Will Work From Home Become Work From Anywhere?

ELLY EARLS
LAST UPDATED DECEMBER 15, 2020

Remote work is here to stay. Is everyone going to become a digital nomad now?

 

Since the coronavirus led to a global mandate to work from home, remote work has become the norm. As someone who’s been doing it for almost a decade, it’s been a surreal experience to see everyone from my high-flying lawyer friends to my own mother start to understand what I’ve been trying to get through to them for years: you don’t have to be in a corporate office to get stuff done and, no, I haven’t been lazing around in a hammock since 2011.

With the impact of COVID-19 set to extend for years, rather than the two or three months many of us naively predicted back in March, home offices are here to stay. Facebook and Google will allow their teams to work from home until Summer 2021. Twitter and Square have told their employees they can do it forever if they want.

Many people are taking their employers up on these offers, relishing the ability to hold important meetings wearing their pyjama bottoms

and clock off early if they finish their tasks for the day. A friend of mine, who worked in the Bristol office of a research company before the coronavirus, was recently offered a remote position at the London branch,with the commensurate pay rise but without the requirement to get on a stuffy underground train every morning at 8am. Presumably, her employers will reap their own rewards in the form of reduced operational expenses.

“I guess I’m a digital nomad now, or I could be,” she said to me the other day when we caught up over Zoom. It’s a term she was already familiar with, having known me for the past 15 years. We went to university together and got jobs in London a few years later. Then, when we were both reaching a nice point on the career ladder, I packed it all in, sold everything I owned, went freelance and bought a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia.

Nine years ago, that seemed like a crazy move. Even nine months ago, many of my friends and family struggled to grasp the fact that I could do my work just as effectively from a riverside café in Laos or a tea plantation bungalow in Sri Lanka as I could from an office building in London.

 

But fast forward to 2020 and, according to my Google Alert for ‘digital nomad’, there isn’t a day that goes by without a global publication running a story about taking your office to the tropics or the new residency schemes inviting workers abroad. When I pitched a similar story just before the coronavirus, the editor at BBC Worklife said these sorts of pieces didn’t tend to do well because the audience couldn’t identify with the idea of digital nomadism. In a few months, it’s become an accepted – if often air quoted – lifestyle choice. If you can work from home, after all, why not work from anywhere?

The excitement outweighs the fear

 

Jenny Lachs is the founder of an online community called Digital Nomad Girls (DNG). Her business addresses one of the big challenges of the digital nomad lifestyle: loneliness. I’ve experienced it countless times over the years and it’s the reason many new remote workers, who are enjoying the benefits of freedom and flexibility for the first time, are also wary of leaving behind the camaraderie and accountability of the office.

Lachs set up DNG in 2015 to provide those things virtually, through a Facebook group, online coworking sessions and mixer events. Before the pandemic, she had more than 20,000 members. During the first few months of lockdown, her membership grew faster than it ever had before – with new members up from 150 to 200 a week to 350 to 400.

“I wonder if it’s because people are locked down somewhere they don’t really want to be and are wondering, is this it? Do I really want this for my life?” she says. “There’s so much change happening right now in this forced stillness that is making people question what they want to do with their lives. Travelling and living a more adventurous or free life is always something that attracts people so I think that’s part of why we’re seeing a lot of interest.”

Sam Savello was one of those new members. She joined DNG after being laid off from her job at an education consulting company right at the beginning of lockdown and almost immediately found a freelance opportunity, which has propelled her into building her own business. “Someone asked me to do a blog for $200 and I realised I could work for myself and didn’t have to do a nine-to-five,” she says. “I’d always wanted to be a digital nomad but I was just too afraid to take that jump. Now I’m getting really serious about my business because I realised that when this pandemic ends, I don’t want to go back to corporate America.”

While she has legitimate concerns about transitioning to digital nomad life – logistics, healthcare, loneliness, and, of course, how to find decent Wi-Fi in Latin America, her first planned stop – the excitement outweighs the fear. “Over the past couple of years the time I’ve most enjoyed myself has always been in Latin America,” she says. “I am most excited about the opportunity to have freedom to travel and work and help other people. I don’t want to work for a company that lays me off the day before my vacation and doesn’t care what happens to me.”

New nomad sub-movements

Savello certainly isn’t on her own in making the shift from employee to freelancer during lockdown, but researcher Julian Prester, who is writing his PhD on the digital nomad movement at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), doesn’t think this segment of digital nomadism is where we’ll see the most growth. “We usually say there are three groups within the movement: the freelancers, the start-up entrepreneurs and the third group, which so far has been the smallest of the three, the remote employees,” he explains.

“It’s the third group who work for a more traditional company and who have realised it’s possible to work outside the office that’s going to get a lot bigger in the future. That’s where most of the growth of digital nomadism is going to come from. I don’t think it’s going to be this huge exponential growth that we’ll see right after lockdown is lifted. People will start working more from home and gradually transition to working nomadically or being location independent.”

He also predicts that there will be different sub-movements within the digital nomad community, like nomadic students. “We’re seeing this huge boom in online education and there are students who are starting to realise they prefer it,” he says. The Minerva School at the KGI Institute is an existing university that has no in-person lectures, faculty buildings or exams. “It’s basically a degree you do nomadically and it’s completely online,” Prester explains. “Sometime students travel together and sometimes they spread out and just have their lectures virtually.”

There are also companies like Wi-Fi Tribe and Remote Year, which extend this institutionalised experience to the professional realm, providing accommodation, Wi-Fi and community for people who want to try working remotely, without too many of the challenges associated with digital nomadism. Prester thinks programmes like these are also going to grow in popularity. “People who started working remotely for the first time during lockdown might not be totally comfortable booking a flight ticket to Thailand and just going for it. These programmes make becoming a digital nomad easier and more convenient,” he says.

