The pandemic was a time of colossal change. Digital nomads are yet another professional group that was not only impervious to the economic and social impacts of Covid-19, it’s a group that doubled in size from 2019 to 2021 as en masse remote and flexible work became normalized for the first time. A 2021 study from MBO Partners, quoted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, even considers digital nomadism to represent a new niche of the working class and there’s no doubt that they’re here to stay. In analyzing the technology-geared professional niche, the MBO Partners report claimed that, “While we don’t expect the number of digital nomads to continue to grow at the rapid pace we’ve seen over the past two years, we believe strong growth will continue in the coming years, allowing millions of Americans to achieve their dream of becoming digital nomads.”
So what exactly could this future look like, where will digital nomads go next, and how can companies invest in this professional asset class?
Digital Nomadism Pre-2020
While hardly a surprise to anyone, the 2010s, pre-pandemic rise of digital nomads was still somewhat unorthodox. The accessibility of technology like smart phones and ease of wifi connections made working remotely trendy yet somewhat unattainable in the post-GFC world. Though the late Noughts ideology of streamlining professional and personal lifestyles popularized in Tim Ferriss’ 2007 bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek was in the zeitgeist, digital nomadism was not just uncommon, it was largely impossible.
The 25 years between the publication of Ferriss’ seminal book and the recovering “post-pandemic” world of 2022, very clearly shows the industrial and cultural changes that needed to happen for digital nomadism to go mainstream. The spread and uptake of digital nomadism of the last two years occurred specifically due to the combination of accelerating remote work across nearly every industry and the acceptance of employers and policy-makers that people could absolutely get the job done from wherever they were even while employed in a 9-5 role.
2000s, 2010s & 2020s – What the Third Phase of Digital Nomadism Looks Like
Crucially — and even in a time of economic downturn — many employees now have negotiating power that enables them to design a life without compromising a career they’ve worked to establish. What really sets digital nomadism apart as a working style in 2022 is just how attainable it is. People opting for the working life of a digital nomad can now ascend as many rungs on the career ladder as they like and do it from nearly anywhere they like. These first two evolutionary phases of digital nomadism — Technology followed by Industry and Culture — now bring us to the third: the Economic phase.
As we enter a third decade of digital nomadism, we can assess that the tertiary phase is all about economics. After 2020 and 2021, people know that in a range of industries they can go remote fairly simply. In 2022 we’ve seen it go one step further as the fiscal costs of the pandemic and global events land on everyone’s desks. Up until now, digital nomads tended to be people who opted for the discretionary benefits of life on the road, be it work and backpacking or slower travel with a base, or those who the lifestyle genuinely suited. This third phase is more about economics than ever before.
In many cases, the third phase digital nomad’s decision-making is all about reducing overheads by hitting the road. When we consider that digital nomadism is no longer purely about discretionary needs and lifestyle benefits, and that it’s now driven by economic pressures then the future becomes quite different.
In this phase, we start to see many more people opt for digital nomadism due to reasons including:
- Costs of living increasing, such as inflation on groceries, fuel, and energy supplies
- Jobs that are no longer geography-dependent or in-person
- Certain industries becoming so precarious that it’s better to work remotely and opting for freelance or negotiated contract work
- Rental and buying shortages making living in some cities or countries unattainable
- Preferring to live without high-level contractual commitments and debt such as mortgages in favour of flexibility
- Political and/or ethical factors, such as climate change, causing an exodus
Even though the choice to opt for digital nomadism could be based around discretionary factors, lifestyle preferences, and economic pressures, the overall trend indicates that we are also more open-minded to changing the way we work. From the growing number of countries offering digital nomad visas through to companies like Spotify indicating they have greater diversity now thanks to remote hiring, digital nomadism has professional and personal benefits for individuals, organizations, and even governments.
Digital Nomads as an Asset Class
In no uncertain terms, digital nomads should be viewed as an untapped multi-skilled, dedicated, and diverse international talent pool. Even while some major companies such as Goldman Sachs and Tesla have sought to bring people back in office, the last two years show that remote work isn’t to be feared. What is to be feared is how not valuing workers as individuals with dynamic personal needs undermines their contributions. The reality is that stress, undue pressure, and burnout as well as inflexible and impersonal work environments all take a toll on employees.
The flip side of this is investing in and encouraging employees to have their own working style as long as they deliver on their accountabilities. Digital nomads are the definition of professionals who will work hard and bring a serious, multifaceted edge to the companies to whom they are committing their skills and experience.
Five Defining Assets of Digital Nomads
- Incentivized employees
Whether contract or internal team team members, digital nomads are incentivized to work based on the benefits of their circumstances. One powerful reason that everyone works beyond a pay check is having their psychological needs met. For digital nomads, the choice to work remotely and be where they want to be is about their personal values. If they can find a job and, moreover, an employer who understands this, they’re that much more likely to uphold their responsibilities and commit to a role in meaningful ways.
