How to actually get work done when you travel on business

First step: Stop using an Out-of-Office reply

Whether it’s an official work trip or one strictly for pleasure, getting out of town should always involve new experiences, connections, sights, and tastes. Our new series, Work on the Fly, helps you get the most out of every journey.

I work “on the road” as a travel editor. I’ve done phone interviews in airplane lounges and swanky hotel lobbies, sent emails from a tuk-tuk in Bangkok and at an early-morning Taj Mahal sunrise. I’ve filed many stories with itchy, jet-lagged eyes.

Like many of us who travel for work—no matter what the industry—I’ve had to figure out a way to meet deadlines and ensure I’m actually getting work done for the job that I love. It’s a challenge when you’re not in your normal routine or in total control of your schedule—plus, there is a new city to explore, new people to meet, and you want to take advantage of your travel time.

Henley Vazquez, a member at WeWork 85 Broad St in New York City who owns the travel agency Passported, takes 12-15 trips each year. “It’s not easy to be on the road and to keep up with work,” she admits. “But it’s essential that I’m out visiting hotels, exploring new destinations, and meeting clients, so I’ve found ways to juggle it all.”

These fresh tips will help you strike that balance and get work done, while remembering why you took the trip in the first place.

Stop using an out-of-office message. How often has this happened? You write an email to Megan and receive an out-of-office response that she’s traveling. Megan instructs you to please contact Grace in her absence, which you do. Megan then quickly emails you (even though she’s traveling!), answers your question, and forgets to copy Grace. One simple email has turned into an unnecessary circle of responses.

When you’re traveling in a well-connected place, consider not using your OOO reply to improve your workflow. After all, Vazquez finds that “most people ignore” her out of office when she uses one, and expect a response. Without the OOO, you may be more incentivized to respond more quickly (and clear your inbox), which reduces your overall workload and mental load.  

Find your email windows, and don’t touch an email twice. Laura Davidson, who owns a PR agency in New York, recommends conquering different types of emails at different times—for your sanity. “To tackle my inbox, I handle the simple ones at night, and then in the morning, I handle the ones that require brain power before my meetings,” she says.

Start at the most recent, rather than the oldest, email, as that one might take care of 20 emails before it. Samantha Ettus, an author and keynote speaker based in L.A., says managing your inbox on a travel day is a bit like managing your kitchen while you’re cooking—clean up as you go, and take deliberate 15-minute windows during the day to catch up.

“Make sure you don’t touch an email twice,” she says. This means that most of the time, you respond when you open the email. If it requires more time, mark it as unread and add it as a task to your to-do list.

One last time-saver: Don’t forget to download your emails to your computer before you get on the airplane. If the Wi-Fi works, you can handle in-flight; if not, handle it offline and everything will send when you connect.  

Don’t hole up in your hotel room to work. Remember why you left home in the first place. Attend the networking event or happy hour, and don’t bemoan your inbox or how busy you are in front of new professional friends. Make those connections that are only possible in real life.

Ettus is a big fan of connecting with friends of friends or industry leaders in the city you’re visiting, so you make the most of your time there. “You might as well develop a network in that city—it can only expand your possibilities in the future,” she says.

But embrace the luxury of alone time. For extra motivation to get work done, treat yourself to room service or a glass of wine at your hotel. If you left a family at home, this is your chance to work without anyone knocking on your door or interrupting you.

“A quiet hotel room is a luxury I don’t have at home,” says Vazquez, who has three kids, ages 12, 9, and 1. “I wake up, make myself a coffee, and plow through email in the hotel bed.”

Record a video for your kids instead of calling to check in. Nothing makes a traveling parent crazier than trying to call home at a specific time when you don’t have full control over your schedule. Ettus recommends making a daily morning video for the caregiver at home to show to your kids at any time, rather than leaving a seminar or cutting a site visit short to find a quiet space to make a call before their bedtime. It will let you focus on your day’s events, and you won’t “risk interfering with the good feelings at home,” she says.

Find an app that helps. Whether it’s the simple Notes app on your iPhone, or one like Evernote, Trello, or Smartsheet for project management, find something that simplifies your workflow. You have a lot to think about when traveling, and need a place to dump thoughts, brilliant ideas, and reminders so you don’t forget anything.

“I use Workflowy to keep track of new or ongoing requests,” says Vazquez. “I review that list at the end of every day to make sure I’ve addressed anything time-sensitive.”

Pack your own food. If you’re running from meeting to meeting or up against a tight deadline, you don’t have time to be hungry. I pack my own food, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—the ones from Eli’s in New York last for five days. On a recent trip to Istanbul, the sandwich in my bag saved me after a long day of meetings. I just wanted to go to bed and wake up refreshed, ready to tackle my inbox and explore the city.

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