● By Aminah Madihah
Imagine exploring the world while you work… this is a reality for Zul Hairey!
Ever heard of workcations? It’s short for working vacation, which is basically a mix of professional commitments and leisure that allows an individual to perform their job remotely while enjoying a change of scenery, often in a desirable destination.
Sabahan Zul Hairey, a 34-year-old Senior Operation Specialist, has been living the dream of workcations for the past four years where he was based in Budapest, Hungary, then relocated to Chicago, USA, last May. Instead of settling down in Chicago, he decided to embark on fully remote life travelling Latin America. He spent three months in Mexico and currently in Antigua, Guatemala. Next up for him? Buenos Aires where he plans to be for a year!
Zul tells us everything you need to know about this pretty cool work arrangement.
Tell us how you ended up in your job.
After graduating in Computer Engineering, I jumped from multiple random jobs; IT Trainer, Customer Service and eventually I landed a position with a GLC as an IT Executive. I thought this would be the job I would retire with as it was a secured job with a steady employer; my life is set and the next step is to buy a car, a house, and get married.
But I soon became bored with my role with the same repetitive tasks and hardly any challenges. At the same time, I developed an interest in travelling as I’ve been hanging out with backpackers from different countries trying to improve my English. However, being based in Kota Kinabalu would mean I’ll have to take two connecting flights if I were to go somewhere outside the country, which would be more expensive and time consuming.
I decided to look for an opportunity in Kuala Lumpur and landed a job in customer service. It was a hard decision to make especially when everyone tells you you’re crazy for leaving a secure job. But I needed a change, a new environment, and challenges.
After three years working for the GLC, I decided to quit. I began a new life in Kuala Lumpur where I was working a lot, doing overtime, and flying almost every month to different places. I explored mostly Asian countries during this period, and eventually I started to get bored because the waterfalls in Bali looked the same as those in Thailand. I decided to save up and travel to Europe for a month for a change of scenery. It was incredibly exciting, and I wanted more of it.
At this point, I was already moving to different positions within the company, and as they were expanding, there was an opportunity for the same position I held, system engineer, in Europe. I talked to my boss, and he agreed to transfer me to Budapest, Hungary, and I moved in August 2019. Within five months of being in Europe, I had already travelled to multiple cities, including Bratislava, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Marseille, Vienna, Sicily, and Copenhagen. It felt like a dream come true, starting a new life in a different continent with the opportunity to explore more of Europe.
How did you start working remotely?
In March 2020, when COVID hit the world the hardest, everyone had to work from home. However, the rules in Europe were not as strict as in Malaysia. I could work from different cities in Hungary while staying safe. Summer came and COVID rules became a bit more relaxed. I had the chance to travel to neighbouring countries while still working remotely. In 2021, my company switched to hybrid work mode, which meant I could work remotely from various places. I spent three months in Turkey, two months in Morocco, a month in Georgia, and a month on a road trip through the Balkans! During this time, I was still renting my apartment in Budapest so whenever I wanted to go on a long trip, my friends would sublet my apartment to help cover the rent.
When I moved to the US, I sold everything I had in Budapest - I only brought three suitcases with me. I didn’t want to commit to renting an apartment because I didn’t want to be tied down; instead, I chose to hit the road with just one carry-on luggage and a backpack, be where I want to be while working at the same time – they call this being a digital nomad.
As great as remote working sounds, do you face any challenges?
I often feel lonely as I’m travelling alone and hopping from one city to another. It's not like living in a city where you have friends or colleagues to socialise and hang out with. But thankfully, I'm a very outgoing person so making new friends is easy for me. There are many apps to meet new people like CouchSurfing, Nomad List, Punto, and Facebook Groups. In larger cities, I frequently attend social events which you can find on Facebook Events or the MeetUp app.
Working remotely also typically means not having the right office setup. Depending on where you choose to work, it can be uncomfortable and tiring. I have a remote work setup that helps me maintain good posture while working. It includes a stand for my laptop to keep the screen at eye level, an ergonomic mouse, and a keyboard. I also have an iPad which I use for meetings. Another challenge is finding good internet connection, especially here in Central America (where I am currently at), where the network isn't as good. I sometimes go to a co-working space where they have fast internet, proper chairs, and desks. I’ve met other digital nomads while co-working, and these places often organise events after work hours or during the weekends so you can join to feel part of a community.
How do you maintain work-life balance?
Since I’m working remotely, my life is basically a never-ending vacation. I usually work Monday to Friday, and on weekends I’m out and about doing various activities like sightseeing, going to a waterfall, exploring museums, and many other activities. I am always excited whenever I go to a new place as I want to explore, learn about the culture, and try different foods and discover new things. For example, here in Antigua, I’ve been attending salsa and bachata dance classes; some friends take pottery and art classes. I am also thinking of taking Spanish lessons since I’ll be on this side of the world for longer - might as well take the opportunity to learn something new!
