How I Manage Business Travel Part 1: Family Balance

In the mid 90’s I took my first business trips. They were a bit isolating. I remember one in which I boarded a plane across the country for LA  and checked in to a hotel. This would be an exciting trip. Previous trips had no Internet access – there were only phone calls. They were prohibitively expensive so voice contact with my partner, Sage, was limited to a minute or two every few days to say, essentially “I’m OK.”  The LA trip would be different, though. We would have slow dial-up internet and could use it for chat. We were no longer limited by time and it was a game changer. I’d go to work for the day, grab a quick bite and then we’d spend time together just like always.

In 1998 I became a parent and within 4 months a full time at-home dad. In 2001, Daegan was around two and a half years old.  After I spent my first two years as a parent living with him and Sage in a yurt in the woods, we had moved to a small house in the nearby village. We got a few more bills and our local businesses slowed so we were living a bit hand to mouth – even with a rent of only $190/month. Then it happened: I started off from a two way stop sign and didn’t see the car coming. We were t-boned and our car was totaled.  We needed cash.

Luckily I had some contacts in my then former (and now current) industry and made some calls. While they didn’t have any of the technical writing work they would sometimes send me, they had some work at a client site for several weeks. I would leave my family at home and live in an apartment in Kalamazoo for two weeks – then they’d join me for another month or so. The pay was good so that would manage to help us out a lot. The company booked me a flight to Michigan a few days later and I was off on my first trip without my family since just after becoming a full time at-home parent. I was really sad.

First, I prepared Daegan, letting him know what was coming. He didn’t seem worried. He had Sage and his granny to hang out with while I was gone. Still, I felt bad and to be extra sure I got out a microphone and proceeded to read and talk in to a recorder. I put this on a CD for Daegan and a couple days later I headed out.

I was fine until I got to the airport. And then I was sitting at the gate. Being pre-9/11 there were actually non-passengers there also. A mom and her 3 year old daughter were there to see a man off.  The boarding door closed, and the little girl’s face crumpled. “DADDY DOESN’T LOVE ME!!!!” she wailed. I turned away so the daughter wouldn’t see my own face crumpling.

As it turned out, though, it wasn’t bad.  Sage and I were well versed in remote communication – we met on Relay back in 1991. We chatted morning and night. I would call to talk to Daegan as well. The time passed quickly and before long they joined me there and Daegan got his first taste of what it was like to have a dad that got up and went to work in the morning. Our bank account slowly refilled and we went back to the Ozarks where our money would last us 4-5x as long as it would anywhere else we lived. I would do a similar trip again in December, this time just outside of New York City.

Virtual DadAfter that I slowly worked my way back to the working world – eventually taking a full time job on a remote assignment in New Mexico in 2002. This time everyone came along for all but the last month. Sage and Daegan left a bit early – so they could head home and start packing our house for our move to Canada. There was too much excitement for any of us to miss one another. Meanwhile, technology progressed and this time we had high speed access and in came Virtual Dad. Virtual Dad didn’t do a whole lot on his end but he got to see Daegan’s creations, watch him play, and connect every day after work. Meanwhile, Sage and I would play Backgammon online thanks to FIBS, chatting in another window.

And then we had 5 years with no travel. On the other hand, I was back working full time. And sometimes, particularly in 2007, “Full time” meant “nearly every waking hour”. I wasn’t traveling but home was mostly where I slept.

But then the travel it came back with a vengeance. I was sent to Quebec City – first for a short 6 week stint, and then for eight whole months. As assignments go, this was one of my favourites. My French improved (it has since declined greatly), I got to live in a wonderful historic and bike friendly city.  But my trips home were less frequent.  On the plus side, at that time Daegan was being homeschooled and Sage was not yet teaching so they could come out to meet me.  At this point Virtual Dad 2.0 was released and with it a whole bunch of new and exciting features.  This version had a camera on both ends.  This came in extra handy when Virtual Dad wanted to help with dinner. Sage, as many of you know is not a fan of cooking and doesn’t know my recipes. But with the camera on their end I could see how they were doing – advise if the onions were cooked enough to add the spices in or if a sauce had thickened enough.  Daegan and I started playing a few multiplayer games as well and found ourselves playing Auteria and an open world driving game called Rigs of Rods. With our headsets installed we would play and chat as we went. When we weren’t feeling like games we’d choose a video online and start it at the same time and then watch it together. This was his introduction to Fawlty Towers. We also read a few books – I read Little Brother and  a (slightly edited for 10 year old appropriateness or 37 year old parent comfort – you  decide) version of Stephen King’s The Mist.  I may have been physically in another province most of that year, but thanks to a schedule that was pretty regularly 7.5 hours/day I was spending more time with my family than I had the previous year. I’d come home from work, turn on the computer, connect with everyone, make dinner – sometimes with them, sometimes on my own and then we’d settle in for an evening together.

I’d still get home every now and again when they didn’t want to come see me. And one time, I gave Sage my Skype password and had her pretend to be me in chat while I pulled up in a cab on a surprise trip home.

In later years there have been peaks and valleys in travel. Last year was one of my busiest with over 120 days not only away from home but outside the country.  At this very moment I’m on a four day business trip outside the country.  Daegan is more busy than he used to be so we’ve been catching one another more by email than chat. And as for Sage and I, we’re feeding our Masterchef Australia addiction before and after work with a chat window open in the corner to comment on what we’re seeing. During the day we share our accomplishments as accountability partners for our mutual productivity goals.

But while we all love it best when I’m at home, being a family member who’s away many nights a year doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Use technology to your advantage. Share chat sessions, photos and video chats. And now with smart phones, you can even bring your family outside the hotel room to see where you’re visiting. Are you visiting somewhere in a totally different time zone? Share the novelty of it being dinnertime while your family eats breakfast. Take a walk down the street in your new city. Or join your family on a visit to friends.

In the end, thanks to technology, you may be out of town but you don’t have to be out of your family’s life.

Next time: I answer the question: How do you connect with people and enjoy a place you’re visiting when on the surface it’s not really your cup of tea.

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