Remote working has been a growing trend even before covid-19. The flexibility of being able to work from anywhere provides its underlying benefits. Companies can save on office costs while also opening themselves up to a larger talent pool internationally.
Workers can work from anywhere they want, making it easier for those who might have other responsibilities like taking care of children. And for those infected with a strong wanderlust, greater freedom to travel and work from a location of choice.
The Rise of Digital Nomads
Emerging from this remote work culture is the community of digital nomads. Armed with their laptop for work, nomads travel around the world periodically to find a new nest suited for their needs. The length and pace of travel vary based on individual preferences but often stretches from at least a month to even years at times.
While there are already estimates that the digital nomad community will grow to 1 billion by 2035 anyway, I believe Covid-19 will expedite the growth on three prominent fronts.
Due to the pandemic and need for social distancing, many companies had to move their daily operations online. BCG estimated an unprecedented 40+% of the workforce started working from home, marking a period of empty offices.
While the remote working culture is a growing trend, there is still friction or fear of adoption. It is not an easy decision for a company to allow its employees to be remote. There are always concerns regarding employee motivation or work efficiency when not in an office environment. Furthermore, change is always difficult. Often, companies are simply focusing on keeping daily operations moving as smoothly as possible.
The pandemic came as a strong wind of change. Social distancing measures forced companies to take the leap (or more aptly be pushed off the cliff) to execute a remote working strategy.
Through this period, some companies are bound to discover the benefits of having a remote workforce. Since they have tried it, the fear of the unknown is reduced. Furthermore, companies now have the structure to accommodate it. A recent BCG employer survey found that companies expect about 40% of their workforce to be working remotely in the future.
The covid pandemic can be said to have been a double-edged sword for individuals in experiencing a remote working, digital nomad lifestyle.
The pandemic-induced remote work situation is actually not a fair reflection of remote working as a digital nomad.
One main advantage of remote work is that you can choose to work from anywhere. It is the backbone that creates greater freedom for digital nomads to travel in the first place.
Unfortunately, in this case, workers are not able to go anywhere due to lockdowns even within cities. This situation also creates the psychology to employers that, “hey, since you can’t go anywhere, you should be at home working.”
Furthermore, there are bound to be supervisors who are concerned about employees slacking off under a remote working arrangement, and therefore, monitor even more closely.
In this perspective, the covid pandemic did create a negative impression of working from home for some. There is now seemingly no separation between work and home.
Increased Work Hours
CNBC reported that daily working duration has increased by 3 hours in the states and 2 hours in the U.K., France, Spain, and Canada. In the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and Austria, it is an extra hour on average since the pandemic.
This online work scenario is vaguely similar to when mobile chat apps started becoming part of the workplace. It is a more convenient and faster way of communication, yet it also means that now people expect you to reply quicker than email. Therefore, creating more pressure.
However, this is more due to the nature of the pandemic than remote working in general.
On the flip side, this has helped employees to understand the possibility and challenges of remote working in their job position. Some might have appreciated the arrangement even though it might just be working from home. Hopefully, the situation will set the precedence for employees to propose remote work arrangements to their employers in the future.
A chance for reflection
Unfortunately, the pandemic has adversely impacted many industries, resulting in many job and revenue losses.
On a more positive note, this has allowed many people to rethink their career or life choices. For some, it is an opportunity to switch from employment to starting their own business. For others, it presented a chance to look deeper into pursuing their passion or a lifestyle that they might have wanted.
There are certainly some that had thought about the digital nomad lifestyle before but were hesitant about quitting their job or leaving behind a “stable” income. The pandemic has now pushed some of them over the fence to put some plans into action.
If you are going to start something new, it might as well be something you have wanted to do. Although some might ultimately discover that the lifestyle is not for them, it is better to have tried than to regret not trying it and always be wondering “what if….”.
Digital nomads have always operated under a rather grey zone when it comes to legality. Most nomads visit countries with tourist visas. They are working, yet they are not actually “working” in the country they are in (if you get what I mean). It is almost similar to a regular tourist visiting for tourism purpose and had to handle some work matters online during the vacation. As imagined, it is hard for countries to keep track of this as well.
Most governments are probably aware of this, yet it has not grown to become a prominent issue yet. There are much bigger and more pressing matters that governments have to handle. Furthermore, digital nomads aren’t exactly a problem; but rather a growing category of visitors that is yet to be catered for by current systems.
Digital Nomads as Ideal Visitors
In most cases, digital nomads are a boost to the economies they visit. They are spending like a tourist but are not taking any jobs away from the locals. And nomads are there for an extended period, which means constant consumption of goods and services. Money to the economy!
Increasingly, it seems the pandemic has accelerated and reinforced this perspective of digital nomads. Countries are now seeing digital nomads as one way to stimulate tourism in their economies.
Rather than having a high turnover of unique visitors, which might mean an increased chance of virus transmission, many countries see the benefit of having fewer yet longer staying visitors.
As a simple illustration, there is a preference towards having one person staying and spending for a month in their country, over having 30 different people visiting for one day only each. The consumer spending might potentially amount to a similar level, yet the risk of virus transmission is much lower with one person than with thirty different people. And digital nomads fit the former profile.
Within this pandemic period, countries like Barbados, Georgia, and Estonia, Iceland have already launched digital nomad visas. Each of them presenting their own set of requirements to lure their desired profile of visitors. Other countries like Croatia and Greece are cooking up with their version of digital nomad visas. These are certainly welcomed additions to a list of countries with long term visas for digital nomads.
With more countries vying for the attention and money of digital nomads, there is a good chance the list of popular nomad hubs around the world will change quickly.
The wind of Change
In general, the idea of remote working and digital nomads has always been an “on-the-fence,” “let’s wait and see” matter for a good portion of companies, individuals, and governments.
“Remote working seems to be picking up, but there are pros and cons to it. Can we take advantage of this? Not too sure how we should change our operations and if it will cause a breakdown in our daily operations now. Let’s wait and see if there is a better time to address this.”
“I want to travel more, and now more people seem to be working remotely. But how do I propose this to my company? Will I lose my job because of this? Maybe let’s see if I get a promotion next year.”
“There’s this digital nomad trend that should come up in the next few years but it’s not important now. They are not causing any significant issues anyway and are also spending as part of the tourism sector. Let’s leave it and see how it goes. “
Covid as a Defining Period?
However, the pandemic situation has pushed each group to give a deeper thought into their respective positions on the matter. It has forced companies (with the possibility of remote working) to work out an operating model for a remote working team.
Individuals took the opportunity to rethink their career and lifestyle choices. Some who considered the digital nomad lifestyle previously saw it as their chance to take a shot at it. It has set the foundation for employees to propose for future remote working arrangements.
The drop in visitor traffic has urged the government to think about how they can work this growing trend to their advantage. It is particularly vital when their tourism sector is taking a nasty hit amidst a pandemic that has no apparent end in sight yet.
While the digital nomad community has been growing in recent years, there is a chance that we might look back and say that 2020 is a defining year for the digital nomad community. That will be both interesting and ironic, wouldn’t it? A year whereby travel is so largely restricted could be a defining year for a nomadic community.