During the covid-19 pandemic, many businesses were forced to use virtual employment practices. This created a new type of employee: the digital nomad. Since 2019, the volume of digital nomads in the United States has risen by almost 50% (MBO, 2020). As we begin entering the post-pandemic workplace, what is to come of the digital nomad? Will they return to the traditional in-person workplace or will they look for new employment opportunities? What is a digital nomad and how do they feel about returning to the workplace? Understanding the plight of the digital nomads will help executives better understand the wants, needs, and experiences of their new virtual workplace—which could, in turn, lead to more informed decision-making and more effective business decisions.
“Adventures are the best way to learn.” - Anonymous
What is a digital nomad?
Digital Nomadism has been a “mainstream phenomenon” since 2014 (Schlagwein, 2018). According to a recent article from ePraxis, the digital nomad is an employee “who [travels] and [lives] a nomadic lifestyle, whose work is location-independent and performed using information and communication technology.”
Instead of working from home, they have adopted a lifestyle of travel. They are at times “constantly on the road” and other times traveling only occasionally for a change of scenery (Bachar, 2021). Digital nomads live a life that is “location-independent” moving from place to place at their leisure (MBO, 2020). They are different from work-from-home employees because what they call “home” is subject to change at their will. These people are not bound to a single location because of the traditional 9-5 office position and have adopted a unique work-life balance that allows them greater flexibility and freedom.
The digital nomad’s decreased barriers to travel
In 2018, the U.S Government conducted a survey on the state of American vacations (please note that these numbers are unaffected by the Covid pandemic and were gathered before the pandemic was present. Because of this, we can presume that travel will most likely return to statistics similar to these in upcoming years). The U.S Government outlines several key “barriers to travel” of which, the top three are:
Fear of looking replaceable
Too heavy of a workload
Lack of coverage at work
Digital nomads no longer face these barriers. In the digital workplace, they do not worry about “looking replaceable” because they are still able to complete their tasks virtually. Heavy workloads are not concerning, as the workload can be managed from any location. Lastly, they do not need co-workers to cover their duties because they can continue working as they travel.
These barriers, overcome by access to the virtual workplace, no longer apply to digital nomads. Digital nomads no longer have to use vacation days or risk getting behind in their tasks, allowing them to travel at their own leisure and develop their own unique work-life balance.
Key facts about the digital nomad
42% of Digital Nomads are Millennials
59% of digital nomads are men
81% of digital nomads are “highly satisfied” with their work and lifestyle
In 2020, 53% of digital nomads plan to continue being nomadic for at least the next two years
76% of digital nomads report being satisfied or very satisfied with their income regardless of salary
17% of American digital nomads are “VanLifers” or travel in vehicles “that have been converted into roaming residences” (MBO, 2020)
The experience of the digital nomad
To make the best decisions possible for the post-pandemic workplace, it is important to understand what this new lifestyle is like for these digital nomads. By understanding the digital nomad’s perspective and experience, executives can better execute new strategies that meet both the goals of the organization and the individual. MBO Partners summarizes the desires of the digital nomad well. MBO Partners state that digital nomads are “united by a passion for travel and new adventures” and can “enjoy the ability to work anywhere they can connect to the Internet” (2020).
“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” - Mary Ritter Beard, American Historian
Benefits of Traveling
Digital nomads are able to experience the benefits of travel without sacrificing income. These benefits include the following.
Mental health boosts
According to David Levine of the U.S News and World Report, traveling can help boost mental health and wellness in many ways. Levine states that “travel teaches resilience” (2018). When traveling, there will always be potential challenges and conflicts that arise. Addressing and conquering these conflicts builds mental resilience and fortitude. Traveling is also a “break from daily stress” (Levine, 2018). Although digital nomads travel with their work often in their back pocket or backpack, if a strict balance between work and travel is created, they have the potential to refresh and de-stress from their work in new and exciting ways as they travel. Lastly, travel increases creativity and cognitive flexibility (Nazish,2018). The opportunity to experience and interact with new cultures allows digital nomads to learn new perspectives and solutions that they can apply to the challenges of their careers.
