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I’m a digital nomad who turned my side hustle into my full-time job in 2020: Here’s how

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Mary Elizabeth Elkordy is a digital nomad and the founder of Elkordy Global Strategies
Courtesy Mary Elizabeth Elkordy
Key Points
  • At the start of the pandemic, Mary Elizabeth Elkordy lost her PR job. "While I initially viewed it a setback," she writes, "I realized that this layoff was an opportunity."
  • "Being able to work from anywhere has meant that, at times, I'm always on the clock. It can be demanding, and it took some time to get the hang of it. But I have found the strategies that help me stay engaged and productive."
  • "It has been so important to build structure within the company and create an online environment that feels welcoming while letting my employees know my door is always open."

Like so many Americans, at the start of the pandemic, I was laid off. I was working at a PR firm and when I lost my job, my world got turned upside down. 

Fortunately, I had already been doing some freelance PR work on my own for a couple of years. So I quickly shifted my focus and worked on turning my side hustle into my full-time gig

Up to this point, I lived in Washington, D.C., and traveled a lot for work. I'd always wanted to be a digital nomad, but I simply didn't have enough time, or the finances, to make it happen. 

While I initially viewed the loss of my job as a setback, I realized that this layoff was an opportunity for me to finally take the digital nomad plunge. I decided to keep my lease, and I've worked from places as varied as New York, Paris, and Dubai. 

In early 2020, the company was just me. I was handling projects for multiple clients, sometimes pulling all-nighters and working into the morning.

After a few months of being in business, I was able to bring on my first employees. Today, we have a team of 24, with anywhere from 40 to 50 clients, and a staff with expertise in public relations, social media marketing, and digital marketing. Our company is primarily based in D.C. and New York City, but we have employees based across the country, and internationally as well.

Here are the biggest lessons I have learned turning my side hustle into a fully remote global business. 

'Create an online environment that feels welcoming' to remote employees

One of the biggest challenges of starting any new business is developing a company culture, particularly if you are all in different places. For me, a big priority is to find a way to keep inspiring and connecting with my colleagues even though I can't physically pop over to their desk. 

That's why it has been so important to build structure within the company and create an online environment that feels welcoming while letting my employees know my door is always open.

Since we're fully remote, we try not to get stuck and rely too heavily on text messaging only. I think it's important to diversify our communication methods with one another through phone or video calls as well, to remember that you're talking to a real person behind a screen. 

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When I'm in cities where there's an Elkordy Global Strategies employee, I plan meetups, or even something as simple as going for lunch or seeing a movie. 

I've experimented with various activities, but something that has really stuck at our company is weekly professional development classes. We hold sessions about topics social media marketing, and leadership and management. We also invite guest speakers from other parts of the media industry to join our weekly company calls. 

I want to provide my employees with every opportunity to enhance their skills, build their portfolios, and make engaging and enriching connections.

Find the productivity strategies that work best for you 

I have been thrilled by the freedom remote work can provide. But being able to work from anywhere has meant that, at times, I'm always on the clock. It can be demanding, and it took some time to get the hang of it.

I have found the strategies that help me stay engaged and productive. 

For me, I work best at different times of the day. Sometimes I'm more productive at night, so if I need to take a little break and come back to work later, I will. To avoid burnout, I try things like going for a walk, picking up the phone to call someone, or I switch up my location — work outside, go to a coffee shop, sit in a park. 

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I have found that being around other people helps to feel less isolated in a work from home environment. That's why I like the digital nomad life. If my reality is I never have a real day off work, I might as well take advantage of going somewhere new and meeting new people who have totally different experiences to my own.

I like to take advantage of global conference opportunities because then I can travel and make new business connections all around the world.

Be prepared for both the joy and the stress of the unexpected

Over the last few years, I've been able to work from New York, Egypt, Florida, Paris, California, and Dubai. I maintain my lease back in the states for when I return, and this year, my travels will take me back to Spain, Sweden, and Egypt. 

One of the biggest challenges with traveling during the pandemic was the constantly shifting safety requirements. Especially if you're traveling in a country where you don't speak the primary language, there was a bit of a challenge finding out where to get tested and then the added stress of waiting to get the results back in time to travel home. 

Understanding each country's rules for testing, costs, masking, etc., added some anxiety to my travels but I did my best to research and prepare ahead of time. But having the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop to my workday, even with the ongoing levels of uncertainty, has been hard to beat. 

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When I'm overseas, I've found that I have had to learn how to structure my day around different time zones. My lunch break might become my dinner break. If I want to explore a museum or another landmark, I do that before the work day starts, and then plan out where I'm going to do work with Wifi and internet connection. 

If I'm going to go somewhere for the day, I'll figure out the city's traffic flow, so I can get there within enough time and shift into a quiet place so I'm not taking a client call from the back of a taxi or a bus, for example. Of course, things happen, but advanced preparation means I have more time to enjoy the benefits of working and traveling abroad. 

Remember that structure can be flexible 

Many traditional offices require their employees to live within a certain distance from their office, but this limits your talent pool of potential employees. I have talented, hardworking, highly skilled employees working from across the nation and globe, with team members based in Spain, Amsterdam, Dubai, Florida, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and New York City, to name a few. 

As gratifying as this is, it means that depending on where I am, and the time zones my colleagues and clients are working in, for example, my work day might start at 3 or 4 pm and run to midnight.

Despite those inherent challenges, we have been able to create some consistent structure for everyone. 

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Our teams meet every Friday at an agreed upon time. I've found that it gives everyone a nice chance to connect and then send each other off into the weekend.

And of course there's always flexibility. If the majority of the team is based in the U.S., their colleagues in Europe are able establish the on the clock parameters that work best for them. 

I genuinely believe that with businesses shifting their focus and remote work becoming more the norm, with drive, hustle and preparation, anyone can live a digital nomad lifestyle. Becoming a digital nomad has allowed me to live the adventurous life I've always dreamed of. 

Mary Elizabeth Elkordy is President and founder of Elkordy Global Strategies, a full-service boutique PR firm launched during the pandemic that works with a range of clients from nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies. Mary began her career on Capitol Hill working for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, before becoming a production director at WABC-AM in New York City. Since 2016, Mary has produced and co-hosted DL Hughley's podcast The Hughley Truth. Mary is a TEDx speaker, and at 24, became the youngest recipient of City and State Magazine's "40 Under 40″ honor in New York State. 

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