After looking our bank account several times, we understood that something has to change, we can’t go on like this. Either it’s time to fly back home or find new ways to stretch our budget. That’s how we came up to an idea to try out volunteering through WorkAway platform.
It’s a networking place where different hostels, companies, NGO’s, or just anyone can post up volunteering jobs. Usually, it’s around 5 hours of work a day for volunteers, and in exchange, hosts offer free accommodation and sometimes free meals or some pocket money. We thought that it’s a great way to cut expenses and get new working experiences.
After signing up to the Workaway platform and paying a registration fee, we found out that there over 200 different hosts here in Malaysia. Many of them looking super cool, offering a place on a yacht or on a small island. Some of them are so attractive that it could be a reason to go visit some country itself. Like the one in Scotland? Or in the Dominican Republic? Or in Guatemala?
We did around 3 hours research through all listings, filtered out around 10 places in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and sent out our applications. Our criteria were: in a big city (for future working possibilities), private room, wifi.
Only 3 hosts answered, and only one had room for us immediately. That’s how we ended up in an event space in Kuala Lumpur.
Life in our first Workaway home
Actually, it was just a huge old Chinese house from the 70s with 8 bedrooms. Our job was to keep the house clean, water the garden, and help owners with organizing events. They said it should take around 5 hours a day, in reality, we usually accomplished all tasks in 1-2 hours.
We went there first for one week to see how it suits us
Still, looking back now the overall experience there was so much more beneficial for us than saved bucks. After all, we worked in a faraway land together with strangers from all over the world.
We lived together with 2 other volunteers from America, later came one Chinese boy, an Indian pastor, two pastors from Uganda, a lady from South-Africa, a Russian businessman, and we said our good-byes to a guy from England. While the owner of the house was a descendant of a Chinese family living in Malaysia for some generations.
The diversity was really interesting and we learned quite a lot about different cultures. Even though many things were really strange to us, and obviously there were some things we didn’t like.
Like the Chinese boy eating noodles so loudly that I thought that there was something wrong with the music I was just listening in another room.
Or Ugandan pastor’s first and second question to me and Grete just after we met with him: “Are you married? How many children to you want to have?”
Or Indian pastor chanting something by himself while walking around house half naked.
In addition, there were misunderstandings between us and host, with other volunteers and also among ourselves. These situations made our stay there uncomfortable, but at the same time thought and reminded us of some really important lessons.
Lesson 1: Leader has to divide tasks clearly among underlings or has to be present most of the time
Our hosts didn’t live with us in the house and sent out most of the task via WhatsApp, rarely asking for an individual volunteer to do something, but instead asking for all of us to take care of it.
It caused a lot of tension between us, the volunteers, as not all of us were good communicators. Who should do the task? Who has done a fair share and who has not? Who among volunteers has the right to assign duties to others? I often felt that I want to take a leadership role, and divide the tasks, but I knew that I have no right to do it.
It’s a perfect example of problems occurring when leading a remote team. Exactly the same topic I learned so much about at Running Remote conference in Bali.
Lesson 2: Don’t take things granted
As mentioned earlier we mostly only had to work 1-2 hours per day for hosts. Occasionally though, there were some events and new people coming, meaning there was a bit more to do than usual.
Every time it happened, I felt resistance towards doing it. Why do we have to do it? We are already doing so much… Then I tried to remind myself, that I was ready to work 5 hours a day here in the beginning, but actually have to do it for only 1-2 hours. And now I am unhappy about some 1-2 hours of extra work on a special day? There is no right to feel this way.
Lesson 3: Work environment has a huge effect on productivity.
While we were staying in our Workaway home, my real focus was on finding an actual income and work on this blog. There was a huge table to work on, very fast wifi, kitchen with food, coffee and tea = ideal “office” facilities.
But still, I was struggling to be productive. Was it an oppressive air in the old house, or too many distractions, it was not a good working environment for me. I managed to write some articles, find a job (soon more about this), but I could have accomplished so much more. Guess it’s just really difficult to work at home?
Lesson 4: Living in a dorm long-term is not for couples.
Although we had a house with 8 bedrooms we had to sleep in a small dorm with other volunteers, meaning there was not much privacy. That’s it.
Lesson 5: Saying good-bye properly is almost as important as a good first impression.
We had a very strange incident with American boys whom we lived together for over 2 weeks. They were super introverts and didn’t talk much, but I believe we get along well and had no problems.
Until suddenly one day we saw their backpacks packed and them leaving some minutes later without saying goodbye to us nor hosts. Just disappeared. We were left behind baffled. Our opinion on them changed drastically. Yes, we will never see them again, but it is still better to leave behind good memories and not ruin them with crappy (or no) good-bye.
Bonus lesson: Don’t go all in with your first house party.
One of the events we helped hosts with was a big house party a 21-year-old son of the owner organized.
They planned it for at least a month. Installed CCTV cameras, rented DJ set and huge speakers, bought loads of alcohol to sell at the party. They had volunteering security guys, dancers, beer pong, and a free flow of chicken nuggets made by us. They marketed it on Facebook and sold tickets for the party. Their idea was to start it as a profitable party series occurring every month.
When seeing them bringing 23 bottles of whiskey and 8 pack of beer I expected over 100 guests, secretly wishing the event to turn to Project X kind of party.
Instead, there were around 30 people, mostly non-paying friends of organizers. Dancing room was empty, most people trying to get as drunk as possible in a kitchen, while security guards were trying to steal whiskey bottles. Later we heard that some guy fell on some ancient table, broke it and police took him away.
The party was a total flop financially. It looked like my first hosted parties when I was maybe 16. Just, my costs were a fraction compared to theirs.
Conclusion on WorkAway
While it was not the most interesting month in our travels, it challenged us in new ways and thought us many goods things. Plus we saved a lot, and with new jobs here in Kuala Lumpur we hopefully manage to stretch our travels till Christmas.
Our overall experience on WorkAway is definitely positive and I am pretty sure that we would do it again one day in another country if needed.
Would you consider doing voluntary work on your holiday?