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On Erasmus+ Experiences and Working From Home with Stoyan Gechkov

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about the idea of work from home in the context of the pandemic situation and the possibilities for this to become an imperative in our society. Working in a liberal profession, one that is prone to migrate to this way of working made me reflect more on this topic. Of course, I didn’t just do that. Patrick André de Hillerin wrote for Libertatea a very interesting series of editorials about working from home, a kind of utopia that presents how various dimensions of society as we know it today would look like if work from home would be taken over en masse.

The way we relate to transport, real estate, co-workers, organizational hierarchy, our own house and its functional and modular interior design, free time, food, etc would change a great deal and would adapt to our new needs.

Personally, I’m glad that the pandemic revealed this side to employers as well and proved them (I hope) that it can be a solution to consider in the future or at least made them think for a second: „hmm…this could work”. I will make an analogy with the way in which advertising is designed to approach consumers in terms of their „big” buying decisions (buying a house – high price, difficult decision – or quitting smoking – social and emotional compromise) and I consider that the same journey can be applied to the emergence of working from home

1. Awareness (which I think is only now taking place in Romania because until now there were a tiny number of corporations that worked in this way) 2. Consideration ( people are aware of the pros and cons and put themselves in the shoes of the “consumer” – in our case (where ”work from home„ is the product) they have already been consumers, and now they feel the differences through the lack of it) 3. Change of attitude and, lastly, 4. Change of behavior and acceptance of the “product”.

What is interesting here is the difference between how this sequence of stages unfolds in theory when it comes to a common product and what is the reality on the ground in terms of work from home. Normally, the advancement in stages takes place gradually through multiple encounters with the product through promotional materials and only at the end of them you decide to buy. People had the product, they realize it by lack and then it is taken from them without remaining at their discretion whether they want to buy it or not. What results from this? Frustrated former consumers.

Like I said, I’m personally skeptical. I don’t think the world has understood (yet) too much of this period. I think it was an interesting exercise that probably wouldn’t have happened so early if it weren’t for the pandemic. I think we’ll go back to the office, and the episode will be forgotten. And I understand why it will be forgotten, the brain is built to defend itself and reject any negative problems so as not to be ”disappointed” and frustrated, as will probably happen in the case of employers who will shrug and say with a blank stare that they do not have a solution. And they probably don’t. In this specific case, I think we have a fascinating paradox in which the main advantage is the main disadvantage.

What I mean is that we’re so interconnected in every way.

On the one hand, this would be an advantage if as many jobs as possible would move home because it would be easy to work together. We have digital and its almost infinite possibilities. If we all changed, it would be simple for everyone (remember that when I say „everyone” I do not mean really everyone, but those who in terms of work would have the opportunity to work from home, that’s the target) .

On the other hand, this interconnection makes us always relate to each other, we are in a large industrial group (when it comes to businesses), and if only a few make this move, it becomes difficult for them because the infrastructure and society in general is not prepared for their movement and then employees will not have a „full” experience, but a slightly difficult one. Well, and here comes a form of fatalism of the employer („that’s how it is, we are not yet ready for that, why should I start”), of course, undeclared.

Another obstacle observed during this period comes from the statements of certain people. It is about the social component. People want to go to the office to socialize, to see their colleagues and friends, it’s a social microcosmos. I have nothing to contradict here. I think it’s a normal reaction in this context. The pandemic only managed to pull people a little, not to teach them big lessons about long-term adaptation, it was just modeling the situation and then returning to their original form. I asked Stoyan about it, and I think his answer is more relevant than mine.

The world I am referring to is one in which the infrastructure will change “genetically”, the society will acquire itself in a modular way, so that working from home or everywhere will be a sustainable and viable solution for everyone. An idea that I found interesting in Patrick André de Hillerin’s articles is related to the real estate market. In this world of the future, employers will give up huge glass office buildings, and they will turn them into new living spaces. People will realize that the apartment or studio in which they live is not a favorable ecosystem to spend all the time at home, to work, to sleep, to eat, to relax, so they will move to larger spaces. Up to that point, people looked at their homes as a pivot between work and going out. This also was a pressing issue claimed by people during the pandemic. Noted.

 In this interview I contacted my friend Stoyan Gechkov. Stoyan is from Bulgaria, we met in an Erasmus + project in Portugal where the topic was „Gender Equality”. Although I was a novice in this activity, Stoyan had an impressive number of projects in a very short time. He was telling me that he was barely passing through the city where he was studying. He was a student at a business college at the time. While traveling on Erasmus + projects and getting to know people and cultures he was also working on various personal projects, college assignments or jobs per se. I talked to him about Erasmus, work from home, mobility, multiculturalism and ”work from everywhere”.

Related to Erasmus, I was lucky enough to participate in two projects so far and another one is coming this fall. All I can say is that it totally changes your perspective, it’s another way to get in touch with people from outside, a much more efficient one than traveling itself where you somehow set out on tourist places. It’s a way to throw your opinions in front of people from other cultures, with different experiences from yours, for a few days, to see new places and make memories. I try to tell as many people as possible about this because it’s too bad to miss this opportunity.

