There’s a certain flexible working trend that’s receiving a considerable amount of interest, and it’s not hard to see why. The ‘digital nomadic’ lifestyle is a combination of mobile work and travel that’s hitting the 9-to-5 tradition squarely in the jaw.
Also known as ‘extreme remote working’ or by the mildly irritating term ‘workation’, digital nomads are individuals who take full advantage of mobile technology and wireless Internet to work from virtually anywhere. It’s usually a combination of work and travel, in which freelance or part-time work funds their ongoing travel expenses.
It’s a romantic idea, kicking back on a sunbed with a mojito at your side and a laptop balanced on sun-kissed knees. Travelling the world from city to coast, hostels and exotic meals are supplemented by a few hours of freelance work during the week. After all, who wouldn’t feel suitably inspired by such an ever-changing backdrop of beautiful sights and locations?
Let’s get back to earth for a moment. Here, we take off the rose-tinted sunglasses to learn more about the digital nomad lifestyle, and to prepare would-be nomads for the road ahead.
Digital nomads: A brief history
The digital nomad movement is not a new trend by any stretch of the imagination. Given that Wi-Fi began its widespread commercial adoption in the early 2000s, and laptops were around long before that (albeit similar in size and weight to a small elephant), some tech-savvy digital nomads have been trailblazing this trend in excess of 15 years.
And that’s not counting pre-Wi-Fi pen-pushers and painters of decades gone by. Indeed, exotic Bali – now an Internet enabled workplace for savvy startups and Silicon Valley visionaries, has enjoyed a long history of pre-digital nomadic workers:
“Bali, and Ubud specifically, has attracted writers and artists for centuries – Charlie Chaplin, HG Wells and Noël Coward were guests of the German painter Walter Spies in the 1930s – and from the 1980s onwards fashion designers from Australia, America’s West Coast and Britain set up studios on the island.” – Anna Hart, The Guardian
Back to present day, and the digital nomad trend is accelerating. Or so we’re told.
Statistics: Digital nomads in numbers
Given the fluid, shifting nature of borderless working, it’s a frustratingly difficult trend to pin down.
Upwork (the result of a merger between freelance job sites oDesk and eLance) does a pretty good job. In a 2014 survey of its freelance customers, the company revealed these key findings:
- Of the almost three quarters (74%) who made a change to be less tied to a physical workplace, 67% became a freelancer and 34% created a virtual business or team.
- 39% said they now consider themselves a Digital Nomad, and of these almost half (45%) became nomads in just the past year (2014).
- Digital Nomads saw an increase in income (59%, vs. 17% with no income change after “going nomad” and 24% with a decrease).
- 79% said they expect to be a Digital Nomad for the rest of their life.
- Since becoming less tied to a physical workplace, 92% said they’re happier.
As a side note, Upwork also does a beautiful job of defining digital nomads:
“Digital Nomads are people who are living life as an adventure, empowered by technology to break free of the constraints of the physical workplace.” – Upwork
Another reliable indication of its fast-paced development lies in the growth of flexible working. Statistics by FlexJobs found that the number of flexible telecommuting jobs they advertised in 2015 increased by 36% compared with 2014.
Although not tied inextricably to the digital nomad trend, the rapid rise of this style of working demonstrates employers’ broader acceptance of flexible working and the realization that greater flexibility – both in terms of timescales and location – leads to a more fulfilling work/life balance, happier employees, and enhanced productivity.
Another indication of the accelerating digital nomad trend is the media, which is readily embracing the romantic notion of throwing work and travel together. A quick search for ‘digital nomad’ on Google coolly returns a whopping 1,850,000 results.
It now has dedicated conferences too. The first international conference for digital nomads (DNX GLOBAL) took place in Berlin, Germany in 2015, with a second lined up in 2016 for Bangkok, Thailand.
Overcoming the challenges of working remotely
It’s not all sun-drenched shores and blissful working conditions. There are practicalities to consider. Like, how do you keep the sun’s glare off your screen? Or stop your sweaty fingers sticking to the keyboard?