On a more personal note, he tells me – and I strongly identify with this – that one plus point of the hugely accelerated shift to remote work has been less people looking at him like a crazy person. “People are becoming familiar with the ideas of remote working and location independent working so I have to explain myself less,” he grins. “But I’ve also started to notice that there’s quite a gap in what people think about what I’m doing and what I’m actually looking at. A lot of people say, ‘Oh you study digital nomads and that must be so interesting now that everyone is a digital nomad.’ But just because people work from home, it doesn’t mean they’re nomads.”

 

Legitimising the nomad lifestyle

Before the coronavirus, the idea of a digital nomad visa was pretty much unheard of. Estonia had hit the headlines with its e-residency programme, which enables people to start a location-independent EU company online, and was considering launching a visa for remote workers. Meanwhile long-term digital nomads in hubs like Chiang Mai and Bali were lobbying the Thai and Indonesian governments to legally recognise them but hadn’t got very far.

Now, remote workers are welcome, indeed incentivised, to visit Bermuda, Barbados, Georgia and Croatia. The launch of Estonia’s digital nomad visa – the world’s first – in August caused something of a snowball effect. Petitions have got further than ever before in Bali, where thousands of nomads every year – myself often included – live and work on tourist visas, popping off to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur every 60 days to get a new stamp.

We’re not working for an Indonesian company so we don’t qualify for a work visa, but we’re not exactly tourists either. No-one quite knows if working online is allowed and I know I’m not the only nomad to have been questioned by an immigration official in a scary airport office. Do you work here? No. Why do you come to Bali so often? Um… I love surfing.

For long-term digital nomad Tarek Kholoussy, who divides his time mostly between Bali and Colombia, legitimising what up until now has been a grey area makes sense for all parties. “At the moment, you have to leave every two months; if they just charged a fee, it’d be cheaper for everyone and the country would get tax revenue,” he reasons.

It also plays into Kholoussy’s bigger vision – to help digital nomads have a positive impact on the destinations that have provided them with so much. “Nomads can have unintended consequences on destinations. We raise rent and food costs for locals and it’s sad to see that we sometimes out-price locals from enjoying their own homes,” he says. “You could argue that we’re bringing in money and adding to the GDP but if you follow the money, is it going to the average local, to the top 1% or to foreign-owned businesses?”

Tax revenues would be one way for nomads to contribute to their temporary homes. But until digital nomad visas become more widespread, Kholoussy is helping the community take matters into its own hands through his social enterprises, Nomads Giving Back (NGB) and Nomads Skillshare. “If you’re a large company, you have a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) division that manages donations, volunteering and so on, but we’re a collection of individuals in this movement so someone needs to take the initiative to create these easy impact opportunities for people to get involved,” he explains. “I’m trying to position NGB as the platform for people that want to do this.”

He thinks levelling the playing field between foreigners and locals is going to become more important in the next few years, as higher earners start to experiment with working from anywhere.

“The demographics of the movement are probably going to change quite a bit. Before, it was frowned upon for a corporate guy to not be in the office in London or New York, but now they’re empowered to work remotely, there are going to be more people living this life who are making a few hundred thousand dollars a year,” he predicts. “What impact will that have on gentrification?”

Kholoussy come down on the opposite side of the fence to Prester when it comes to future growth predictions. “I’m in the camp that I believe the digital nomad movement is going to increase 50 maybe 100 times within a few years. Before the coronavirus, digital nomads were considered pioneers. It’s going to be funny in five years’ time when we look back and remember, oh there were nomads before the pandemic. Now they’re everywhere.”

The rise of the slowmad

Lachs, who has been nomad-ing since 2015, believes there will be a stark divide between how new nomads and those of us who have been doing this for a while behave in the coming months, and even years. “We’ve already had a lot of travel experience so I think we have a bit more patience than people who are working remotely for the first time,” she muses. “They’re itching to go and might take more risks than long-term nomads.”

I tend to agree. Like many other nomads, I headed back from Bali, where I was based at the beginning of 2020, to the UK to ride out lockdown with my family. That experience made me realise that, although I have no desire to give up this lifestyle, I am craving a home base, a sentiment that’s been echoed across the long-term nomad community.

A few nomad friends and I plan to create a community home base together that we can dip in and out of, while Lachs is considering a few different ideas, including remodelling a caravan so her and her partner can have their own space and still be mobile, or – slightly more ambitiously – building a tiny house village for her and her friends.

“It would literally be the best thing ever!” she laughs. “I think a lot of people are going to find other ways of being a digital nomad – rather than just backpacking and flying around. Maybe van life or communal living. There’s going to be a lot of interesting stuff coming out of this.”

As Kholoussy adds, slower travel makes sense from a productivity standpoint too. “I’ve moved quickly and I’ve moved slowly and I think if you’re trying to be productive in a work environment, you have to minimise the amount of change and decision making involved. I think there’ll be a lot more slow nomads – slowmads – in the years to come.”

Reflecting on my Zoom call with my friend in Bristol, I have to admit I come down more on Prester’s than Kholoussy’s side of the fence when it comes to just how rapidly the digital nomad movement is going to grow. My friend could be a nomad if she wanted to now, but she has a house, two cats, a fiancé, a friendship group and a book club. Yes, she now knows how to use Zoom and Slack, but that doesn’t mean she’s got the yearning to wander that’s an innate part of every nomad I know.

The movement will grow – I have no doubt about that. It was growing before the coronavirus and there are plenty of people like Savello who were too scared to hit the road before but now have the impetus to take the leap. I think long-term nomads now have an important role: to help ease the transition to remote work for those who are experiencing it for the first time and to be honest about what digital nomadism really looks like. It’s not for everyone, but once you start, there really is no going back.

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