What digital nomads can teach us about the future of work

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

If you could quit the office, pack your bags, and travel the world working solely from your laptop, would you do it?

Thousands are, and have been for years. COVID or not, many more are now preparing for a life in which they wander while they work. It’s called digital nomadism, and it might just be the way of the future.

The rise of the digital nomad may seem relatively new age, but the term was actually coined nearly 25 years ago. In their book of the same name, Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners described an era in which workers would no longer be geographically tied to their employers and would instead be “free to live where they want and travel as much as they want.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

If you could quit the office, pack your bags, and travel the world working solely from your laptop, would you do it?

Thousands are, and have been for years. COVID or not, many more are now preparing for a life in which they wander while they work. It’s called digital nomadism, and it might just be the way of the future.

The rise of the digital nomad may seem relatively new age, but the term was actually coined nearly 25 years ago. In their book of the same name, Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners described an era in which workers would no longer be geographically tied to their employers and would instead be “free to live where they want and travel as much as they want.

And for much of the past decade, this has indeed been the reality for millions of remote workers around the world, including myself.

While the definition is somewhat subjective, a digital nomad can be anyone who works online and moves around the world of their own accord, rather than for the sake of their job.

While it seems that COVID may have hindered travel somewhat, almost the opposite is true – or will be. With more and more companies now offering remote work, millions are taking the opportunity to become untethered from the office. Recent research from enterprise solution company MBO Partners suggests around 4.8 million people are currently living as digital nomads, and that a further 17 million people say they want to become digital nomads.

Digital nomad
Photo: Persnickety Prints

So, what’s so good about it?

For a start, there’s the freedom. When all you need is a device and an internet connection to earn a wage, you can live almost anywhere. In fact, you can even choose your own office. Beachfront in Bali? Sure. Airbnb in Bangkok? Anything is possible.

Coworking
Photo: Annie Spratt

The top destinations for nomads include Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia (Bali), Taiwan, Estonia, Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Many of these countries have similar advantages: a low cost of living, good internet, and large communities of other remote workers. Thailand, Vietnam, and Bali especially have many coworking spaces and cafes where nomads can meet, work, or attend networking events together. Warm weather is a big drawcard, along with the opportunity to travel further.

Ditching the nine-to-five is another perk. ‘Nomading’ means you can work your own hours. Wake up late and work through into the evening, or start early and take the afternoon off to go surfing. You’re your own boss. Fully independent, free to roam when and where you choose.

As a former digital nomad myself, the biggest drawcard for me was the ability to see the world – and pay for it as I went. Rather than saving for years then ticking off a bucket list of destinations within a short space of time, digital nomadism allows you to travel at your own pace and spend longer periods of time in your chosen destination. You can settle into the daily life of another culture and experience local cuisines, customs, religions, and languages. You can live within another world – and perhaps even become a ‘local’ – rather than a tourist. It’s the ultimate chance to immerse yourself in another country.

Back in 2016, I decided I’d had enough of working in an office and being so far from the rest of the world. I quit my job and dug into my savings for a one-way ticket to India.

Initially, I had lofty ideas of settling down in the Himalayas and writing a novel. But upon reaching India and realising just how much world there was to see, I decided that channelling my inner Janet Frame probably wouldn’t be a profitable way to live. Money is rather essential for life, even in a country where a meal costs less than a dollar. It was then that I created a profile on a freelance platform called Upwork and, to my amazement, employers wanted to hire me.

In those first few months, I earned barely more than the minimum wage. But having moved from India to the highlands of Dalat, Vietnam, my scanty writing gigs were enough to cover the basics: rent ($70 a month) and food ($>10 a day). Eventually, I progressed to more lucrative projects, and became a bonafide digital nomad (or DN, as we referred to ourselves). I then spent nearly three years hopping between some 20-odd countries.

I returned to New Zealand in May 2019 for a break, and COVID has since prevented me from leaving again. For now, anyway.