- Responsible remote workers
A foremost question about remote workers is whether they can be trusted to work as hard and be as proactive during work hours. This can be subjective as it means different things to different managers. What is undeniably true is that digital nomads have serious reasons to be responsible; they’re designing their time and schedules around getting work done then maximizing where they are. Being a conscientious, reliable professional is part of being a successful digital nomad and employers can factor this into their investment.
- Greater flexibility with work hours
Digital nomads’ availability and adaptive capacity benefits organizations both in the day-to-day and in specific contexts. The flexibility in working hours means that digital nomads can deliver on projects outside the normal limitations such as contracted daily work or they can begin the working day earlier, giving progress a head start compared to onsite team members. Timezones are also the type of benefit that hides in plain sight. Digital nomads on a different timezone can work with managers and colleagues much more creatively to get work done. For multinationals or companies with varying timezones, this may already be standard so it can actually minimize internal logistical adjustments. The bonus here is how onboarding a digital nomad enhances work with regional stakeholders. They can connect locally and provide more timely responses without managers needing to put extra effort into how things run.
- Regional and international business edge
Organizations can consider again how much value digital nomads add with their regional and international experience. Even businesses that don’t have stakeholders outside their immediate location can draw on the specializations of digital nomads in surprising and invaluable ways. In a globalized world, digital nomads are adept at swiftly understanding a broad range of policies, standards, and technical systems that are directly transferrable to professional settings. Managers can draw upon this to set their own workplace apart as a talent with fresh eyes can make creative suggestions for approaching a project while efficiently onboarding with the operations of the organization. This tenacity, patience, and resilience helps with building relationships with new people and simultaneously being very productive. If there’s a geographical and cultural upside, these are priceless soft skills, too.
- Dynamic experience and strong interpersonal skills
Digital nomads are definitively used to acclimatizing to new settings, cultures, and people. When it comes to overcoming logistical and unexpected challenges, they are professionals who have to be able to make things happen or lose out themselves. In the workplace, a digital nomad can leverage their daily skills of project managing and resolving issues to minimizing disruptions to their own productivity. Their experience and ability to handle changing scenarios with minimal fuss can apply just as much to managing international transits as it can to devising and implementing a marketing strategy. The same applies to politely and respectfully making connections with people who they’ve only just met to facilitate mutual objectives — the only difference is that in context, they’re sharing a dorm room with a stranger in a hostel and in the other they’re authentically nurturing rapport with a client over a Zoom call. Digital nomads are practised at taking their skills, experience and knowledge and transferring them positively to every scenario.
Conclusion: Digital Nomads in the Workplace in 2023
In the new year ahead, there is a high likelihood that organizations will begin to work with digital nomads, both directly and indirectly. To make this a possibility, in addition to normal hiring and management processes, managers and hiring personnel should incorporate the following as cornerstone priorities as well:
1. Open communication
This is expected in any working relationship though it may require a more nuanced and explicit design for working with digital nomads. Setting systems in advance for when communication is expected, the style, and how connecting will work is fundamental to success. Being mindful of this is extra important due to the disconnect that can happen without in-person, face-to-face contact. It’s a worthwhile strategy to check the preferred communication style of the employee and set a regular meeting schedule at least in the initial months.
2. Internet connections and cybersecurity
These pillars of getting the work done and protecting the organization are crucial to success. The organization could communicate expectations for a certain standard of internet speed although this would still be the responsibility of the digital nomad. An alternative could be for the digital nomad to have to communicate if they are having any connectivity issues and an understanding that they need to resolve these if it’s compromising work. Cybersecurity should be part of professional contracts and if necessary, the organization could require disclosure of the technical systems the person has implemented to protect their professional data.
It has been highlighted above that timezones can be a benefit for both organizations and digital nomads. Irrespective of this, professionalism is obviously essential. If timezones are in any way an issue, clear discussions about how to manage them should be factored into open communication about workloads and how all parties will connect. If work cannot be completed due to the timezones, a contingency plan should be in place inclusive of managing expectations and setting deadlines that can be achieved without negative impacts to any stakeholders. It should be foremost in the mind of hiring teams if timezones are a barrier to organizational goals and operations.
In closing on this discussion of digital nomads, while 2023 remains to be seen, the future will surely see remote work and economic shifts continuing to go hand in hand. Looking for the benefits while working collaboratively and professionally is central to moving forward in a digital era both with local and remote teams. This new era of professional norms should be greeted with an outlook of anticipation and openness where organizations, managers, and employees can all benefit from an exciting period of evolution in how we live and work.
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