always aims to accomplish three big tasks, and factors in the everyday life stuff that comes with living in a van (getting gas or emptying compost, for example).
Asynchronous work is much better suited for this kind of life. Bird has friends who attempted mobile work but found themselves sitting in Walmart parking lots all the time, dependent on their signal. Working from a van both requires and provides flexibility. Bird recognizes the benefits that come with in-person work — even with the van, he’s traveled to several work sessions to meet with others in his field.
But mandatory, regimented in-person work is not something he’s interested in. Instead, he likes to wake up with the sun and feel more “in tune with the natural rhythms of nature.”
“I’m trying to slow down, take my time and not rush with work or life,” Bird said.