Obviously, it’s not the life for everyone. The many advantages of being a DN come with some hefty downsides: homesickness, living out of a bag (a small one, at that), and never quite knowing what you’re in for when you step off a plane in a new country. There’s also the risk of getting ill (pre- and post-COVID), theft, language barriers, and – more often than not – loneliness.

All that aside, it could be the greatest adventure you’ll ever have. And, perhaps more importantly, there’s a lot that digital nomads can teach us about remote work.

What we can learn from a digital nomad

For a start, digital nomads are not wanderlusters who have opted to shirk the responsibilities of adult life. These are people with a different kind of mindset: the ‘growth’ mindset. Many have chosen to leave the stability of a fixed-location job and become their own boss, and this usually involves making the effort to upskill. Someone who was once an engineer might have gained his or her nomadic wings by studying website design or dropshipping. In most cases, this will have to be done entirely on their own steam.

In fact, any one of us can take responsibility for our professional development and our lives this way. It’s entirely possible to redesign your life by figuring out what skills you have – or need to – to start earning money online.

Digital nomads also remind us that we don’t have to accept the traditional 9-5 working conditions imposed by society. Instead, we can step outside constraints and norms, and build something anew.

And then the real bonus: being happier. It’s no exaggeration that we are more productive and more creative when we’re doing something we enjoy. Less stress and more freedom allows us to snap out of the workday humdrum and simply live life a little more fully.

Digital nomadism in 2021 and beyond

Yes, COVID has made international travel a little slower, and in some ways has halted it completely. The United Nations World Tourism Organization declared that 2020 was the worst year for tourism on record, with one billion fewer international arrivals.

Many of the freedoms of travel have changed. New risks must be factored in before flights, insurance, visas, and living arrangements. Now, even the most seasoned nomad will need to plan well in advance in terms of researching a country’s COVID situation. Many countries in Europe are enforcing strict rules to allow for safe travel. Sites such as Booking.com and AirBNB now carry warnings about COVID measures.

Another major downside is that travel will also be more expensive for the unforeseeable future. Pre-COVID, it was possible to choose cheap airfares and travel off-peak. But as airlines struggle to weather the COVID storm, flight costs have shot up. Flight schedules are few and far between, and international terminals are empty.

Travel has also become much slower. While not every country requires a quarantine period, the era of hopping between countries for the weekend is on hold for now.

But digital nomads are accustomed to bumps in the road. While the rest of the world grappled with the shock of turning their bedroom or kitchen table into their workstation, digital nomads simply carried on as before.

And COVID or not, the nomadic lifestyle is very much alive. In fact, several countries have now created ‘digital nomad visas’ or ‘freelancer visas’ specifically to encourage foreigners to settle in their countries and contribute to their economies.

Estonia was the first to create an e-residency program for entrepreneurs. This was followed by an official e-residency programme: a one-year digital nomad and freelancer visa for remote workers. Costa Rica, Georgia, Barbados, and a dozen other countries have followed suit with their own forms of visas. Many carry a range of conditions regarding monthly income and mandatory COVID testing, but the incentive is the same: live, travel, and work.

And for good reason. Many countries are desperate for foreigners to help revive economies that have lost tourism revenue due to the pandemic.

In fact, things are already looking up. As the COVID vaccine is rolled out around the world, airlines are hoping for a rebound. While the Centre for Disease Control and Protection is still warning people not to travel, bookings are already on the rise. Airlines have reported that bookings have been steadily increasing as people begin making plans for spring and summer.

Remote work: the way of the future?

If anything positive could come out of the pandemic, it’s that many companies have learned how effective and productive employees can be when they aren’t stuck in an office.

And those employees have learned how good it is to get their work done in the time and place they choose. Figuring out how to work remotely may have been a shock at first, but the benefits are undeniable. During last year’s lockdown, some of us found we were able to settle into a healthy work-life balance that allowed time for hobbies on the side. We were able to spend more time with family and friends instead of commuting. And in the months following, some who lost their jobs to the pandemic have since found work online.

With technology improving every day and corporations adjusting to the new stay-at-home requirements, remote work is quite possibly ‘the new normal’. Where you do it is up to you – but the world is calling.

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