Digital nomads who are traveling also have an increase in physical activity (Levine, 2018). When exploring new cities or countries, digital nomads are often required to walk more and engage with others more on their adventures. Furthermore, travel also decreases the likelihood of many health problems such as dementia, heart attacks, coronary disease, and heart disease (Levine, 2018).
Engagement with the local communities digital nomads are visiting also “encourages human interaction” (Levine, 2018). This is a significant benefit that combats the feelings of loneliness felt by 16% of work-from-home employees (Buffer, 2021). By interacting with other communities as they travel, digital nomads also experience an increase in knowledge of other cultures. This can help them relate to and communicate with coworkers and executives of different backgrounds.
Benefits of the digital workplace
While little research has been conducted on the pros and cons of digital nomadism, research has been done on the benefits experienced by remote workers in general. We can inference that these benefits will correlate closely with those that identify as digital nomads since they are often interacting with the same remote work interfaces within corporations.
The flexible schedule afforded by the digital workplace allows employees to better balance their careers and personal lives. The largest benefit of the digital workplace, as stated by virtual employees, is a flexible schedule. 33% of remote workers state that the flexibility of schedule is the biggest benefit of remote work (Buffer, 2021). The second biggest benefit of remote work is the flexible location as stated by 25% of digital employees surveyed (Buffer,2021).
Work is less tiresome
In an article from the Harvard Business Review, it was determined that the number of tiresome tasks dropped down from 27% in 2013 to 12% during the covid-19 pandemic (Birkinshaw et al., 2020).
Employees are more productive
Multiple studies have shown that working remotely has been associated with higher levels of productivity. Research has shown that there is a significant increase in the number of emails sent and the number of email recipients in remote workers (DeFilippis et al., 2020). This same study also noted that the number of virtual meetings held along with the number of attendees has increased as individuals are working from home (DeFilippis et al., 2020). Furthermore, an experimental study done in a Chinese travel agency determined that when employees work from home, there is an output increase of 13%, the attrition rate decreased by 25%, and that there were no negative outcomes for quality of work or performance (Bloom et al.,2013).
The challenges of a digital nomad
Despite its many benefits, the digital nomadic lifestyle does have its drawbacks.
In an analysis of 4000 surveys from English-speaking digital nomads, it was found that “aging out of the digital nomad community” was a common occurrence (Carlos, 2021). Digital nomads are likely to burn out from the continual newness of visited countries. This “travel fatigue” causes digital nomads to seek normalcy again and either return to their home country or remain in another country of their choice (Carlos, 2021). Furthermore, individuals who work from home are more likely to “overwork” and have difficulty unplugging from their work (and.co, 2018, Buffer, 2021). Because of these factors, digital nomads are more likely to burn out from their travels and return to a stable location. This might also be exacerbated by difficulties individuals reportedly have unplugging from their virtual work in general.
Research shows that 30% of digital nomads in 2018 stated that “a lack of community challenges their remote happiness the most” and that those who have worked remotely for less than a year were generally more likely to feel lonely by 3% (and.co). However, the same research states that those who have been working remotely for over 7 years “seemed to have overcome feeling” lonely (and.co, 2018).
In 2018, up to 25% of digital nomads posed “lack of career advancement opportunities as a challenge” (and.co). Experimental research supports the lack of promotion available for employees in the virtual workplace (Bloom et al.,2013). However, it is important to state that this statistic is prior to the Covid pandemic which drastically increased the amount of digital workplace employment available. Due to the rapid change of the workplace caused by the Covid pandemic, research has yet to be done over the current likelihood of promotions.
Second only to being able to unplug, 16% of remote workers stated that “difficulties with collaboration and communication” was the biggest challenge in remote work. These communication issues are often exacerbated by the differences in time-zones often faced by digital nomads. In 2018, 1-in-5 digital nomads “blame time zone discrepancies for productivity troubles” (and.co.). This is likely due to the increased need for corporations to adapt to the changes of the digital workplace.
“To travel is to live.” - Hans Christian Anderson Danish Author
The perspective of the digital nomad
Digital nomads have a unique perspective on the state of the post-pandemic workplace. Many individuals have become digital nomads during the Covid pandemic and are reluctant to return to the traditional 9-5 workplace.
