This story was originally published by The Guardian.
Shoes off is the first rule as I step inside Hubud, a co-working space in the laidback town of Ubud, Bali. Surrounded by rice paddies and tropical rainforest, the three-storey building is full of MacBook-wielding expats, bamboo furniture and ceiling fans that are already struggling to cool the place at 8am on a Monday. I’m about to begin a week here with Hacker Paradise, a travelling community of “digital nomads” who are set to co-work through three countries this spring.
The co-working retreat is a growing trend for a new generation of workers, especially among citizens of western countries where job markets are failing to offer attractive prospects. An increasing number are ditching the traditional office entirely, opting to combine travel with remote work, developing a startup or freelancing instead.
This particular community of location-independent workers is the brainchild of Casey Rosengren, 23, and Alexey Komissarouk, 28, who met through the tech scene as graduates in Pennsylvania. “We had three Skype conversations before moving into an apartment together for three months during the first Hacker Paradise. We’d actually never met in person before that,” Rosengren says.
Last year, prompted by Komissarouk’s expiring US visa, they worked with a hotel in Costa Rica to organise their first co-working retreat. “We wanted to be able to travel, work and hang out in a community of people that we enjoyed spending time with. So the motivation behind starting Hacker Paradise was pretty selfish,” says Komissarouk. “We wanted to build something with that feeling of working in a job with people you really like, or sharing ideas and trying things out at college.”
After the success of the 2014 programme, Hacker Paradise is now halfway through a tour of three countries: Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. Komissarouk and Rosengren consider a few different factors when deciding on locations, but the primary factors are interest, affordability and infrastructure – especially when it comes to reliable 3G and WiFi. “Aside from those things, it’s actually very simple. We decide where to go, and we go there,” Komissarouk explains. “The most important question is always, “Where would you like to spend a month?’”
Entrepreneur Nicole Kelner, 21, was recruited as programme manager for this summer’s co-working journey. Still studying in the US, she took time away from university and her company Nicole Kelner Designs to take up the role. “I love everything that Hacker Paradise represents and I was keen to help facilitate that experience for others,” she says.
“There are so many people working on fascinating projects, but it’s lonely when you’re travelling and doing that independently,” she adds. “I think it’s really special to be able to fall into a group that understands your interests, your habits and what you’re working on. It creates this incredible community that I’ve never encountered before.”
For participants, there are lots of appealing factors. “It didn’t make much sense to stay at home – my work is pretty location-independent,” says Luka Kacil, chief operating officer at App Monsta, a data-driven market research business with a global reach.
Kacil, 27, was based in his native Slovenia before joining Hacker Paradise in Costa Rica last year. He returned to the community for this year’s trip across Asia. “The work-life thing is very blended here, and there’s a lot of value in the social part of things,” he says. “Everyone is working, but everyone has time to talk. And if you want to take a day away to do something, you can, maybe with some other people.”
As a remote worker, Kacil is part of a team spanning several countries, which comes with certain challenges. “The thing you have to figure out is the time difference. Communication is really important in my company, as it always is in an international team,” he says. “There are some early mornings and late nights to facilitate meetings, but it all works out.”
For Agnes Duverger, 29, originally from France, the community element is the most important part of the experience: “You meet people, you talk about your projects, and it’s great. I love learning about what other people are working on, especially through the weekly groups, workshops and demonstrations.”
Duverger is currently developing a mobile game, Moopeez, to educate children about recycling and environmental issues. The concept saw her awarded second place at an international Microsoft competition called Imagine Cup in 2013, and Hacker Paradise has proven a stimulating environment for progressing the project. “There’s a certain pressure – a good pressure – from others here. Everyone is working on something, so you want to make sure you are doing good work too. I find it very motivating,” she says.
Others have joined the community to rediscover their work-life balance. Phillip Gourley, a web developer from Cheshire, England, saw Hacker Paradise as an opportunity to take the leap into freelance work and dedicate more time to his PPS web hosting startup.
“For six months before I left, I was regularly working 85 hours a week. My work-life balance was seriously messed up,” he explains. “Coming here, it’s easier to be balanced and quantify the effort you’re putting in – you can see exactly what you’re working towards. A tropical drink by the infinity pool feels like the right reward for a hard day’s work.”
Komissarouk and Rosengren have welcomed people aged 18 to 55 from more than 20 countries so far. There were 200 applications for Hacker Paradise in Asia, and just fifty participants will join – some for a week, others a month, and some for the whole journey. “The application process itself eliminates some from joining us,” Komissarouk says. “We’re looking for people who are serious about their work and enthusiastic about collaborating and co-working with others in different fields.”
Participants have included ex-Apple engineers, ex-Google employees and graduates in subjects as diverse as graphic design, photography and scriptwriting. “We interview everyone because we want to get a sense of who they are as much as what they do,” says Komissarouk. “The most important thing is that they can contribute to the community, and that they have an interesting project to work on.”
By the end of my week in Bali, I’ve written three features – a little over 5,000 words – and collaborated on projects with two other freelancers. Far away from the stifling office cubicle, it is possible to find focus, feel inspired and work productively – just a few of the benefits of co-working in paradise.