Tech workers worked on the road during Covid, might not return

Courtesy of Kartik Vasan and Smriti Bhadauria

When Erica Horn received a business email in May 2020 saying her business would be totally gone for the next year, she knew right away it was time to make her long-held dream of living in a van come true. .

“Nothing else made more sense than the van life once that reality came true,” said Horn, who lived in Oakland before moving into his van. “I had no reason, nothing, to tie myself to this specific place or this amount of rent.”

Horn is not alone. Many workers whose jobs allow them to work remotely during the pandemic left their sedentary housing situation behind and moved full-time into vans. These remote workers drive from place to place in their homes, working from internet hotspots in their vans and spending their free time in nature and exploring new places.

As vaccines roll out and states begin to open up, some workers are returning to their offices. But many workers who have embraced the van life don’t want to give it up.

“It has become a way of life,” said Smriti Bhadauria, who lives in her van with her husband Kartik Vasan and their dog Everest. Bhadauria and Vasan have been traveling in their 1977 Dodge B200 Tradesman since leaving Toronto in August 2020.

“We are extremely happy with this life and the freedom it gives,” said Bhadauria. “There is no deadline in sight.”

Like backpacking abroad, the van life is for those who enjoy travel or the outdoors who have the privilege of working remotely and the budget to spend thousands of dollars to buy and set up their vans. They can transfer money from rent and car payments to an endless travel lifestyle.

“I’ve always been someone who loves to travel, but I’m definitely a homebody at the same time,” said Cailey Dillon, who works remotely in customer service for Outdoorsy, a van and RV rental company. . “I really like that with the van life you can still travel but your home is always with you.”

Courtesy of Kenzo Fong Hing

For some, working in a van is less about travel than an alternative to renting an office.

Kenzo Fong, CEO of tech start-up Rock, started working in his van in May 2020 after his children started doing homework at home during the pandemic. Fong still lives in his San Francisco home, but during the days he gets into his van and chooses a new location in the city. Fong spends his day working from the desk he has set up in his van, taking breaks to wander around to take advantage of the variety of places and collect his thoughts.

Fong prefers that to an hour-long commute each way from San Francisco to Mountain View, Calif., As he did for his previous job at Google.

“I just can’t imagine doing it again because there is so much flexibility to work from anywhere,” said Fong, whose company creates software for remote workers.

Courtesy of Kartik Vasan and Smriti Bhadauria

“Internet is the most important thing”

Buying and installing a pickup truck can be a quick process. But people who really get started can spend months or years settling in.

Fong, for example, bought an already converted van and financed it, and pays a few hundred dollars each month.

“Much less than having an office in San Francisco,” he said.

In contrast, Horn spent months working on her van with her father and a contractor, setting up the van to the specifications she wanted. By the end of the project, she had spent about $ 60,000 – $ 25,000 on a used van and about $ 35,000 on construction.

Rescue vehicles need a few basic things: a place to sleep, a desk or table, kitchen equipment, and some sort of bathroom set-up.

But perhaps the most important are computer equipment and the Internet. Some lifers only need a laptop. Others have more elaborate configurations with multiple monitors. But most carry at least two hot spots from different network providers so they can pick up the signal from at least one of the services when they reach new locations.

“The Internet is the most important thing,” said Fong, who has a hotspot for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. “I basically have all the major carriers in case I need them.”

These Internet requirements sometimes require innovative solutions. Horn reports finding a good campsite in Sedona, Arizona, but not finding a good signal. So every morning she would drive 30 minutes to a nearby town and park in front of a Staples store where she could finally make a solid connection.

“It’s not always glamorous,” Horn said with a laugh.

Working nine to five hours can also be a nuisance for workers in the van life. For full-time employees like Horn, a typical work schedule means they can be parked in a beautiful location without being able to enjoy it until the weekend.

That’s why many in the van lifestyle are self-employed, said Jess Shishler, the founder of Sekr, an app that helps people who live in vans find campsites or wi-fi locations.

“A nine to five is difficult but doable,” said Shisler, who also lives in a pickup truck. “The kind of distance career that allows you more flexibility in your schedule is easier to do in this lifestyle. “

Bhadauria and Vasan, for example, do project-based work.

Vasan works in information technology while Bhadauria has a job in digital marketing. The two spend the first few hours of their day outdoors, then get straight to work. In the afternoon, they will take a break from their work and explore their area or travel to their next location. Either way, they prioritize sunset every night. Ironically, much of their actual work is done on Saturdays and Sundays.

“We almost never do any activities on the weekends because it usually gets very busy, so weekends end up being working days for us,” Vasan said.

Cons include dirt and loneliness

There is also a lot of work involved in living in a van.

Dillon said she was surprised at how dirty her pickup truck was. She spent the first four months of 2021 living on the road, and she is now at home in Platte City, Missouri, work and prepare to buy an upgraded van so she can return to her travels this summer. Living in her van, she cleaned and mopped, but the van got dirty again as soon as the wind blew. Ultimately, Dillon said, you just learn to live a little dirtier.

Another big challenge is dealing with the loneliness that comes with life on the road. Dillon said she felt very lonely during her first three weeks on the road, and it wasn’t until she had her dog Koda that she started to overcome this loneliness.

“I like being lonely, but sometimes it gets a little too lonely,” she said. “Having my dog ​​has helped me a lot with this loneliness.”

Horn said she spent part of her day doing pickup truck chores, like cleaning and tidying up her bed each day to make room for her to live and work. She also needs to empty the pickup truck’s gray water tank and portable toilets, and fill up with fresh water and propane.

“Most of the times aren’t the epic ones sleeping in the most amazing place and waking up with the most amazing view, that’s very little of that in the vast majority, especially if you’re working,” Horn said. . “However, these moments are worth it.”

Bhadauria, who travels with her husband and their dog, Everest, says she doesn’t feel alone, but there are times when she misses the friends who live in the same place. For example, Bhadauria said, she would have wanted to throw a big party for her husband’s 30th birthday, which happened during their time on the road.

“You miss things like that, when you want a big gathering or a sense of community,” Bhadauria said.

Although she and Vasan enjoy life on the road and plan to continue it for the foreseeable future, they understand that this way of life is not sustainable indefinitely.

“With everything, you get to a point where things start to get boring or there is burnout at some point,” Bhadauria said. “If we get to this point, we’ll be happy to return to a home base somewhere.”

Despite the challenges of life on the road, those who spoke to CNBC said they plan to continue with their nomadic lifestyle until their companies stop allowing remote working or until they stop allowing remote working. ‘they are exhausted. Horn said she originally planned to live on the road for at least a year, but that has now changed.

“At six months, I still feel like I’m learning this, getting used to it and starting,” she said. “I could actually see myself doing it for almost two years, and who knows, maybe longer.”

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