What are digital nomads?

What are digital nomads, that must be the one question I get asked more than any other one. Since I’m working on a documentary where digital nomads play an essential role, here’s a limited few parts of my usually very long answer:

What are digital nomads?

Before we jump into the arguments, here’s my slightly broad definition of a digital nomad: A digital nomad is a person who can live and work location-independent, enabled, or supported by information technology.

History

The new way of working

Between 20 and 15 years ago, we started working from a technology perspective to what we then called the “new way of working.” We started struggling with ideas around how “information workers” as we called them at that point, would organize and perform their work. The difference between the way we structure an industrial job, and a knowledge worker job, was the core driver of a lot of technology changes. Many of those we take for granted today, but they were small revolutions at that time: having personal email, a (portable) personal computer,

That was, without us having a clue at that point, the base that would serve as the enabling of location-independent work. One of the core principles we focused on, was the individual tasks of users. Where organizations before would have pools of staff doing all the same work, we were evolving towards more and more specialists and individuals doing one task in the whole complex system.

Flex Desk

Once we understood this new way of working, companies found a new way to save on operating costs. Paying rent and maintenance for an unmanned desk was seen as not cost-effective. Companies decided to provide enough desks as the amount of staff they expected to be in the office at any given time. The team would find a spot to work on, but not have a private desk or office anymore.

Home working and “Home working.”

And with the more natural ways to build VPNs over the internet, came the next step. If my employer had no desk anymore and took into account that I might be as creative from my own home as I would be in the office, companies started experimenting with home working.

Remote work.

Once we allowed and enabled home working, smarter individuals soon found out that they didn’t have to be at home, but could work anywhere. And see: there’s the foundation for location independent working. Not so much a revolution, but an evolution of the past 20+ years. And here’s the first step into knowing what are digital nomads.

Subgroups

What are digital nomads - Atlanta Airport working

The New Nomads are not a homogeneous group. During my research, I found several types of movements. The one thing they have in common, being digital nomads, is that the information age allows them flexible time and location when it comes to working. Amongst the Digital Nomads, we can identify multiple groups:

  1. The location-independent entrepreneurs. 
    These people make enough money in this new economy to be fully independent. They can decide to live in New York, or in a country with a lower cost of living. Some of them travel between their “own” places. I’ve met several executives and founders of startups that have built a global presence by creating a pied-à-Terre in the locations where their company started operations.
  2. A second (large) group is what we, for now, call “computerized travelers.”
    They travel around the world and make (just) enough money to keep them going. They are location independent for as much of their budget allows them. Many of them travel Southeast Asia. Thailand, Laos, and especially Bali host communities of these digital nomads, backpackers with a laptop.
  3. The third group is people who combine their working in the old/industrial model with traveling but at separate times. They work-save-travel-repeat. Some of them work for information age companies that do not support the nomad idea, so they are limited to this form of digital nomadism.
  4. Organizations that have remote employees start to accept these people to decide where they work. Depending on the. way they like to organize their traveling lifestyle with their passions, they might end up in locations where the latter brings them (There are many digital nomad surfers in Panama, “digital divers” in Costa Rica and yogi in Thailand and Indonesia, and so on..)

Are all Digital Nomads freelancers?

When I was preparing for a keynote speech with an employers organization in New York recently, their executive director had an open conversation with me. She expressed worries that I would promote the nomad lifestyle to the audience, and make them all freelancers that would roam the planet, thereby taking them away from the workforce available to their members.

But I assured them that location-independent work does NOT mean employees massively quit the company. But it is a fact that the relationship between employers and employees has been shifting over the past decade. The knowledge that the information worker brings to a company changes its hiring power. But I see many organizations embracing the location independence of their teams, sometimes encouraging them to investigate the nomadic lifestyle.
And not all employees are willing or ready not to have a water cooler, an office to go to, and some structure and routine. It feels like we’re heading to a world where location-independence will become ever more present, while many organizations still maintain facilities where the employees can come “home” and feel part of the culture.

When seeking to understand what are digital nomads, we must look at the way they work, not the relation they have with their employer/client as the determining factor.

Fear of change – or strategy?