On a serious note, these are some of the challenges digital nomads can expect to meet on their journey:
No ‘real world’ tether:
Old habits (and working cultures) die hard, and some employers will always retain an air of suspicion when taking on someone with no fixed address or ‘real world’ tether. So it may become more difficult as a freelancer to pick up new gigs, or as a startup to secure investment or clients.
The same goes for home-based businesses. To office-based corporates, a home address as a registered business address just doesn’t look professional. That’s why some companies rent a business address that acts as their professional HQ and handles incoming mail. Plus, a physical address is a legal requirement for any company.
“The government by nature of business licensing necessitates a physical location of some sort for business,” says Vineet Vashishta, founder of The Data Science Company. Of course a company’s official address could be a home address, which is not a problem for everyone. In today’s emerging flexible culture, working from home is a lot more acceptable than it used to be.
For Vineet, having a physical office isn’t just a tick in the legal box; it’s also an important meeting place. “Mobile technology only takes business relationships so far, and at some point there needs to be face time. As for employees however, that’s where the office becomes an obsolete construct. I see remote workers as the option of choice for both businesses and employees.”
Enrico Icardi, himself an independent worker who is currently running a Digital Nomad Survey, says the clients he works with rarely “expect or require a physical presence”, although this largely depends on the set-up of the company itself: “Having a physical location is certainly a good way to attract bigger clients, [especially those] which might have complicated infrastructures that do not allow them to easily create location-free relationships.”
In this insightful article by TheNextWeb, Stuart McDonald of Travel Fish says that even after nine years of working remotely, having the discipline to close the laptop and go for a swim is one he has yet to perfect.
“Being able to run the business from a phone means you’ve really always got your business with you – in your shirt pocket. There is a significant downside to that and a true holiday generally requires me to get somewhere with no Internet connectivity.”
It just goes to show that even paradise can play havoc with work/life balance. So our advice is to stay a little longer and keep at it. Because y’know, practice makes perfect.
It’s more glare than glamor:
“Those photos of people’s beach offices? It’s about appearance. The sand? The glare? The risk of injuring the one piece of technology that actually is necessary in order to be a digital nomad? No one would risk that to have a tropical office. The reality? The remainder of the day was likely spent in a tiny room, snacking on bread and trying to hustle.
“While there are plenty of very successful digital nomads out there, the reality is, it took those people a lot of hard work and dealing with a number of downsides to be where they are today. Is it worth it? Absolutely. But, it’s important to go into the world of being a digital nomad knowing it isn’t always pretty. And it definitely isn’t always easy.”
Play vs Productivity vs Getting Paid:
What’s the point in traveling to beautiful locations if you’re not going to enjoy them? That’s what the ‘nomad’ part is all about. But digital nomads also need to eat, and as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The key, according to Jennifer Glover of the Digital Nomad Travel Mag, is to remain focused.
“Staying productive? I think staying focused on your goals is key. Also, use the 80/20 principle – focus on the 20% of efforts that bring 80% of the results,” (hat tip to Smart Passive Income). “For us it’s a lifestyle business. That is, we work this way for the lifestyle of being abroad, working from home and working the hours we want.
“To ‘get rich’ would be a bonus, but it’s not the main focus.”
On the topic of income, Jennifer says that one of the main challenges facing every digital nomad is generating a sufficient revenue stream to maintain this lifestyle. “Having various and diverse sources of income can help ensure stability, as well as establishing some passive income areas to keep the cash flowing. Being a bit of a risk taker doesn’t hurt either!”
As for the future? We’re looking forward to Enrico Icardi’s survey, so keep an eye on www.digitalnomadsurvey.com for the latest. What we can say is that the advent of mobile technology, Wi-Fi, and a taste for adventure are opening new doors of opportunity for wandering workers the world over. Enrico tentatively believes the digital nomad lifestyle could become the standard for many workers: “So far the trend is growing and attracting a lot of professionals, but only time (and economic transformation) will tell :)”
One thing’s for sure, hundreds of thousands of people are already successfully living, and working, the digital nomad dream.