The rise of digital nomads: Opportunities and challenges for businesses

by Carlo Borja
rise of digital nomads

You see them on Instagram or Tik Tok, laptop perched on a table in a café overlooking the beach in some dream holiday destination. They usually caption it with something like “Today’s office” to make all their friends stuck in a dreary downtown cubicle jealous.

They’re the digital nomads. Kids in their twenties living the dream, armed with just a laptop, a decent education, and a sense of adventure. Except they’re not in their 20s anymore. Generation X and Boomer nomads have been doing this for decades – just without the laptop!

What’s different now is that anyone can truly work from anywhere. Distances and time zones don’t mean anything when the world is plugged in 24 hours a day, 7 a week. With our modern digital devices and the power of the cloud today’s office can be anywhere and everywhere.

History of digital nomadism

Even back when international and cross-continental travel was hard there were always people who travelled while earning a living.

The spiritual forebears of today’s digital nomads are perhaps famous writers like Ernest Hemingway, who kept churning out novels, and journalism to pay the bills, whether he was big game hunting in Africa, bull running in Spain, or drinking in Paris.

Planes, trains and automobiles – all quite recent inventions at the time – had opened up travel on such a scale to ordinary people outside of the fantastically rich. And the global telephone and telegram system gave them ways to stay in touch and earn a living at the same time.

Today, of course, it’s much simpler still thanks to ubiquitous technology and incredibly cheap air travel, allowing today’s digital nomads the freedom to travel the world and set up wherever they find inspiration – a beach in Bali, a bustling city like Tokyo, the best museums in Berlin, or the quiet French countryside.

This is a trend that has been further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has the viability of remote work been comprehensively demonstrated, it has become a much more attractive option to people who took the lockdowns as an opportunity to reassess their life priorities.

The appeal of the digital nomad lifestyle

The digital nomad lifestyle has become increasingly popular, with many professionals seeking a better work-life balance, the opportunity to experience new cultures, and the ability to explore the world while earning money online and maintaining their careers. This shift towards a more flexible, location-independent workstyle is reshaping the world of work, presenting both opportunities and challenges for businesses.

Being a digital nomad comes with several advantages. The freedom to choose when and where to work can lead to increased productivity, as individuals can work at their peak performance times and in environments that inspire them. The chance to experience different cultures can lead to personal growth, broadened perspectives, and improved cross-cultural understanding. The ability to maintain a career while traveling allows for financial stability and eliminates the need to choose between work and wanderlust.

It’s useful to understand what remote workers, including digital nomads, say they like about not being tied to the office or a strict schedule. A survey from flexjobs shows the reasons people prefer working outside of the office:

Fewer interruptions68%
More focus63%
Quieter work environment68%
More comfortable workplace66%
Avoiding office politics55%

However, the lifestyle isn’t without its challenges. Digital nomads often face issues like unstable internet connections, finding a comfortable workspace, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Remote workers, particularly those who work from home, can also report higher rates of loneliness and mental health issues. Despite these challenges, the benefits and appeal of the lifestyle continue to attract more professionals.

Opportunities presented by the rise of digital nomads

So far, so good for workers who want a better work life balance while living their dream lifestyle. What of the companies that employ them? What’s in it for them?

Easier access to talent

First and foremost, it opens up a global talent pool. With geographical restrictions removed, companies can hire the best talent from around the world, bringing diverse skills and perspectives to the team. This diversity can lead to increased creativity, innovation, and problem-solving capabilities.

Productivity boost

Digital nomads can also increase productivity. Empowered with the freedom to work when and where they’re most productive, these professionals often deliver high-quality work efficiently. For businesses operating across time zones, having digital nomads on their team can mean round-the-clock coverage, ensuring that business operations never come to a halt.

There have been lots of studies on the productivity of remote workers in recent years. Many find an average increase of around 5%. A recent Future Forum report found that employees on flexible schedules were 29% more productive. It turns out that working alone allows them to focus better than those in a busy office environment.

Cost savings

Finally, embracing digital nomads can lead to significant cost savings. Businesses can reduce overheads related to office space, utilities, and other resources typically required for in-office employees. This can significantly reduce operating costs, freeing up resources that can be invested in other areas of the business.

Challenges in engaging with digital nomads

Managing a remote workforce can sometimes feel like herding cats across continents. There are multiple challenges that require thought, creativity and effort to overcome.

Maintaining a global culture

Maintaining a shared company culture is your first Everest to climb. It’s difficult to create a sense of unity and shared purpose when everyone is scattered across the globe. You might also be dealing with teams that are comprised of people who are direct full-time employees, part-time employees, freelance contractors, or who work for a BPO. You’re expected to give them a shared sense of purpose.

It’s challenging to keep everyone on the same page, let alone foster a feeling of camaraderie and a shared corporate identity. Without the casual water cooler chats or after-work drinks, building a strong company culture takes extra creativity and effort.

Languages and time zones

Language barriers and time zone differences just add to the challenge. You’re going to be scheduling team meetings where half your team is just waking up, the other half is already dreaming about their beds. It can be a logistical nightmare that requires careful planning and patience.

Get the technology right

Then there’s the IT infrastructure. You can’t just rely on Bob from IT to come to your desk and fix things. In a remote setup, Bob might be a thousand miles away, or worse, sleeping because it’s 3 AM his time. What remote operations need is a robust, secure, and reliable IT infrastructure that’s accessible to everyone at all times.

Security and compliance

Finally, there’s the issue of security and compliance. You need to protect sensitive information from prying eyes even when an employee or contractor is working from a busy coffee shop on a public internet connection. Your cloud-based office basically needs to run smoothly 24/7 and resist cyber-attacks while enabling lots of different people from different places using different devices to connect and work. What you need to build is user-friendly fortress.

