Wandering for Work: Trends towards flexible working and digital nomadism

21 May 2021 – Written by Ed Biggins

In 2020, as countries went into lockdown, businesses moved online and workers were told to work from home where able, a great hubbub arose. The topics of much of this were the questions of whether the office, so familiar to popular culture’s understanding of ‘the workplace’, was dead? Were we witnessing a new normal or, if not, what would the future of work look like for ours and the next generation? Were we seeing ongoing trends being accelerated, and how were existing political and socioeconomic divisions being exacerbated by the move from the office to the cloud?

A common theme running through all of these debates, however, was the observation of a massive increase in teleworking and flexi-working practices, across a whole range of industries. The US, for instance, saw an increase in working time spent at home from 5% to 60% prior to and after the start of the pandemic. It looks like a level of this new way of working is here to stay too, with one study from April 2021 suggesting that 20% of work-days would continue to be from home after the pandemic has ended, in part due to positive experiences of working from home, diminished stigma, technological capabilities, and continued concerns about Covid-19. Indeed, some organisations have already taken positive steps to this effect, such as HSBC and Lloyds cutting their office spaces by up to 40% and 20% respectively.

To date, most of the debates have been on the merits of office-working compared to working from home, with the emphasis on our permanent residences. But, if a job can be done from a home thanks to it having Wi-Fi, why work from a single location when anywhere that fulfils this criteria would do? Why remain in central, expensive, urban locations when a job could be done from another, less expensive location? So enters digital nomadism.

From Analogue to Digital

First envisioned by Makimoto and Manners in 1997, the digital nomad is one who, by taking advantage of modern communication technology, widespread internet access and affordable travel, can work remotely from any location. Traditionally, early interpretations of the digital nomad emphasised the dimension of freedom, as individuals were able to explore the world, experience different cultures, and even take advantage of global neoliberalism, which is “dominated by risk, uncertainty and individualism”. This interpretation of the digital nomad as a symbol of freedom is closely interlinked with the image of a beach bound laptop worker, even one who is at odds with the society of their original, wealthy country, and so works remotely as a form of protest. These digital nomads have been differentiated from analogue nomads by the fact that their displacement is down to free choice rather than environmental conditions.

Fast forward to today and these early understandings and definitions appear narrow in scope, and of limited use. The movement of the digital nomad of the 2020s is once again due to displacing factors, both push (technological capabilities and health concerns) and pull (economic benefits and lower costs). In the wake of the pandemic, it is possible that we will see a greater uptake of the digital nomadic lifestyle, although not as a protest to the neoliberal world order or as a way to set-up shop on a sandy beach, but rather as a practical alternative to the modern workplace. If so, even though the study of digital nomadism is still in its infancy, it is important to understand the positive and negative effects that this lifestyle could have on individuals, companies, and countries. Below I have outlined four such considerations.

Benefits and Considerations

Firstly, one of the primary benefits that digital nomadism can bring is an effective distribution of resources to otherwise-overlooked regions and states. Digital workers who relocate to other countries with lower costs of living not only benefit from more affordable lifestyles, but also boost host economies by buying goods and services in that region. This can have the beneficial effect of channelling money out of large city centres and national capitals, and to more rural or deprived communities. Within the EU context, these digital workers can make use of the free movement to move money around the Union, and in doing so act as an effective form of bottom-up investment. However, this movement of resources can also have negative consequences for the host countries, as locals can be priced out of markets, and well-paid digital nomads can have a gentrifying effect, opening the door for international and exclusionary investment in real estate.

Secondly, an exodus of workers away from heavily-congested city centres could alleviate transport and pollution issues in major cities, and help make housing prices more affordable for all. However, transitions like this take time, especially when there is limited legal framework in place for this relatively new type of work, and existing gaps will need to be filled, and transport needs re-examined, for this shift to be effective. In 2020, several Russian businesses exploited a loophole in existing laws that enabled them to cut pay for people working from home and, in France, legislators are working to temporarily remove a law that makes it illegal for workers to eat at their desks. Legislative issues like these will need to be resolved quickly for this lifestyle to be successful in the post-pandemic world.

Thirdly, working from home in a non-pandemic context, such as when adequate childcare and schooling is available, can have positive effects on employee happiness and productivity. This is in part because the distance forces managers to communicate effectively with their staff, and prevents employees being treated as “automatons”, rather than as people with children, pets, and lives. However, digital nomadism can also blur “the boundaries between personal and professional lives” and make it difficult for people to switch off, take breaks, and get adequate rest, potentially negatively impacting mental health.

Finally, adopting greater levels of flexi-work and online applications could reduce geographical barriers to entering the job market. This expansion of the talent pool to those with an active internet connection could help firms to attract the best talent, help disperse the financial benefits of employment around countries and regions, and reduce class discrimination. Alternatively, this shift to digital could form new societal cleavages between knowledge workers with access to these opportunities and others who do not, likely pushing governments to take ownership of digitally levelling up all regions.

Nomads in Europe: a reality?

Digital nomadism, by its transitory nature, challenges traditionally strong, predominantly-national structures like social welfare protection and a stable labour market, in favour of greater freedoms, lower costs, or a change from the status quo. For it to be realised by a new cohort of workers, it is evident that laws will need to be created and amended to close existing loopholes. Care will also need to be taken to prevent gentrifying effects whilst still encouraging the bottom-up economic benefits that this can provide to host countries.

Digital nomadism is becoming more prevalent than we may think. Several states in the EU have taken steps to make it a reality, and more tangibly than a hypothesised traveller on the beach. This month, Romania looks set to join several other countries offering a new ‘digital nomad visa’ to remote workers. These visas differ from existing visas by allowing non-nationals to work in countries for firms not based in the host country. They should be incredibly beneficial for the EU as a whole, as they provide a new opportunity for developing states to attract money to their economies and, to date, 8 EU member states currently offer a similar visa, along with 17 other countries around the world. Given adequate legal protections and modern employment contracts that reflect the changing flexibility and nature of work, modern digital nomadism could take off, and the next article on this could be written from a home away from home or, indeed, from a beach.

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Recommended citation:

Biggins, E. (2021) Wandering for work: Trends towards flexible working and digital nomadism, IDRN, 21 May. Available at: https://idrn.eu/economic-development/wandering-for-work-trends-towards-flexible-working-and-digital-nomadism [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].