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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Worker


I remember when I watched Lost in Translation for the first time and how familiar everything on screen seemed to me. The scene where Bill Murray has just arrived in Japan and is sitting on the bed in his hotel room looking totally bewildered is one that I can easily relate to. It feels like every few weeks I find myself alone in a hotel room somewhere in the world, wondering what time of day it is and trying to figure out whether I should try to sleep or try to stay awake in order to make it through the next few days.

One of the most annoying aspects of having to regularly travel for work is that everyone who doesn’t have to travel for work thinks that you’re so damn lucky. I get pretty sick of being told how lucky I am for getting to travel around the world on business, especially when the people telling me that seem to forget that these trips are actually work and not recreation. Add to this the fact that every day I’m out of the office is another day for work to be piling up on my desk back home.

Now, anyone who has read columns written by me over the past few years will be aware that every once in a while I complain about the fact that technological advancements have resulted in us working far harder and longer than we ever used to. It’s usually mobile computing that bears the brunt of my attack, by allowing us to stay productive in almost any situation and pretty much erasing the concept of enforced “downtime”.

As if notebooks weren’t bad enough, the introduction of wireless networking and hotspots has made it pretty much impossible to get away from work, regardless of the situation. Being able to get online and access your email and even your office intranet from almost anywhere, makes “taking a break” almost a thing of the past and this must be contributing to the sky high stress levels that many workers are experiencing.

Although I truly believe that we’re working far more than is good for us these days, I’m also caught in a bit of a conflict, because on the other hand, I’m also eternally grateful for the fact that I can get work done pretty much anywhere. I always have too much to do and too little time to do it in, so being able to take advantage of every minute in my day, no matter where I am is about the only way I get through my mountainous workload.

Let’s put this all into a more solid perspective. Right now I’m in San Francisco attending the Intel Developer Forum, and even though it’s a Sunday morning, I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing a column. Although part of me thinks that I should take the day off because I’ve got a really full week ahead of me, another part of me knows that if I don’t grab every opportunity I can to get some work done I’ll come back to so much work that my wife will see me even less when I’m actually back in the country than when I was away!

But there’s one major “non-work” advantage to all of this mobile computing business, and that’s the ability to keep in touch while you’re stuck in another country on business. Spending so much time travelling for work can be hard on a relationship. Of course I could pick the phone up and call home if I get lonely, but that can get very expensive, very quickly. Bizarrely, the key to staying in touch while I’m away from home is the very thing that keeps me working more hours than not – mobile computing.

I’m currently sitting in Starbucks on Polk Street, and even though I usually try to seek out independent coffee shops when I need a caffeine fix, Starbucks has the advantage of wireless Internet connectivity. Obviously there’s a cost associated with the WiFi hotspots in Starbucks, but I figured this was a good chance to see if BT OpenZone’s claim of being a worldwide hotspot provider was true. Taking my notebook out of my bag and firing it up, I connected to the hotspot and opened a browser. I was instantly greeted with the T-Mobile login page, but below the login details was a link to use another hotspot provider account. Clicking this link led me to a drop down menu from which to choose the service provider that I was affiliated with, and sure enough, top of the list was British Telecom – clicking this and entering my BT OpenZone account details got me online instantly.

So, here I am, connected to the Internet while sipping a cappuccino and, of course, working. But, as I mentioned earlier, this Internet connection has brought with it an added bonus – the ability to communicate with my wife at home at no cost whatsoever. Logging onto my instant messenger service allows me to have a real-time conversation without the cost of a phone call to contend with. And even if my wife isn’t actually online at the time, it will only take an SMS message to get her in front of her computer.

Obviously an instant messenger conversation isn’t the same as actually talking to someone that you’re missing, but it goes some way to easing the loneliness of being stuck in another country by yourself. That said, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have a regular, vocal conversation with your loved ones while you’re away from them.

There was a time when Voice Over IP (VoIP) was a nice idea, but not a viable one, but those days are over. VoIP now works, and works very well. Using software like Skype, it’s now simple to speak to someone on the other side of the planet, without paying the inflated costs associated with a long distance phone call.

So now I just have to carry a headset with me when I travel and make sure that I’ve got Skype installed on my notebook in order to speak to my wife without going bankrupt. Of course it means that I have to sometimes pay for in-room Internet access if my hotel doesn’t offer it for free, but I’m probably going to do that anyway so that I can work in my room.

Ultimately, it’s always hard being away from home on business if you’ve got a partner or family, but if you’ve got a notebook computer and an Internet connection, you have the ability to stay in touch easily and cheaply. Instant messengers and VoIP aren’t really a substitute for kissing your wife and kids goodnight, but they could at least make that empty hotel room feel a bit less lonely.

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