You will also need to abide by all the relevant labor laws in the countries where your employees or contractors are based. That can create a lot of work for your HR teams as it’s potentially a regulatory and legal minefield they’re being asked to navigate.

Strategies for effective engagement with digital nomads

So, how do you tackle these challenges? Fortunately, there are plenty of possibilities. Remote work is big business, and has been since even before the pandemic, so many tools and solutions have been developed that can help you meet the above challenges.

Add a dash of common sense and a little effort at organization and you can build a global remote team of digital nomads that can work just as cohesively and productively as a team that is together in the same office.

Communication and collaboration

There is a whole galaxy of platforms out there designed to make remote work easier, from project management tools like Trello and Asana, to communication platforms like Slack and Teams.

It’s about finding the right mix of platforms that works for your team. Everyone needs to be able to access the platforms you use, from wherever they are, and you also want to be mindful of the costs per user. They can quickly add up if you’re using multiple platforms and your team gets into double figures – so ensure each service you use brings genuine value and doesn’t duplicate features you have in other tools.

What’s crucial is that everyone is able to collaborate, contribute, and feel heard and valued. As a recent survey from The Workforce Institute shows, 92% of highly engaged employees say they feel listened to. Workers who do not feel listened to often cite it as a main reason for quitting.

At the same time, don’t go overboard with video meetings. So-called Zoom fatigue has been felt by most remote workers, certainly since the pandemic. Asynchronous communication tools – not just email but also messaging services like WhatsApp and the video / screen capture service Loom – help keep communication and collaboration flowing while cutting down the number of video meetings.

Remote-friendly culture

Creating a sense of unity and shared purpose among your nomadic workforce is your goal here. At the most basic level, you set different expectations of remote workers – particularly nomadic ones – than you do of your in-office workforce. For example, you shouldn’t expect them to be logged on and at their desk from 9am to 6pm every day. That’s not what being a digital nomad is about.

Regular virtual team-building activities, open communication channels, and a feedback system for recognizing employees’ efforts and contributions – publicly with the rest of the team – help create this sense of belonging. It’s about making everyone feel like they’re part of one big team with a common goal, even if they’re thousands of miles away.

Companies that value their employees can also provide resources that support them to be more productive, to get more out of their work and lives, and help with things like mental health. If you’re a company that provides perks and benefits to your employees – like discount gym memberships or childcare – think of how you can extend this to your digital nomad staff. Discount travel or adventure experiences for example? It only takes a little outside-of-the-box thinking to keep your remote workers as engaged as your in-office ones.

Making it safe

As we saw earlier, security and compliance are huge issues when hiring remote workers and digital nomads. For security it helps if you have put in place a proper cloud infrastructure for all your enterprise applications. Your IT team should have in place robust data security protocols, and you need to ensure that all team members are aware of and comply with these measures. Regular training on data security best practice is crucial.

Most businesses provide remote employees with a ‘walled garden’ device such as a laptop or phone that they are to use for all work activities. Some even provide home workers with a separate secure internet connection that they can only use for work. At the very least they set up secure VPNs and ask employees to connect via that.

If you’re employing digital nomads, it can be a little more problematic as they’re travelling around using whatever internet connection they can find. They probably also don’t want to carry two laptops around with them, and they might be working for multiple companies as well as your own. In these cases it is up to your digital nomad employees to ensure that they take the necessary steps to protect themselves from cyber attacks. Simple steps such as using VPNs, avoiding public wi-fi, installing good anti-virus software, and using multi-factor authentication should ensure they comply with your security requirements.

Complying with legislation

From a compliance point of view, it can be daunting to comply with employment legislation in multiple countries if your team is spread all over the world. For these reasons most companies that use offshore staff tend to focus on one or two countries, or they outsource the admin and payroll of their offshore staff to specialist companies.

The thing about digital nomads, of course, is that they don’t stay put in one place! That’s why they’re called nomads. Usually, a person’s place of employment for legal purposes is where they work from, not where their employer is located. The last thing you want, as an employer, is to accidentally find yourself with an overseas office and tax liability because your employer spent a few months in that country. Harvard Business Review encourages companies to have a digital nomad policy. If you employ a nomad directly, it’s important that you have a watertight contract that stipulates the country in which they are legally employed.

Many businesses get around this issue altogether by employing digital nomads as self-employed freelance contractors. Others turn to the gig economy and hire short-term on platforms like Upwork of Fiverr.

The future of work with digital nomads

The trends that have been driving digital nomadism – technology, the internet, the cloud, pandemic hangover – are here to stay. More and more people – highly educated, tech savvy professionals for the most part – are going to want the lifestyle benefits that come with being a digital nomad.

While interest rates and inflation remain high it makes sense to live in areas where the cost of living is less and still get paid the same rate for your job that you would do back home.

While the rise of digital nomads presents several difficult challenges, it also offers enormous potential for growth, innovation, and benefits – for both employees and businesses. As this lifestyle continues to gain popularity around the world, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see new trends emerge – like co-living as well as co-working space for digital nomads – and more innovative solutions brought to market to enable companies to find and hire digital nomads.

So, businesses need to prepare for this shift by embracing the technology that enables it, and putting in place cultures and processes that allow them to benefit from this more flexible type of employee.

This might mean more investment in digital infrastructure, a shift in management styles to cater to remote employees, and a rethinking of traditional office culture. It might also mean new ways of talent scouting and hiring, with a global talent pool now at their disposal.

Measuring productivity and tracking attendance with digital nomad and other remote employees can sometimes be a headache. To find out how Time Doctor’s unobtrusive and employee-friendly software can help you and your remote employees be more transparent with one another, try it yourself for free.

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