Remotely interested: working abroad

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Remotely interested: working abroad

Frequently crossing paths in the corridors of the serviced offices they rented to run their respective businesses, Pattie Pegler and Ben Taylor both harboured dreams of a simpler life abroad. In 2009, within months of each other, they headed off to follow their aspirations. Pattie and her husband started a new life in Christchurch, New Zealand, while Ben and his wife headed off to Portugal's Eastern Algarve. Both of them left London, but took their work with them.

One of the main issues when moving abroad, especially for those without healthy pensions or independent wealth is what to do about work. Weak worldwide economies, coupled with bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers, can make employment prospects abroad, even for those with strong skills, fairly bleak. However, technological advances and a trend towards flexible working practices are making it easier to deal with this issue.

"I considered selling my IT support business before I left for Portugal," remembers Taylor, "but it felt too much like bridge-burning. Analysing exactly what I did each day helped me to see that the bulk of my work didn't require my physical presence in the UK."

Pegler had similar thoughts: "I provided admin support to small businesses and rarely met my clients face-to-face anyway. So really I was already working remotely. It seemed logical to just carry on business as usual when I moved."

Plenty of thought and preparation was required, as Taylor recalls: "Although I decided to take my work with me, I was still moving to Portugal for a new and different life - not to take my old life with me wholesale. I had to make some tough decisions regarding my client base. Those that I suspected would cause me too much stress had to go."

Obviously not every profession translates well to a remote-working arrangement. It is not really practical to manage a team of staff from a huge distance, and surgeons, teachers and chefs, amongst others, are out of luck if they wish to continue their UK jobs. However, most office-based tasks can be performed from home, often requiring nothing more than a good internet connection and a telephone.

There are already an estimated 4.3 million remote workers in the UK and predictions are that this number will continue to grow. Studies consistently show that home-based workers are happier and more productive than those enduring the daily commute. So if you can work from anywhere, why not work from a desirable sun-kissed location?

It's not only an option for the self-employed. A 2008 survey for the Confederation of British Industry found that 46 per cent of employers offered teleworking options. Progressive managers presented with a sensible business case may agree to a distance-working arrangement, especially if it means keeping a valued member of staff. Taylor's wife, Louise, has continued to work in project management for a London firm

"My role had to be changed slightly to remove aspects that required me to be there in person," she says, "but I get more done now than I ever did in the office - there are fewer distractions." When it comes to practicalities, "no-cost" or 'low cost" technology makes it easy. "Skype gives me a London phone number, so my location in the sunshine isn't even apparent to clients contacting me. Remote access tools mean I can be moving the mouse around on a client's computer screen in seconds," says Taylor.

If you can work from anywhere, then you can live anywhere without employment worries. However, there can be downsides. On a practical level, fluctuating exchange rates can play havoc with your income, whilst time differences can mean you end up putting in strange hours.

Working from New Zealand, Pegler advises: "Be realistic about the time difference. If you're moving down under, we have the worst possible time difference for working with the UK. You think you won't mind staying up until 11pm to make work calls, or getting up at 5am - but three months in it's often a different story. You do need discipline to make this work."

Pegler says there are also emotional challenges: "I felt quite isolated working from home. Everyone I was dealing with was in the UK so I couldn't even make small talk about silly things like the weather. And because I wasn't going out to work I wasn't making connections in the local community." She remedied this by making an active effort to get out and meet people, through voluntary work, courses and hobbies. Now she has transitioned to more local freelance work and says: "It has made a big difference. I feel like I'm really living in New Zealand now."

To make a successful move to a new country you need to be really committed to making it your home. If your work continues to be in the UK, it can hinder this effort. Taylor agrees that having a foot in both camps can be challenging. Living in Portugal, it's easy to pop back to the UK to keep business ticking along and Taylor estimates he makes the trip five times per year. However, whilst the flight may only take a couple of hours he admits that he finds the UK visits disruptive and it can take him a week or two to get back into the Portuguese lifestyle when he returns.

"I don't look forward to going back to the UK - it makes me feel like I've reverted back to my 'old' life," he says. Cross-border bureaucracy can also cause some difficulties. "Earning money in one country and paying tax on it in another is far more complicated than I ever expected it to be," adds Taylor.

Working remotely may have its drawbacks but they are far outweighed by the advantages. It opens the door to endless possibilities. Technology is increasingly making location irrelevant and the working world is starting to recognise this. So, if the only thing stopping you making that move abroad is the age old question "will I be able to get a job?" start asking yourself "can I just take my job with me?" The answer may surprise you.

Essentials: Working in Portugal

How to become a self-employed worker
To register at the Portuguese Tax Department as self-employed, you need to file a Declaration of Commencement of Activity at your local tax department beforehand.

How to set up a company

In recent years setting up a company in Portugal has become a straightforward and quick process. The set-up can be made on-line (Empresana hora) and three types of companies can be set up using this service: a single shareholder company, private limited company and a public limited company. The set-up costs are €360 (£313) and there is a reduction of €60 (£52) if the main activity of the company is an IT-related activity, or if it deals with research and development. The share capital needs to be deposited prior to incorporation, or within five days in cash. The company name must be chosen from an available list.

The tax position between UK and Portugal
Self-employed workers who continue with clients in the UK can and should invoice their UK based clients from Portugal as their worldwide income is subject to Portuguese income or corporation tax, depending on whether they are individuals or companies. There is a double taxation treaty in place between both countries to avoid the same income being taxed twice.

Jobs you can take abroad

Technical: Web design, programming and IT support jobs are perfect for remote workers. Many huge companies already outsource plenty of these functions to overseas staff.

Creative: Proof-reading, writing, editing and design are all tasks best performed in a quiet environment with minimal disturbances - ideal for home workers.

Clerical: Secretarial work, diary management and many other administrative tasks are possible from a distance - there is a well-established global market for virtual PAs.

Marketing: Cheap voice-over-IP services such as Skype mean expensive international phone calls are a thing of the past. Telemarketing and direct sales jobs are easily carried out from a place in the sun.


A Place In The Sun