Years ago, the gig economy and freelancing marketplaces gave rise to the “nomadic workforce,” whose participants are referred to as “digital nomads.” With vaccines now rolling out and workers beginning to make decisions in a post-pandemic reality, an increasing number of people may be embracing the digital nomad lifestyle – and not just young workers posing under palm trees. Globally, the rise of a large, new group of traveling, remote workers is one of the prevailing narratives about a COVID-19-reformed work world.
In fact, COVID-19 has accelerated some decisions around travel and living. People who were contemplating moving out of cities and into suburbs within a two-year timespan did so in a mere two months. The incentive to live in a cheaper part of the country (or world) has never been greater because employees get to keep their job and salaries in many circumstances. Even before COVID-19, some workers at more progressive companies were already working remotely from locations across the world.
Although travel has become more complicated during our current conditions, people still yearn to get away, explore, and change their environment. Many employees won’t ever have to live near their workplace again; in some cases, they might not even have to be located in the same country as their employer to maintain their job and have opportunities to advance. Since remote work has been both normalized and proven to be productive for so many, the stigma has been removed and companies are embracing the long-awaited philosophy of “work from anywhere, as long as you deliver results.”
Much like remote work, being a digital nomad is about work-life choice, individual preference, and lifestyle. Not everyone is meant to work from their home every day, nor is everyone meant to travel the world while working and without a place to call home. For both worker classifications, there’s a need for flexibility and greater control over their working arrangements, instead of being confined to a specific place or restricted to a 9-5 schedule.
Young workers are more likely to opt for the nomadic lifestyle
Younger people have always been more likely to embrace the nomadic lifestyle, typically because they have fewer responsibilities and more freedom. In general, older individuals must think about the needs of their family members and are therefore more likely to settle down in one location. So despite the growing interest in nomadism among all age groups during COVID-19, younger generations continue to dominate the work-tourism landscape.
Therefore, for companies looking to recruit young generations, it may be important to offer greater flexibility—including the option to travel—as a way to attract a wider talent pool.
The trend of digital nomadism will continue post-COVID
All signs point to the remote work trend becoming a permanent way of life, and therefore the sub-trend of digital nomadism is likely to grow as well. One indicator that nomadism will continue is that some major companies are open to supporting full-time employees who wish to pursue this lifestyle. For instance, Microsoft is allowing for domestic or international relocation, covering worker home office expenses but not relocation costs.
The flexibility and support around corporate relocation will enable more workers, especially younger ones, to choose the nomadic lifestyle. And, research by MBO Partners finds that 9 out of 10 nomads are either highly satisfied or satisfied with their work and lifestyle. So much so, that 53 percent say they plan to continue as digital nomads for at least the next two years. As further evidence of the trend continuing, 19 million Americans who aren’t digital nomads said they want to become nomads over the next few years and 64 million would consider it.
The benefits and drawbacks of nomadism for employees and employers
Companies like Microsoft will not only benefit from a larger, more robust, talent pool but one that has a well-developed set of digital skills that are highly valuable in today’s workplace. One study led by MBO Partners found that nomads are much more likely to be early technology adopters, specialists in their fields, highly skilled, and possessing a college or advanced degree.
In fact, nomads (and their employers) enjoy many of the same benefits as remote workers, including higher productivity, satisfaction, and retention. However, while remote workers typically remain in the confines of their own homes, nomads benefit from changing their scenery, which improves work-life balance, health, and creativity.
There are financial benefits as well. Employers can save money on real estate costs, and nomad workers often have a lower cost of living but with the wage rates of higher-cost locations. One study has found that almost two-thirds of people believe “a nomadic lifestyle is cheaper on their finances.” While the nomadic lifestyle can be cost-effective and offers an opportunity to travel, employers may impose localized compensation to make it less appealing in the future.
As technology evolves and companies grow more comfortable with a distributed and remote workforce, the digital nomad movement is going to rise for various reasons, including work/life balance, Baby Boomers “unretiring” and more.
So what are the drawbacks? The biggest drawbacks are that nomads can be harder to manage, scheduling issues across time zones, easier to replace, and security issues. Also, nomads may find that being “out of sight and out of mind” (i.e., lacking the same visibility as their office counterparts) could be a disadvantage post-COVID. There is also a host of other employer considerations like understanding tax implications, ensuring legal compliance, maintaining a cohesive workplace culture, and maintaining business continuity.
The future of the digital nomads movement
There’s never been more interest in digital nomadism – “people who choose to embrace a location-independent, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely, anywhere in the Internet-connected world”.
Digital nomads will continue to roam the world post-COVID-19 and companies that want to attract and retain them will enable their lifestyle in exchange for their highly skilled talent, productivity. A more likely outcome is that more workers might end up in situations where their organizations implement a hybrid work schedule that forces them to come into the office at least sometimes, and workers might relocate based on that requirement. Work is moving towards a focus on project-oriented results and away from a set location and pre-defined hours.