FYI, short projects have somewhere between 4 days and reach up to 2 weeks, projects have a predetermined topic around which activities and discussions will take place, there is a program, but it is usually relaxed and very well thought out, all costs are covered ( apart from your spending money): transport (by plane, bus to the location), accommodation, meals included), you do not have to be part of a faculty to participate in an Erasmus + project (it is a different section of exchange- semester from college) and you can participate up to 30 years or more if you are elected as a group leader.

The people from GEYC Romania do a very good job regarding the Erasmus projects. You can follow them here and be up to date with new projects on their newsletter.

To make you realize the topics, the first one I went to had as an idea the common Latin linguistic basis of certain peoples: French, Romanian, Italian and Spanish. The aim was to speak in the mother tongue during the activities and to try to understand and cooperate using this base of common words, but also nonverbal language. It took place in Dinan, France.

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The second took place in Vila Nova de Foz Coa, Portugal, and the topic was gender inequality and how the concept is viewed through the eyes of young people from different cultures. The activities were focused on conversation, debate, games of perception of certain sub-concepts in this sphere. All I can say is that it was an amazing experience.

During the project we came up with a whole video material that was supposed to express how present society reflects gender inequality and discrimination. You can watch it here. We had fun. 🙂

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So, ladies and gentlemen, Stoyan Gechkov:

In how many Erasmus projects have you took part in so far? Tell us your story.

I have been part of 45 Erasmus+ projects so far. It is an interesting story that dates back to 2015. We were in the train with my friend Teodor who is from another city and we were travelling from Plovdiv to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital for an annual career event. We were just discussing opportunities for young people with him and he offered me to go abroad with him for a week and said that they would cover all my costs. It sounded too good to be true but he was my friend so I trusted him. That was about an Erasmus+ project in Poland. “But you have to apply now” – he said, because the selection was on a first-come-first -served basis. I needed to send a CV and a photo to the organizer by email. Luckily, I was bringing with me some black&white CVs that had my photo on them. So guess what I did – made a photo of my CV with my old phone’s camera and then made a photo of the photo that was on my CV. Quite funny, but that was the only thing I could do if I wanted to participate in the project. Then I send these ‘documents’ to the organiser’s email and a few hours later, I got a positive answer. This is how everything started.

I remember being fascinated with your stories from other projects. Can you disclose some of your best memories, favourite cities, favourite experiences from Erasmus Projects?

Then I got an SMS about the mobile tariff plans and fares in the Czech Republic. Obviously, we had crossed the border from Poland to the Czech Republic without even knowing it.

I always go on every project as if it is my last one and give my best for it. This is why I always have nice and unique experiences during all these projects. After all, it is us, the people from all over the world, who make Erasmus+ so good. A particular story is from one of my projects in Poland in the spring of 2018. We were in a small village in the mountains and one of the days was dedicated to a mountain hike. So we went to the mountains with the organiser. After walking about 15 km, at some point we got lost and even the organiser who had been there many times didn’t know where we were. Then I got an SMS about the mobile tariff plans and fares in the Czech Republic. Obviously, we had crossed the border from Poland to the Czech Republic without even knowing it. This is one of the unique things about the EU and in particular the Schengen zone – you can go everywhere without borders.

As for my favourite country and cities it is basically Portugal and all its towns. I love this country and have been there 11 times, although it is about 3500 km away from my home in Bulgaria. Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve Region, the Madeira Islands – all of them are unique because of the nature and especially the people who are very friendly and helpful.

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It is already a fact that travelling gives a great insight into multiculturality. What is your position towards this matter? What do you feel you gained from this lifestyle of yours? How do you think it changed you emotionally and intellectually?

I will give just one example here: before I started with Erasmus+, I didn’t know anyone from abroad and had never been abroad. Now, 5 years later, I have been to over 20 countries and know over 1000 people from all around the world. I would say that thanks to these experiences now I am a better person who is more tolerant and more aware of the culture and life in the different parts of the world. I was an introvert but now this is changing. I also improved my English and am now more confident in speaking in public.

It is good to look both sides of the coin, though. To achieve all this, I have taken a lot of risks, a lot of sleepless nights, I sacrificed a lot of my social life in Bulgaria and had many difficulties with my university because it was mandatory to attend all classes and going to projects while being a full-time student was not easy. But in the end I graduated with honours and it was all worth it.

As for the cultural shock, I would say that the only cultural shock is when I go back to Bulgaria. There have been times when I spend more time abroad than at home. And I was almost always sad when I had to go back to Bulgaria. I just don’t like people’s closed-minded post-communist self-destructive mentality here but this is another topic.

Why would you recommend someone to participate in Erasmus projects?

Many people think Erasmus+ is just travelling but in fact, it is much more. I would recommend it, on the first place, because of the people you meet there – people from different countries who are open to collaborate and have similar goals to yours. Every person is unique and you can always learn something new and useful from these people. And of course, you make lifetime friendships. Another thing is the story with the 1 million Erasmus+ babies.

