What is it Really Like to Work Abroad?

There’s a lot more to travelling for work than finding a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi. Author Robin Moriarty shares her tips for making the most of working abroad.
 

robin moriarty illustration

Robin Moriarty, illustration by Cristian Fowlie.

Robin Moriarty has spent her life redefining what it means to be successful. The business executive, former Duke University professor and author of What Game Are You Playing? doesn’t measure success in terms of money or accolades, but through her amazing experiences. 

She has spent her professional career working for multinational corporations and travelling to more than 60 countries on four continents in pursuit of her mission: “Spend the most time in the coolest places.”

With work journeys that stretch from a couple of days to months at a time, Moriarty has become a pro at quickly acclimatizing to a new location, navigating language barriers and absorbing cultures—all while attending meetings and getting her job done. 

Why is truly experiencing a place a priority for you?

I grew up in a small town in Florida, and not a lot of people travelled. When I was 11, I had the opportunity to go to Germany. Seeing this different culture for the first time, I realized the world was really big and I wanted to be part of it. Since that formative experience, all I’ve done is study, live and work abroad. 

What did you do to make that goal a reality?

I studied languages and international trade and economics; those things that I knew would be useful in the business world. But I made the decision that I was not going to work with any organization that wasn’t involved with doing something outside of the U.S. So, it was having the courage to say no to some opportunities that were good professionally, but didn’t have an international component.

What do you love about travelling?

When I travel to different places, I think about the way I was raised to pursue a successful life. In the U.S., that usually means you go to college, get a job, get married, have kids and achieve some level of financial success. What I love about travelling is going to other places and seeing how [people there] define a successful life, and then adjusting or adapting my life to include other versions of success, as well.

How do you bridge language barriers?

It’s extra patience. It’s making sure you have translators and paying attention, not just to the verbal part, but to the non-verbal cues. How people interact with each other, respect each other’s personal space and yield to hierarchy—even in airports, hotels, restaurants and taxis. Once you notice them, you can get pretty good at observing the cues.

How do you get used to being in a new location?

Keep parts of your routine, but adjust to the local time of the city. In London and Dublin, for example, dinner is quite early, versus Madrid, where dinner can be at 10 or 11 p.m. So you’ve got to adjust to the time and the rhythm of the place. 


3 Ways to Make the Most of Business Travel

Ditch the familiar

Don’t always stick to the same hotels or restaurants. “At one company I worked for, instead of having big, boring business dinners, we would have dinner at the houses of employees,” says Moriarty. “You really get a sense of the culture that way.”

Stop and look up

Avoid getting so caught up in work that you miss out on being in a place. “We spend a lot of time on our laptops, our phones and our emails and forget to look up, look out and experience a place,” Moriarty says. “Control your agenda; otherwise, it will control you.”

Leave the office

“Recognize what you’re doing is impacting people,” says Moriarty, who recommends excursions outside of the meeting room. “Get out and see who you’re impacting and how. Challenge yourself to do it in a positive way.”

[This story appears in the February 2020 edition of WestJet Magazine.]

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