Coined long ago right at the beginning of the internet in 1997, the digital nomad lifestyle is one yearned for and romanticised by many. And, to be fair, burying your feet into white sand on a hot beach while you’re sending emails kind of sounds like the dream. Prior to the pandemic, the movement was already on the rise, with more widespread access to the internet and growth in the gig economy. Coworking and coliving spaces sprung up in the most unlikely places all over the world to facilitate and capitalise on this rapid growth.
And then, you-know-what came along, and many of us were thrust into the world of working remotely. The shift put a magnifying glass on how we worked before; the rigid structure of the 9-5, the time-consuming nature of the commute, it turns out, that it didn’t have to be that way. The lifestyle had a major resurgence, with the number of workers identifying as a Digital Nomad increasing by 49% in the US in 2020. However, the globetrotting aspect was hindered for obvious reasons, so many turned to van conversions to satisfy their wanderlust.
This shift is ongoing, and, for many, it seems that they’ll never look back.
Lockdown provided many with the chance to reflect, both on how they spent their time and where. It made many people reassess their jobs, and the joy it brought them, leading a huge number to quit in search of something better. Job vacancies hit an all-time high this Summer, exceeding one million for the first time ever.
As people started searching for alternative ways of working, eagle-eyed businesses – and countries – spotted the growing desire for remote working and adventure. In a bid to reinvigorate tourism and bring cash into their economies, a substantial number of countries have created ‘Digital Nomad visas’. The documents provide a more accessible way for people to work for long periods of time outside of their permanent residence. From Mexico to Estonia, there are around 24 regions offering this type of visa, with the number expected to grow. You can look at the full list of countries offering Digital Nomad visas here.
Having worked in places like New York, Bali and Copenhagen, Driftime Media have found the digital nomad experience pretty enlightening. Abb-d Choudhury, one of Driftime Media’s founders, had this to say “Working from different locations and surroundings really broadens your perspective, and offers so many different opportunities to be inspired and open about your work and how you approach things. No moment is ever stale, and although you sacrifice deep focus time (unless in the right environment) you’re open to vast streams of information, culture and expectations that can be completely different to what you’re used to.”
After an initial hit in the first waves of the pandemic, Airbnb pivoted quickly, capitalising on their long-stay options. With more and more people realising that working from home actually could mean work from anywhere, long-stay bookings jumped from 14% of all bookings to 28% in the first quarter of 2020.
There were a lot of absolutes thrown around during the early days of the pandemic. Cries of ‘the office is dead’, ‘tourism is dead’, ‘[insert industry here] will never be the same again!’ were heard in articles, tweets and zoom meetings across the globe.
We’re sorry to break it to you but the office is not dead. Well, maybe, the traditional office is, but it’s made space for something new. People enjoy working in the same space together, and as long as people work, the office will exist in some form. What the pandemic has exposed is that different people thrive off different ways of working. For some, the appeal of travel and new experiences is the ultimate goal, others flourish in routine and in the company of their colleagues.
Abb-d found some unexpected challenges during his time working remotely, “Working from places with stark cultural differences such as Bali, Tokyo, New York, Dusseldorf, Copenhagen, Vancouver etc. means our attention is constantly grabbed by so many amazing things happening around us. You want to experience everything, and ultimately want to find a balance between that and having productive time to process everything.”
It turns out that becoming a digital nomad is a bit more difficult than it first appears. For many of us, it’s not a case of just jumping on a plane, laptop in hand. And the problems don’t just stem from the expense for both the business and the individual. Companies who initially jumped on the work from anywhere train for their teams are now having to modify their promises because of things like taxes and logistics. Spotify, for example, has changed its policy to allow its team to work from anywhere where they have an ‘established entity’. There’s still wiggle room for flexibility, but the space, in reality, is just a bit smaller than we first imagined.
While remote working has been an option given to a large amount of the workforce, it’s still not the ‘norm’ for everyone. From key workers to work that requires physical or manual handiwork, there are just some jobs where remote working is quite literally impossible. There can be a bit of ignorance in the digital realm when it comes to this subject; people expect digital nomadism to be available to everyone.
It’s not just down to the literal aspects of someone’s job, accessibility to digital nomadism is open only to those who can afford the lifestyle. There’s no denying that upping and leaving your home to travel the world is a privilege. But a lot of the conversation surrounding it doesn’t like admitting that. Inequity is innate in the lifestyle; you must be free of responsibility, free of a criminal record, free of financial worries.
A study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute found that in the US, one in four white workers are able to work from home, compared to one in five black workers, and one in six Hispanic workers. So, sure, the prospect of digital nomadism is exciting, as long as you work in certain industries and are from certain socio-economic groups.
With all of this in mind, there’s still no question that the working landscape has changed for good. Now that so many have had a taste of flexible working, it’s hard to imagine going back to the conventional structure of the office. And we’re seeing this change in action, with employees in the UK given the right to ask for flexible working options from the moment they start a new job. While we’re more likely to be given more flexibility and freedom in general, it’s not quite the digital nomad revolution that many people were expecting.
As we’re moving into the age of the Millennial and Gen-Z dominated workforce, gig-economy and freelance working is slowly becoming the norm, compared to conventional career paths. Although they might be Generation rent, that also means they have less responsibility tying them down. They value experience over possessions, their motivations and values surround adventures, travel and encounters. Their needs and wants are going to end up dominating the landscape, so the landscape will change.
When we asked Abb-d from Driftime Media about what drew them back to a more settled style of working, he said “It’s the idea of balance. We realised that we needed to allow ourselves to experience our location and everything it could offer in an untapped way. If you’re fortunate to have the flexibility to work somewhere different and exotic, you really don’t want to be spending the majority of your time looking at a laptop screen. Our home will always be the UK, and by taking these experiences back home, we’re able to create better work with a broader perspective – that’s the beauty of travel as a whole.
We always aim to do work whilst away somewhere, but the reality is we never get much done. Giving ourselves that time to experience something different (taking a step back from your usual day-to-day), puts a fire in our belly when we return and gives us the drive we need to create our work.”
As time goes on, there’s no doubt the demand for flexible working will increase, and, eventually become the expected. Change was always coming, but thanks to the game-changing nature of the last 18 months, it’s coming faster than we thought.