Envy the lucky few who can telecommute — from Florida
All it took to flee the New England winter was a flexible workplace and a good Internet connection.
While most of New England shivered its way through the winter of 2015, Lori Desjardins was soaking up the sun in Venice, Florida. In the mornings, while Bostonians were still digging out from another blizzard, she was cooling down from an outdoor jog. While her neighbors back home complained of snarled commutes and 6-foot snowdrifts, Desjardins spent her weekends enjoying the warm sun at Casey Key Beach, near her house. "I took many photos of that beach and posted them on Facebook," she says. That is, "until my neighbors threatened bodily harm if I didn't stop rubbing it in."
Desjardins's life, in short, was the one dreamed of by retirees the country over, but the 48-year-old attorney from Maine was not retired — she wasn't even on vacation. Instead, she was one of those rare New Englanders who complained about the winter weather and then actually did something about it. Call them young snowbirds or temporary transplants, but for some lucky workers, it turns out all you need to escape winter — every last snowflake of it — is a good Internet connection and an abnormally low tolerance for low temperatures.
Desjardins spent many years awaiting the right conditions for her escape south. For half of her career, she was in-house counsel for a bank that required her presence in the office each workday. Once a year she spent a week of her vacation time at an island resort, trying to soak up enough vitamin D to last until April.
Then in 2011 she joined a new firm with offices around the country and, as she puts it, "a completely different culture." As long as she met the needs of her clients, her new bosses didn't care where she was working. So for about the same price as the week's all-inclusive vacation, Desjardins rented a house for two months in Florida and bought her plane tickets.
Her timing was perfect. "While people at home were digging out of yet another storm," Desjardins says, she and her partner were sitting on the beach. They liked the experience so much they immediately put a down payment on a rental for this winter in Sunny Isles Beach on the east coast of Florida. "I'm incredibly grateful to my firm," she says. "Not a lot of employers are open to it, but society's changing, and if you get the job done, it shouldn't matter where you are."
Increasingly, employers seem to agree, particularly in the Boston area, which ranks fifth out of the nation's 15 largest metropolitan areas for telework (Atlanta is tops). Kate Lister is a consultant on telework and other "agile" work policies and practices. She estimates that since 2005, the number of area employees who work at home at least half of the time has grown by 240 percent, more than twice the growth rate seen in the rest of the country. And employers aren't making the switch out of the kindness of their hearts. Remote work options can pay off in the form of increased employee productivity and reduced real estate costs, absenteeism, and turnover. "People may actually work longer hours when they are at home, but it dramatically reduces their stress," Lister says. "People want flexibility."
Thanks to his employer's flex policies, Matt McGorty has spent three of the last four winters as a telecommuting snowbird. The 36-year-old works for NASDAQ, updating financial websites. Back in 2011, he was living and working in the Western Massachusetts town of Granville with his wife, Mimi Cinceva, and their toddler son.
That was the year it snowed in October. The family lost power for a week, affecting McGorty's ability to work from home. They found themselves dreading the snowy months — four or five of them, at least. They had settled in Granville to be near his parents, so they did not want to move away permanently, but they wanted an escape hatch. They just couldn't face another winter stuck inside.
The more the couple thought about a temporary move, the more possible it seemed. Cinceva, now 34, had some experience with seasonal living. In her 20s, she worked as a house cleaner on Nantucket during the summers and Florida during the winters. In Granville, she had her own cleaning company, but most of her clients were Berkshire County second-home owners who didn't need her services in the winter. McGorty worked from home, and their toddler was not yet in school. Nothing tied them to Massachusetts except the cost of leaving it.
So they settled on Destin, on the Gulf of Mexico in northern Florida, where they have friends and where vacation rentals are relatively cheap. Although they had to keep paying rent on their Granville house, they found ways to make the trip affordable. They negotiated with their son's day care to hold a spot in exchange for partial payments. They drove south to save on plane fares and rental cars. Between not paying to heat their northern house — they rented it from relatives who were able to make sure the pipes didn't freeze — and the lower cost of living in Destin, McGorty says the two months were affordable and well worth the effort and the 24-hour drive.
McGorty says that weekdays in Florida turned out to be a lot like his weekdays in Massachusetts: He opened his laptop and went to work. But getting into the sun every day made all the difference for his state of mind. In Granville, they lived on a hilly main road with poor visibility. "You couldn't even go outside without basically risking your life," he says. But in Florida, Cinceva says, "even on cold and rainy days, it was still better [than snow]."
And as with Desjardins, a single winter away was enough to convert the couple. Although they stayed in Granville in 2013 after the birth of their second child, they returned to Destin for two months in 2014, and again in January of last year. This month, a colleague who lives in Pennsylvania is following in McGorty's sandal-clad footsteps, spending four weeks in Florida with his own wife and new baby.
When I first heard of the idea through Cinceva, who is a friend, I wanted to hitch a ride with her south. Why shouldn't I spend January and February — and maybe March, too, while I was at it — with palm trees swaying over my head? But those of us still working who are not tied to an office are often tied to spouses who can't telecommute, to elderly parents and nearby friends, and to houses whose roofs might cave in with snow — in other words, to the responsibilities and the relationships that make up a life. It's finding ways to manage those other ties that proves daunting for many.
Desjardins says that even after she won permission from her firm to work remotely, she hesitated because her mother is in a long-term care facility back home in Maine. But Desjardins has siblings nearby, and the facility assured her it would stay in close contact. And she thought of her dad. "My father died at too young an age, and I remember him saying, 'Don't wait to do what you want in life,' " she says. "If I don't learn from that — gosh, that would be unfortunate."
Perhaps the greatest challenge to a young snowbird lifestyle is school-age children. Unless a family home-schools their kids or relocates for a full semester, taking more than a week's vacation is all but impossible. The winter of 2015 was Matt McGorty and Mimi Cinceva's fourth and last as temporary Florida residents. Their son, now 5, will start kindergarten in the fall. "We realized we couldn't keep going down," McGorty says.
But that doesn't mean they're settling for the lifestyle of many Massachusetts parents, spending the winter venting their seasonal affective disorder on Facebook. No, they've opted for lifestyle change on a grander scale. This month finds these former young snowbirds in their new, permanent, year-round home — in Huntersville, North Carolina.