Work travel – Blessing or Curse?

As I’ve mentioned in my site into, since my BME (big medical event) I had changed jobs to work at another manufacturing company. There’s lots of things to like about the new company, which I refer to in this blog as BigMegaManufacturingCorp. (Yeah, sorry – just not very creative! If you don’t like the name, I’m open to suggestions…). It’s not perfect of course, since I think that large organizations tend to be more tolerant of bad (or unproductive) office behaviors than smaller companies where the “bottom line” is less abstract. But the people I work with are very knowledgeable and for the most part are good people to work with. And relative to my last job, the money is f—ing awesome!

But the new role comes with a big, heaping dose of work-related travel. I have mixed feelings about this, so the purpose of today’s post is to explore the pros & cons of work-related travel to help me explain my thoughts on whether it’s really “worth it.”

Some background

First, some context. Prior to taking on my current role, I’ve generally been what most manufacturing folks would call a “site guy.” This means that I was responsible for handling design / troubleshooting activities at whatever site I worked at. This was pretty exciting (and kind of cool) initially, as I began learning about the kinds of issues individual sites deal with. I eventually reached a point where they’d seek me out for pretty much any major issues or major projects that the site had.

But over time, the rate at which I was learning new things was starting to drop off. One big “secret” I learned is that the manufacturing equipment I was being asked to help troubleshoot, design, and build was simply not very complicated. (My sense is that people tend to assume this stuff is hard, and often are either too lazy or just don’t have the confidence to dig into it themselves.) While this was great for the sites at which I worked, I felt very limited professionally. So, even though the sites saw me as a “miracle worker” for my ability to solve problems, the reality was that for me this wasn’t complicated stuff – just not very challenging!

In my new role, I now support manufacturing sites throughout my new company’s network. So I basically do a similar type of work as my previous “site guy” role, but for multiple sites. This role allows me to learn more about how different sites work, and in exchange the company gets a shared, knowledgeable consultant that can fix problems at multiple sites. As a member of my company’s corporate engineering department, I “do my part” by regularly travelling to manufacturing sites to help out with ongoing troubleshooting, design, and construction efforts. This involves a ton of work-related travel, which has so far been limited to domestic (US-based) sites.

This is a huge change for me and my family. Prior to this job, I had actually never left home without the family for more than 1-2 weeks a year. But now? I actually haven’t seen my office & “real” boss since just after Christmas of last year. (Yeah, seriously!)

The Pros

I’ve read others’ blog & forum posts on work related travel, and it sounds like the feedback is overwhelmingly negative. While this sounds pretty bad, for me the reality is a bit more complicated. While there are some obvious downsides that I’ll get to in a moment, I think there are a few pretty significant benefits that I need to balance these negatives against.

So…..drum roll, please!!……in no particular order, here’s my list of the good things about work travel:

  • Frequent traveller benefits. This is the one & only benefit that I sort of expected coming into the new job. My company (like most companies, I think) allows me to keep all of the frequent traveller points I’ve accumulated in my work travel. For example, I now have about 80,000 (earned) miles on the airline that I fly the most, which I can eventually use to get free airline tickets for my family. I also have thousands of points at Hertz, as well as points from some of the hotels I’ve stayed at. I’ve used some of those non-airline points already for a recent vacation, to get free car rental days and multiple free overnight stays for me and the family.
  • Higher (but not bulletproof) job security. One thing I’ve learned in my career is that job security is never something that’s entirely in your control. You are always one management change away from losing your job, no matter how good your work is. However, in this role I’ve learned that I can mitigate this risk by travelling to multiple sites and growing my professional network. This new role has allowed me to prove myself at multiple job sites, each of which have their own independent leadership teams. The good news is that they’ve all been very happy with my performance, to the point that my management generally tends to have to fight to pull me out of a site when my work scope is completed!
  • The good news in all of this is that my job security isn’t really tied to a single leadership team on a specific site. If a single site that I support has a change in leadership, and I subsequently fall “out of favor” with a specific site leader, it doesn’t really matter to me since there are multiple other sites in the network that are literally screaming for me to go to their site and help them. In this way I’m less tied to the politics of any one manufacturing site, which is cool because company politics at a manufacturing facility tends to be pretty bad – see below for more….
  • Staying the hell away from site politics. At each of the four manufacturing sites at which I’ve done work so far, I’ve had glowing reviews. In fact, when I wrapped up my assignment of each of these sites, I’ve consistently been asked by site leadership to stay on site as a full-time, site based employee. Good deal, you say? Nope. Not a chance. Here’s why:
  • My experience is that the company politics at manufacturing sites tends to be really, really bad, regardless of what company the site belongs to. There simply tends to be a lot of very strong personalities at manufacturing sites that want to focus more on gaining personal power rather than “doing the right thing” for the company. I’m not sure why that is the case, and I realize that there probably are some exceptions out there – but that has been my experience.
  • In any case, my current role allows me to transcend the politics of a particular site. I can simply come in, keep my head down, and work on fixing the problems I was asked to come in and resolve. And when I’m done, I can leave. And for the loudmouth manufacturing person with the power complex? Since I’m effectively a “temp” in the site’s eyes, I typically can fly under the radar of these people without much notice from people like that. If I do get noticed by the site a–hole, I can avoid dealing with him without caring about any long term consequences, since I’m only temporarily there. (And yes, I meant “him” – my experience is that the really bad ones tend to be overwhelmingly male for some reason. Not always, but still.)
  • Opportunity for future contract work? My hope is that when I eventually leave full-time work in a few years, I’ll be able to leverage this good reputation to allow for future contract support opportunities once I retire. This would allow me to leave work gradually, by allowing me to work full-time with periodic (ie months-long) breaks between assignments to allow me to travel and spend time with the family. Maybe I can also use that reputation to negotiate for a better contract terms as well?
  • I can also potentially use contracting as a way to finance the travel – once the kiddos leave the nest, it would be cool to work in another site or country with my wife, with the client company paying the expenses along the way. (This may slow down if Congress can get these tax cuts passed, which would help my company and others build plants here in the US rather than offshore tax-havens. But we’ll see – my sense is that it’s just not in the cards.)
  • Better choice of assignments. This is the part that I think I like the best. As a former “site guy,” the projects and problems I was asked to handle were generally not very big. There would occasionally be large projects out there that I would be asked to handle, but on average those would be few and far between. Also, there was a ton of administrative busywork associated with site support, which I absolutely hated.
  • But this new role is much, much different. In my company, the site engineering teams tend to handle only small problems and all of the admin crap, and they save the big problems for corporate people like me. So my work tends to be more interesting and technically challenging than the routine, day-to-day stuff I used to handle as a site engineer. Oh, and no admin work – I can generally just ignore that and claim I’m not trained in their site-specific work processes, and the sites will just handle this themselves. (They never, ever ask me to get trained on their systems, which you’d think would be the logical response. Which is good, because I would likely just refuse anyway…!)
  • The best thing is that the “really hard” problems I typically get asked to resolve are often not that complicated, once I get in and dig into things a bit. My experience is that the site engineering teams are typically staffed on the cheap, with a small number of very junior engineers with only limited experience in dealing with problems – so they just don’t have the bandwidth or experience/technical skills to deal with complicated problems. This lets me come in and “look like a hero” for solving problems that aren’t actually that bad, but ultimately beyond the skill set of the people on site. For what it’s worth, I always use my time there to mentor the site engineers on solving these types of problems, which is something that I enjoy.
  • Reduced out-of-pocket living expenses. The company pays for my personal living expenses while I’m travelling, which has a small but not insignificant impact on our family’s out-of-pocket spending. Things like gas (for the rental car) and food can be differed to my company as expenses, which helps slightly on our budget. My company also reimburses my personal mileage to and from the airport, which is nice. Again – not a huge amount, but when I’m home for a few weeks the increase in our family expenses is enough to notice.