Desire to Travel
Although the Covid pandemic closed down many borders, digital nomads were still able to travel within the United States. In fact, 17% of American digital nomads are “VanLifers” or travel in vehicles “that have been converted into roaming residences” (MBO, 2020). Many of these individuals are excited to continue their traveling to the international extent once the covid-19 pandemic is resolved. In 2018, before the Covid pandemic, almost 25% of remote workers traveled and considered themselves digital nomads (and.co., 2018). Furthermore, 11% of individuals who chose to work remotely before the pandemic did so because they wanted to travel (and.co.,2018). Research by Vrbo 2020 stated that “65% of travelers plan on traveling more than they did pre-COVID.” These statistics allow us to infer that new digital nomads created by the Covid pandemic are going to want to travel more than they could during the pandemic. Because of this, many employees that identify as digital nomads are likely to resist coming back to the traditional 9-5 workplace and desire to continue their travels.
Desire to continue working remote
Remote workers who have continually worked remotely for over 7 years are more likely to want to work remotely forever than those who are new to working remotely (and.co, 2018). In 2021, remote workers reported that 97% of them would recommend remote work to others (Buffer). 97.6% of remote workers would like to continue working remotely “at least some of the time” for the remainder of their career (Buffer, 2021). Employees enjoy working remotely and regardless of their nomadic status will want to continue doing so. Although there is no research regarding digital nomads specifically, we can conclude that digital nomads are enjoying the flexibility the digital workplace provides and are likely to want to continue their remote employment as they have established their own “practices” to ensure that they can continue working whilst traveling (ePraxis, 2021).
How this translates to the post-pandemic workplace
As we enter the post-pandemic workplace, it is important to consider the changes that the Covid pandemic has brought about and how these changes have impacted employees worldwide. “After experiencing more freedom, many people won't exactly rush back to their office if they don’t have to” (ePraxis, 2021). When making decisions for the post-pandemic workplace, consider how many of your employees have been transitioned to remote work, how many of them have adopted the lifestyle of a digital nomad, the needs of your remote workforce (both nomadic and home-based), as well as the needs of your organization. Consider the drawbacks faced by digital nomads and seek to create a workplace that accounts for these. It is important to realize that while many pre-pandemic workplace traditions may be permitted, that corporations hold a unique opportunity to research and optimize their new post-pandemic workplace. In the words of Winston Churchill:
“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
And co. (2018). Remote Work & Digital Nomads Study 2018 - The Anywhere Workers. Retrieved from https://www.and.co/anywhere-workers.html
Birkinshaw, J., Cohen, J., & Stach, P. (2020, August 31). Research: Knowledge Workers Are More Productive from Home. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/08/research-knowledge-workers-are-more-productive-from-home
Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, Z. J. (2013). Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment. The National Bureau of Economic Research. doi:10.3386/w18871
Buffer. (2021). 2021 State of Remote Work. Retrieved from https://buffer.com/2021-state-of-remote-work
Carlos. (2021, April 16). 63 Surprising Digital Nomad Statistics in 2021. Retrieved from https://abrotherabroad.com/digital-nomad-statistics/#DIGITAL-NOMAD-LIFESTYLE-PACE-OF-TRAVEL
ePraxis. (2021, June 22). Why Digital Nomads Represent One of The Fastest Growing Lifestyles. https://www.epraxis.com/post/why-digital-nomads-represent-one-of-the-fastest-growing-lifestyles
Levine, D. (2018, March 23). The Many Ways Travel Is Good for Your Mental Health. Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/health-care/patient-advice/articles/2018-03-23/the-many-ways-travel-is-good-for-your-mental-health
MBO. (2020). COVID-19 and the Rise of the Digital Nomad (pp. 1-10, Rep.).
Morrow, H. (n.d.). Unbelievable Stats About Digital Nomads: SDC International Movers. Retrieved from https://www.sdcinternationalshipping.com/unbelievable-stats-about-digital-nomads/
Schlagwein, D. (2018). (PDF) The History of Digital Nomadism. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329182172_The_History_of_Digital_Nomadism
Vrbo. (2021). Vrbo Travel Trend Report reveals what to expect in 2021. Retrieved from https://www.vrbo.com/media-center/press-releases/2020/vrbo-travel-trend-report-reveals-what-to-expect-in-2021
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