With office workers everywhere working from home, some wonder if they could reshape their lives and become “digital nomads,” or location-independent workers who use telecommunication technology to do their work.
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey, who grew up in Hamburg, hasn’t lived or worked in her native Germany for decades.
“I moved to England to go to university with the intention of returning home after my degree, but then I met my husband, and we’ve lived abroad ever since,” she says. “For the last 20 years, I have been a trailing spouse, going wherever my husband finds an interesting job.”
When she realized she needed a career that could move with her, she became a freelance writer. She writes about travel, art, and lifestyle for publications from US travel sites to Middle Eastern magazines and UK dailies.
A world traveler
She’s lived all over the world, including a year in Oman, six years in Dubai, and two and a half years in Melbourne. Most recently, she and her husband lived and worked in Paris for six years until he took a job in Qatar.
She was supposed to join him there in June but ran into some COVID-related barriers, including closed borders. Until she can join him, she is living—and freelancing—in Bristol, England.
How does she work for global publications from wherever she happens to be living? Because the bulk of her editors are in the US, she checks email late at night to keep up with anything urgent. In the Middle East, where the weekend is Friday and Saturday, she worked on local weekend days to be available to editors located elsewhere.
Her nomadic lifestyle is possible because her freelance work is evaluated based on performance, not “time in seat,” and she finds living and working abroad a thrill.
“It‘s a chance to reinvent myself. To learn everything new around me, to immerse myself in new cultures and languages, and see the world and new places from a front seat.”
Office workers as new digital nomads?
While Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelancer, office workers with itchy feet are realizing they, too, may have some real options as to where they live, travel, and work. The prospect of taking off and becoming a digital nomad is becoming slightly more feasible for office workers.
One reason is that the COVID pandemic has taught employers remote working can be successful. One survey, which polled 575 IT decision-makers across various industries, found that 67% expect their work-from-home policies will be permanent or at least long term.
Another study found that more than half of respondents want to continue working remotely most of the time, post-pandemic.
A different way of working
But while some wonder if they too could reshape their lives to be “digital nomads,” or location-independent workers who use cloud communications to work, do employees have what it takes?
While some people love it, not everyone is suited for the lifestyle’s particular challenges. Digital nomads need to be self-directed. Their jobs are generally project-based, and they work with little supervision.
Because they’re not tied to a traditional 9-to-5-type schedule, they are free to spend their mornings at the beach or their evenings at dinner with friends, but they must have the self-discipline to still get the work done.
It’s different from how remote office workers work. They keep the same office hours as they had in the office. They collaborate more with colleagues and must be available at any time in case an emergency comes up.
Breaking the digital barrier
There are several reasons that working while traveling can be easier now:
- Business leaders have realized that remote work is successful, and they trust it more.
- Big companies are leading the way. Many companies are having their office employees work from home through the end of 2020, and a long list of companies (including Google, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, Ford Motor, Target, and Slack) through at least summer 2021. Twitter and Square, among others, have announced its employees can work remotely forever if they choose.
- Many companies now use technologies such as team messaging and video conferencing, which foster collaboration no matter where employees are.
- Millennials now make up more of the workforce (38%) than Boomers (33%).
There are benefits to employers if more office workers become digital nomads:
- With fewer people on-premises to possibly spread and catch COVID-19, it’s safer in the office.
- Full-time remote workers are 22% happier in their jobs than workers who are never remote. They also report better work-life balance, focus, and lower stress.
- Turnover may be lower. The same study found remote workers report being 13% more likely to stay in their current job than their on-site colleagues.
- Remote workers report working more than 40 hours per week 43% more than on-site workers do.
Digital nomad work is not without hurdles
There are hurdles, however, to becoming a digital nomad. Some jobs simply can’t be done remotely. It’s estimated that 63% of jobs in the US require significant on-site presence.
For some workers, it remains to be seen how working away from the office will play out. Take, for instance, one administrative assistant who works for a Los Angeles financial firm that announced employees can work remotely through at least next summer.
The company knows she’s about to relocate to another state for the next few months to live near family. What they don’t know is that she bought a house in the other state and doesn’t plan to return if the company calls employees back.
She says she feels like there are better opportunities and places for her, especially since she recently had a child.
“Leaving LA has been in the back of my mind for years, but having a baby kind of sped it up. I bought a whole house for less than the cost of my condo in LA. It’s literally two doors down from my childhood home in a neighborhood I really love. And my family friends live around the block. It’s kind of a dream come true.”
She’ll wait to see what happens with remote working next year. “It’s a good company, but if I have to, I will respectfully leave.”
Will more office workers start expecting the flexibility some companies are offering so they can live, work, and travel where they want?
Time will tell, but here’s a peek into the future: some companies are hiring executives to manage their virtual workers. Head of Remote Work is a job title now. It will be interesting to see just how far their duties extend.
Originally published Dec 01, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023