Meet the ‘Covid expats’ who moved abroad during the pandemic. Here’s what they learned about work


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LONDON — Moving overseas might not seem like the most obvious thing to do during a pandemic, but for many people, Covid-19 provided the nudge they needed to take the plunge.

Around one in 10 readers of expat website InterNations said they had decided to move abroad as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, in its survey of more than 12,000 people online in January 2021.

Maria Eilersen is one of those who made the move. A PR coach and yoga teacher, she left London for Lisbon, Portugal, in November 2020, as cases of Covid were surging in the U.K.

Eilersen, who is Danish, had heard that the Portuguese capital was becoming a new hub for the international community post-Brexit. She also wanted to live somewhere with a sunnier climate than Britain. “It was very much, like, why not? We didn’t really do a whole lot of research — we were like, let’s just see what happens … and it was the best decision ever,” Eilersen told CNBC by video call.

Portugal came fifth in InterNations’ survey of the best places for expats in 2021, ranking highly in terms of quality of life, leisure options and affordability.

Eilersen and her Spanish partner used apartments they found on Airbnb to try out different areas of the city and eventually settled in Campo de Ourique, which they liked for its wide sidewalks and park where they could take their dog.

Workwise, Eilersen had already been coaching clients remotely via video through her consultancy Be Conscious PR, which helped make the transition to Lisbon seamless. “Whenever I talk to new clients … it actually just [helps] to inspire them and show them [that] you can really work from wherever,” she said.

Lisbon’s skyline, showing the city’s Ponte 25 de Abril spanning the river Tagus.

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She also found yoga teaching work relatively easy to come by in Lisbon, after attending a class at a local studio and being invited by the owner to lead a session as a trial. Now, she teaches regularly. “It’s something I noticed happen once we moved to Lisbon … All these things that had been such a grind and such a hustle in London just happened really easily.”

Not everyone has had such a smooth ride, given pandemic restrictions and travel limitations, however.

Entrepreneur and former business analyst Anais Nesta moved from Lyon, France, to Boston, U.S., with her husband and two sons in February 2020, just a few weeks before shutdowns around the world.

“At that time, we were not fully aware of the extent of Covid-19. Quickly we found a home. We barely had time to buy a table and chairs as the shops and restaurants closed,” she told CNBC via email. The couple’s children could not attend school and the professional projects Nesta had been considering were put on hold.

“I had imagined expatriation scenarios, but it was far from the one we were going to live in. I learned that we were expecting our third child. We arrived in a country where we didn’t know anyone without having the opportunity to forge social bonds and discover our new host country,” she added.

Two years on, travel bans have been lifted and Nesta’s wider family have been introduced to the couple’s new daughter. After a tough start, she now feels lucky to live in “one of the most fascinating countries,” and the family have traveled to Louisiana and Florida as well as touring New England.

Nesta’s advice for those considering a move? “Go for it. Going abroad is a real accelerator for personal development.”

But she added: “If you are going as a couple and even more [so] with children, it is essential in my opinion to define, before leaving, the wishes of each [person].”

Before choosing Boston, Nesta and her husband separately listed their top five destinations, and then wrote down the pros and cons of the places they had in common, before analyzing the potential career opportunities in each city. Quebec ranked highly, but they chose Boston for her husband’s work, its reputation in the sciences and its location between the ocean and the mountains.

Planning your move

British expat Nina Hobson was living in Santiago, Chile, when the pandemic broke out and advises anyone thinking of living overseas for the first time to plan well.

She and her family are now back in her home county of Yorkshire in the U.K. and are planning their next move, to Punta del Este in Uruguay. “Take some time to reflect … Discuss the options with anyone else involved in the move, and really listen. For example, my husband and I set aside time at a café and agreed to just listen to each other in absolute silence so we could both really get our thoughts out in the open,” she told CNBC by email.

“I’d suggest making a plan, including saving enough money to get home if things turn sour. Again, keep the conversation with anyone involved in your move open. Listen to your partner and children. Make a plan but be prepared to tear up the plan if you need,” she added.

The city of Punta del Este in Uruguay.

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Hobson is a life coach who also runs, a blog for women abroad, and uses several apps and websites to manage her working life when she’s living overseas. “After being caught out through seasonal clock changes, I now use Time and Date Calculator to double check my work calls. I like Wise for organizing international [money] transfers fast and securely, and I rely on Slack, [workplace software] Asana and Zoom for my work,” she said.

When it comes to a workspace, she aims for a clean, tidy and light environment at home, and tries to separate the work day from later on, when work has finished. “Fold away the laptop, draw the curtains, light a candle, put the office notepad away,” she suggested. And, Hobson sticks to a routine. “My kids know that in the mornings I need to work and study, but in the afternoons I’m there for them,” she said.

Beachside paradise

The dream of a life by the ocean has come true for Natalie Levy, a former recruitment consultant based in New York City. She moved to Tulum, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in August 2020, choosing it for its proximity to her family in the U.S., expat community and access to cities such as Cancun.

“It felt like an opportunity to live in paradise with conveniences,” she told CNBC by email.

Levy, who is now a business coach, says she earns more working for herself than she did in her former role, and adds that she has been “challenged” to slow down and have more patience if the electricity or internet connection is unreliable. ” I … recognize the privilege of working for myself so I can simply walk away from my computer when things go wrong and resume what I’m doing whenever I feel like it,” she added.

For Eilersen in Lisbon, moving has helped her to reset her attitude toward the “hustle culture” found in large cities. “Londoners boasted about working long hours and wore not having time to rest as a badge of honor … We need to let go of the belief that we only deserve success if it’s been earned through a lot of (unhealthy) hard work,” she told CNBC via email.

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This article was originally published on CNBC