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How digital nomads keep working as they wander

August 15, 2018
Technology
  A global talent pool connects with clients from exotic locales


Young globetrotting Westerners are sometimes described as modern-day hippies taking the road less travelled to find meaning in life away from the grind of 9-5 work.

But the peace signs and Kombi vans that symbolised 1960s counter-culture wanderers have given way to practical tools such as laptops, wi-fi and smartphones that connect entrepreneurs to the internet and the cloud. It's the age of the digital nomad.

"There's a strong personality-driven desire for adventure and living a life less usual, for being very conscious about a limited lifetime and maximising the experiences that you get out of life," says Daniel Schlagwein, a former senior lecturer at UNSW Business School.

Schlagwein, whose interest in digital nomadism stems from his own experience studying for a PhD while living in Thailand, has been researching the phenomenon with Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, a professor in the school of information systems and technology management at UNSW Business School.

Digital nomads are primarily Western professionals, aged in most cases under 30 but also older, who use a range of IT tools such as cloud-based applications, freelancing platforms and video conferencing to work digitally over the internet while travelling to exotic locations.

Crowdsourced database Nomads List rates the connectivity of hundreds of locations across the globe, including major capitals, but Schlagwein notes digital nomadism as "very visible" in cities such as Chang Mai in Thailand and Ubud in Indonesia.

"You can hardly go to a coffee shop without seeing digital nomads sitting around," he says.

Anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 people are estimated to be part of this growing movement. Most engage in freelance work, project-based arrangements or run their own online businesses while simultaneously exploring different cultures and escaping what can often be repetitive lifestyles back home.

Significantly, a growing number of mainstream businesses are willing to contract these nomads in the quest to access a global talent pool.

'A few days turned into a few weeks. Then I realised it's very plausible to actually live like this'

– CSONGOR HORVATH


Different to teleworking

American writer and editor Elisa Doucette, whose work has featured in The New York Times, Forbes and The Huffington Post, spent years "popping between" Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines and Vietnam before opting for the relative stability of living for six months straight last year in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Her nomadic inspiration came after working with Dynamite Circle, an online community that connects other 'location-independent entrepreneurs'. In 2011, she moved to Bali to live in one of the group's villas.

"I didn't have ties that necessitated me staying in the US and I've always been interested in the possibilities and opportunities in new experiences," says Doucette, who is now travelling in Scotland.

Doucette's story aligns with Schlagwein and Cecez-Kecmanovic's findings in Escaping the Rat Race: Justifications in Digital Nomadism, which proposes three key themes to explain why digital nomads abandon the safety and security of a job in the West and head to colourful locations to run start-up businesses or contribute as freelancers.

First, participants have a desire for travelling and new cultural and personal experiences. Second, they want to be part of a community of like-minded people. Third, they seek to take advantage financially of living overseas in low-cost countries.

Schlagwein believes this broad focus makes nomadism different to 'teleworking', which is driven mainly by a desire for work-life balance and saving on commuting time.

"[Nomadism] is a great example of how transformative IT can be for the individual," he says.

Plausible lifestyle

One of the drivers of digital nomadism during the past decade is thought to be the 2007 publication of The 4-Hour Workweek, in which author Tim Ferriss explores the notion of technology-based work and entrepreneurship, along with the suggestion to readers that they create and operate an automated business while travelling the world.

'They are strategic about it and they’re not showing up out of the blue in Bali and then trying to organise something'

– DANIEL SCHLAGWEIN

For Csongor Horvath, a Romanian brand consultant, the nomadic journey simply began when he extended a vacation.

"A few days turned into a few weeks. Then I realised it's very plausible to actually live like this," he explains.

Horvath has been travelling and working around Europe and Southeast Asia for years and prefers to stay in a town or city for a few months before moving on. And for all the hype over beautiful locations, he thinks meeting different people is really the best part of digital nomadism.

"The places are not that important, it's about who the places attract – [the] different 'tribes'," he says.

While loneliness can be a challenge, as well as figuring out day-to-day activities and managing a minimalist lifestyle, Horvath believes that once nomads overcome such difficulties "it brings amazing rewards".

In terms of survival tips, he advises going to local events, getting membership of co-working spaces, and consciously managing friends. "It's weird at first, but it brings a lot of growth," Horvath says.

Schlagwein notes such an individualistic lifestyle may lead to isolation and the cutting of ties with family and friends back home and that there are often logistical and socialisation issues as people move from post to post.

The most successful digital nomads, he observes, are those who initially work remotely from home and then, if their clients are happy, extend such flexibility to working from an overseas destination.

"They are strategic about it and they're not showing up out of the blue in Bali and then trying to organise something."

Smooth operators

Of course, things do not always go perfectly for nomads. Doucette once needed surgery after a motorbike accident in Bali, and she contracted dysentery in Mexico.

"Dealing with illness and injury in a country where you don't know many people and don't speak the language can be frustrating, in addition to being scary," she says.

To cultivate lasting friendships, Doucette makes a point of regularly contacting close colleagues, wherever they may be.

"I have a recurring message in my Google Calendar to message or directly schedule monthly catch-up calls with a handful of people, so we always know what is going on with each other," she says

Horvath believes many digital nomads develop a coping mechanism by not dwelling on the negatives too much and dealing with constant uncertainty and change.

"Negativity is an expensive luxury," he says. "If something is bad, you either fix it or move on – and you usually learn a lot from it."

His advice to others considering a life as a digital nomad? 

"Go travel, open up, take it easy, stay calm [and] give yourself time to figure it out."

The success of her online editing agency, Craft Your Content, has prompted Doucette, now in her late 30s, to actively seek more of a home base. While she reflects happily on moments such as attending a blessing ceremony in Greece or learning how to make chicken tacos with her favourite taqueria chef in Oaxaca, she does not pretend that digital nomadism is for everyone.

"I am not someone who jumps on a soapbox to tell everyone they must do it. I highly encourage people to travel, to try new things, to meet lots of great people ... but living out of a suitcase is not a life that everyone wants," Doucette says.

Nevertheless, Schlagwein has little doubt the trend will continue to grow in coming years as workers take advantage of an emerging global industry of co-working spaces, start-up hubs and accommodation options for digital nomads.

"There's generally a socio-economic space emerging in which people really do not need to have a home address," he says. 

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