My work hours are also flexible. Some days, I sleep in and work till late; other days, I wake up early and finish work earlier. I sometimes take breaks to go for a walk, have lunch, or work from a nice café.
I'm more productive when I work in a co-working space or a café. If I stay in my Airbnb all day, I find there are too many distractions. I end up cooking, doing laundry, or just lying on my bed scrolling through Instagram. Of course, this varies from person to person, but for me, I usually work for two days from my Airbnb and three days from elsewhere, so I don't feel like I'm stuck at home all day. I schedule my meetings in the morning while I'm at my Airbnb; afterwards, I head to a café for lunch and continue working from there.
What are the financial aspects to consider?
It all depends on what you earn. You don’t want to spend three months in expensive places like Paris, Amsterdam, or London if you're earning a Malaysian salary. It would be too costly and unaffordable. You should also think about your responsibilities back in Malaysia, like a mortgage or insurance payments.
I’m fortunate because I’m making USD, so most places are affordable for me. Plus, I don't have any mortgages and I am debt-free. I usually divide my earnings into two parts: One for savings and the other for daily expenses. If you’re earning a Malaysian salary, I’d recommend going to countries that have similar cost of living. This doesn't mean only Asian countries, you might be surprised at how affordable it is in countries like Georgia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Colombia, and others. You can compare the cost of living on numbeo.com. That's where I usually check prices to know what to expect before going to a new country.
Be sure to check the visa requirement and how long you can stay. Holding a Malaysian passport, we are quite lucky as we can enter almost 140 plus countries without needing a visa. Nowadays, some countries provide a special digital nomad visa that allows you to stay for a more extended time. I'm currently in the process of applying for one for Argentina where if I were to be on tourist visa, I could only stay for 30 days, but with digital nomad visa, I could stay up to 180 days.
For accommodation, I usually choose between Airbnb or Co-Living (Community Living) where you share a house with other digital nomads. You have your own room, fast internet, and you share common spaces like the living room and kitchen. It is more expensive than staying in a hostel. But because I prefer to cook most of the time, I need a proper kitchen. Check out these spaces on sites such as coliving.com, outsite.com, destinationoutpost.co and kohub.org.
Staying in a hostel can be intense with other travellers constantly coming and leaving, and it can be noisy too. It’s a great place to meet people but since I’m working, I prefer my own space and a good night’s sleep. Most online booking platforms like Agoda, Booking and Airbnb offer up to 50 percent discount if you book for a long stay but again you need to properly plan how long you want to stay in a city. You don’t want to stay too long in a very small town with not so much to do; you’ll end up bored and feeling stuck.
When it comes to other expenses like going on trips, taking flights, dining out, and others, it varies. I set a monthly budget, let’s say $2,000 for a month. After paying for accommodation and setting money aside for groceries, depending on how much I have left, I decide whether to join paid tours or opt for budget-friendly options like travelling with other backpackers, taking expensive flights or cheap bus rides, eating street food or going to a fancy restaurant. It all depends on your income and what country you’re in; it can be cheap-cheap or you can go broke in one day!
Any advice for those who want to explore remote working or workcations?
First you need to get yourself a remote job LOL! Jokes aside, if you have the chance, go for it. I understand some people might not be able to afford it due to commitments, but maybe you can first go with a group of friends or colleagues for a week to minimise the cost and see how it works for you. It’s a good start before you embark on your solo nomadic journey.
You should also embrace an open-minded perspective and be willing to adapt to the local culture. It's important to maintain your personal principles and beliefs, but it's equally important to understand that others may have different perspectives and choices. For instance, in Malaysia, dogs are often considered haram to Muslims, but in Turkey, I saw a Muslim woman in a full niqab walking her pet dog, which is completely normal there. If you go to places like Berlin or Barcelona, you'll see a completely different world where people are more open about who they are and the society accepts everyone for who they are.
Lastly, focus on what matters in life. Avoid spending money on things you don't need and invest more in life experiences. When you embrace a fully remote lifestyle, it's important not to become attached to possessions or obligations that can lead to unnecessary stress. Remote work and workcations can be very fulfilling, providing opportunities for personal and professional growth while exploring new places. You’ll be more content and happier, like how Malaysians say these days “healing sampai pagi” LOL. I hope my story will inspire more Malaysians to explore alternative lifestyles - YOLO! I also hope more Malaysian companies will be open to the idea of remote and hybrid work, giving Malaysians a better balance between work and life.
Zul Hairey is active on his Instagram where he frequently posts his stories about his adventures while working remotely, so be sure to follow him @zulhairey.
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