Employers have the impression that they have more difficulties managing these remote workers. Some organizations keep on building locations in traffic-congested areas where they force knowledge workers to be there all at the same time at the same place. And for some employers and managers, this seems to be the working recipe. Others seem to struggle with the idea to manage the output (value) of the people they work with, rather than the input (the time they spend at their desk, doing ‘something’). We’re interviewing managers and business owners to get a better vision on what makes them decide (not) to embrace remote work. And both camps seem to have very rigid ideas on why their approach creates the most value.

What are digital nomads locations?

I’ve not found a space in my travels of the last years where I didn’t encounter some nomads. But a vast majority ends up in South East Asia. Bali and Thailand are amongst the more popular regions where they locate. Certain places, such as Chian Mai are hubs for specialties even. Many marketing specialists and social media consultants are grouping here.

There are probably no spots on the planet where no digital nomad could have been working one day. But a majority of them is drawn to the same places. A few of the hot spots today include:

  • For Asia: In Thailand, many of them in the Chian Mai area and  Bangkok; In Indonesia, around Ubud (Bali)
  • When you look around in Europe, you’ll find that Barcelona (Spain) and Lisbon (Portugal) are pretty popular destinations. The Baltic states, with Vilnius as the most popular one, are being discovered by remote workers.
  • In South America, Buenos Aires is a hit, and Medellin in Colombia attracts both groups and individual working travelers;
  • Africa is a bit underrepresented, but I seem to meet these days more location independent workers who are evaluating to spend some time in Africa. I received offers from Ethiopia, … and … in the past months, to come and check out places built for traveling information workers.

There’s a crowdsourced list of locations where nomads collect their experience and can find inspiration for the next destination, called “Nomadlist.” (by Pieter Levels). (1)

A Delta Air Lines Plane ready to take off in Atlanta Airport - Image by Koen Blanquart

What is a digital nomad’s ideal workspace?

These travelers, of course, require organizing their work. While they technically can work from anywhere, you’ll find many of them choosing one of these options:

Working in a coworking space

The choice for a coworking space might sound like the most obvious choice. And in many locations, nomads do indeed find coworking spaces to get work done. However, many of them feel this as too corporate and still seek other solutions. Some companies such as WeWork, are betting heavily on the nomads using workspaces and they even invest in programs that coach new nomads, such as Remoteyear.

Working from hotels & BnB’s

When traveling, working from a hotel room or a BnB is often the way to go. I prepared this article partially in a co-working space in Thailand, and I edited it in the common area of an Airbnb in Panama, after reviewing it in New York City.  It’s easy to start or end the day with the laptop or phone connected.

Airbnb, for example, understood the importance hereof when they added the “Laptop friendly workspace” in the amenities of a place. And for conference calls, hotels still have more probability for a silent place than a coffee shop or restaurant does.

Coffeeshops

Working in a coffeeshop as digital nomad
Working in a coffee shop as a digital nomad

Coffeeshops have four of the elements many nomads are seeking in a place to do some work:

  1. Coffee, ( or tea, juice, you see where this is going) and often some original food.
  2. (Free) internet, so we can update our Instagram get some work done
  3. A bathroom, cause we’re all humans (I wrote this before it turned out that Starbucks will have the police arrest you if you are an African American needing a bathroom)
  4. Other Nomads or patrons to have a conversation with

But the choices are endless. In countries where the mobile internet is affordable and reliable, there’s no limit to where to get some work done.

Koen Blanquart writing
Koen Blanquart writing

Koen Blanquart, Boarding Today and Digital Nomads.

Koen Blanquart is working on a documentary about the shift in society, focusing on digital nomads and other location-independent lifestyles. Some of the findings will be published on the Boarding Today blog or are part of the speeches he gives.

This article “what are digital nomads” is one article from a series of location-independent work I’m researching. We’ll be working further on the question “what are digital nomads” after the first take since we’re gathering more information for our articles about digital nomads and location independent living and working and our documentary. Stay tuned for the updates.

If you are a location-independent professional with a unique story: get in touch! We seeking digital nomads who’d like to share their stories here, or in the upcoming documentary. Contact Koen if you want to discuss your experience. Not about the digital nomadism in itself, since many documentaries cover this in a way, while we use the nomads and their lifestyle as a metaphor for other shifts we’re discovering.


Disclosures:
(1) I am a paying user of Nomadlist for over a year. I have no affiliations with them. My profile: https://nomadlist.com/@kblanqua.

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