The Cons

Here’s what I’ve come up with for a list of downsides of work travel. Like the list above, there’s a mix of crap I expected, along with items that I wasn’t really expecting:

  • Reduced family time. This is the one thing that you’ll see mentioned the most on any list of things people hate about travelling. My experience? Well, to be honest it hasn’t been as bad as you might think. No, I don’t get to see my family during the workweek. However, my family has a very busy schedule during the week, so we hardly see each other during the week even when I am home. And for the weeknights that we are home, everyone is usually so wiped out that we just sort of conk out in front of the TV or some books. So, the family time that I’m missing tends to be low-value time for all of us anyway. And in any case, I can – and frequently do – connect with the family on Skype at night.
  • Of course, one aspect of this that I need to mention is that my company is pretty laid-back on travel requirements and costs. They don’t require me to travel on my own time or anything, so I can fly out on Mondays and return Fridays rather than on the weekend. This is super helpful – I learned very early that having two consecutive full days at home each week is critical to maintaining my family’s sanity with all this travel. I’ve also tended to catch an earlier flight home on Fridays (and always using a direct flight), so I can make it home before the kids go to bed. It costs a little more than the later flight or one with multiple connections, but it does make the travel schedule more bearable. And the company hasn’t raised it as an issue so far.
  • Family logistics issues. With me not being home, all of the responsibility for shuttling our kids around for after-school activities during the week falls on my wife. She used to be a stay-at-home mom until very recently, so initially this wasn’t an issue for our family at all But now that she has a full-time job herself this gets old quickly. Thankfully, our kids are a bit older and so we don’t usually have to pick them up immediately after the activities are over. Their schools are located within communities that include a library or fast-food place, so if my wife is running late the kids can walk somewhere safe and wait it out.
  • That said, it’s still frustrating for me to have to dump all of this responsibility on her shoulders. We keep reminding ourselves that we’re doing this to “pad the ‘stache” to accelerate our retirement plans, which helps. And when I am home and working from my home office, I do as much as I can to take the load off of her during the week. But it’s still annoying.
  • Limited ability to help with problems at home. Similar to above, my wife is mostly “on her own” if something important breaks when I’m not there. For example, my wife’s car got a flat tire over the weekend, so we needed to get it replaced. Luckily, I’m home this week so I can bring it down to the garage and work remotely while it’s getting repaired. If I was traveling, however, this would have been a much bigger deal. I do find that I need to spend a little more money on home repairs in general, since my work schedule forces me to contract things out that I would normally have just fixed myself.
  • Reduced productivity. This is the one that I was most surprised about. For my current assignment, my one-way commute is about six hours. Seriously – between travel to and from the airport, security screening, boarding, the flight itself, and some “slack” time in case something happens, it’s six hours. Each way. During most of this time, it’s pretty tough for me to catch up on any work since I’m either driving, standing in line somewhere, or I’m just somewhere where it’s just not enough time to pull out my laptop and do something useful with it. And you can forget about working on the plane – I’ve tried that, and I find that it’s very tough to work from one of those tiny coach seats and tables!
  • As a result, I find that my productivity during the week is not as high as I would like. I usually work late during the weeks Im on site, since I’m there anyway and I don’t have much else to do anyway! And to be honest, I tend to be pretty efficient in my work anyway, so I don’t think my colleagues at work notice the lower productivity. But I notice it, and it still bugs me.

The verdict

So, at the end of the day – what does this mean? Surprisingly, I actually don’t think it’s all that bad right now. Financially I come out slightly ahead with work travel, and the impact on my family has been manageable so far.

However, I do realize that my ability to tolerate this is due in large part to the flexibility my employer has granted me, and that my travel has all been domestic. If that changes – say, if I have to start travelling on the weekends, or if my assignment is to an international destination that would prevent weekend trips home, my opinion on this would probably change drastically, for the negative. But hey, that’s what my FU money is for! (Yes, that subject has been talked to death in the FI blogosphere, I know – but it’s still critically important. More on that in a future post!)

Now, let’s hear from you!

So, what do you think? Have you had to deal work travel, and (if so) what is/was your feedback on the experience? Do have any recommendations to make it easier on your fellow road-warriors? If your work doesn’t require travel, would you accept a role that does? Why or why not? Let’s talk about it in the comments!