What is your position towards the city that you actually live in when you are travelling so much? Do you see it differently? Do you see its downsides?

Yes, definitely. My city is good by itself but it is part of Bulgaria and we cannot change reality – Bulgaria is a post-communist country, very corrupted, the poorest one in the EU and currently there are a lot of protests going on here. Basically everywhere I go it feels better and now, when I know that everywhere else in the EU things are better organised, more modern etc., I just can’t be so optimistic about my city and country. It is not too bad by itself but when compared to the other Erasmus+ programme countries, then it is. But Erasmus+ has taught me to be positive and appreciate what we have and the good things in life, which I am grateful about.

”Home sweet home” it’s a mantra for many people. Is it for you?

Not really. For me ‘home’ does not correlate to a geographical location but to the feeling that gives you a sense of being home. Home for me is where I feel home. In these terms home for me has been Erasmus+, the airplane and many places in Europe.

You told me that all of this time you were working from home, which means that you were working from everywhere during Erasmus. How is that going for you? In what profession do you activate? What is your opinion about work from home?

So far I haven’t had a full-time profession and during most of my projects, I was an university student. But I would say it has been similar to a real job. Many times, I have had online meetings with my university team, I have done and submitted much homework while flying in the airplane, helped NGOs with their marketing and advertising, reports etc. I even booked my dormitory room for the year while waiting at the airport! It is even more interesting to do things like that – certainly more productive than staying in the same place all the time, it just gets boring to be in the same place and do the same things for too long. This is why I think working from home is better for both the employees – because they feel better and have more flexibility and freedom, and the employers – because the employees are more motivated and achieve better results. Again, I haven’t worked this way with a full-time contract yet but I think it will be the same. I have seen many people in the spheres of IT, Management, Marketing and others working from home and I think in the future, you will be able to do most of the professions from home.

You have probably seen that the pandemic context has forced a serious discussion concerning working from home. How do you think things will change after this period?

I think more people will start working from home and more employers will allow this. It will happen, because everybody is seeing the positive impact and the benefits from the remote work. I have seen people who never used a computer before but are now working online – it is a big step in technology. This is one of the things that COVID-19 has been good for.

How was the pandemic context for you?

For me the pandemic came as a gift. My university was in Blagoevgrad, 5 hours away from my hometown Plovdiv, so I was renting an apartment in Blagoevgrad and travelling every weekend to see my girlfriend who is from Plovdiv. When the pandemic came, all classes went online which means that I didn’t have to stay in Blagoevgrad anymore and didn’t have to travel between the two cities at all – it saved me both money for renting the additional flat and the risk of travelling on the old dangerous roads. There was also  more flexibility during exams and lectures, which meant less stress for me and the other students.

How do you see the market of freelancing right now? Are there any downside, problems, obstacles? Is the society ready to go freelance?

Freelancing has a lot of benefits and I think most of the employees are ready for that. However, the ball is in the field of the employers now. Many companies want to monitor their employees more closely, which is not possible to happen for freelancers who work from home. And in general, more technology is needed and some companies, especially small ones, cannot afford it or just don’t want it. But I believe there will be more and more freelancers, just the process will be gradual

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working from home in you opinion?

For me, working from home actually gives an opportunity to meet more people.

You know me, I love travelling. But it is rarely possible to travel if I work in an office every day during the week. So the biggest advantage will be the flexibility – to work from everywhere I wish. And another thing is the time spent to go to the office and then go back to your apartment – and the nerves spent driving if you are in a Balkan country.

The biggest disadvantage is the lack of face-to-face contact with your colleagues – but come on, you get much more contacts if you travel!

Some of the reasons why people reject the idea of working from home is because they claim that they need to get in touch with other people. How is that going for you? Do you feel estranged of people taking into consideration your other activity, which is Erasmus?

For the job-related purposes I think there is no need to be together with your co-workers. All the jobs-related matters, documentation etc. can nowadays be arranged online. If someone likes his/her colleagues so much and wants to be together, they can always meet before or after work.

For me, working from home actually gives an opportunity to meet more people. This is because, when I work online, I have more flexibility to do the job from anywhere I want. This means that I can go to an Erasmus+ project and work from there. And while I have met over 1000 people in Erasmus+, I don’t think I can meet more than 50 if I work in an office

Last but not least, what is your plan for the future? And how do you see the concept of working from everywhere in the future?

My plan for the near future is to find a full-time Business-related job where my knowledge, experience, and responsibility will be considered and to become rich. This means that I will participate in Erasmus+ more rarely, but I will still travel a lot. I hope that my job will include both working from home and having face-to-face meetings.

As for working from everywhere – this is a concept that is getting more and more popular in the last years. I imagine that in a few decades about half of the people will be working this way while next century – almost everyone. And this is something good, people will have more freedom and higher job satisfaction – and therefore happier life.

This article contains in somehow to different conclusions, but isn’t this the essence of debate? You can find Stoyan here and if you have another opinions on Erasmus experience or working from home, you’re free to comment right below.

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