Ideas: Could working remotely in another country become the new normal?

For most workers, soaking up the sun and exploring new cultures abroad is something that’s usually limited to a few precious weeks of annual leave each year. But what if there was a way to spend an unlimited amount of time travelling overseas, all while continuing to earn an income through a job or business venture based in the UK?

For digital nomads, travelling the world isn’t a just a treat reserved for one or two trips year — it’s a way of life. This new breed of digital worker is able to generate an income partially or wholly online, which means that anywhere with internet access can become their office for the week. As a result, they’re free to travel the world at their leisure, ticking off destinations on their bucket list without needing to take a single day of annual leave.

All of this might sound too good to be true — and until just a few years ago, it was. Unless you were independently wealthy or semi-retired, living hundreds or even thousands of miles away from your workplace or business while earning an income was simply not an option. But, as more and more of aspects of our working lives have become digitised, the possibility of leading a nomadic lifestyle has begun to open up to people in a variety of professions.

What’s more, there are signs that working while travelling or living abroad may be about to take off. During the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, the UK experienced a dramatic shift to remote working, and, as result, many are now predicting that this may become the new “normal”. If it does, then we may find that working remotely while travelling becomes a lot more popular.

But, this new trend brings with it a number of pressing questions. Is the lifestyle feasible for everyone, and what risks might come with it? And, what are the long-term implications of this shift for businesses and workers across the globe?

In this piece, we’ll delve into the issue in more detail, looking at the rise of the digital nomad movement, and speculating on the future that such a shift could bring.

What is a digital nomad?

A digital nomad is a person who uses modern telecommunications technology in order to generate an income, while maintaining a nomadic, location-independent lifestyle. In a nutshell, they’re professionals who use the internet in order to work remotely while travelling the world.

Although they may sometimes stay in one place for several weeks or even months, the typical digital nomad travels on a continuous basis, going from country to country and generally embracing a transient lifestyle. In this respect, they differ from someone who works remotely from a holiday home, or a person who works for a business in one country while being domiciled in another. The freedom to travel the world and make spontaneous decisions about where to go next is all part of the appeal of the lifestyle.

Globetrotting trailblazers: The history of the digital nomad movement

The first known usage of the term “digital nomad” can be traced back to 1997, when it appeared in the book Digital Nomad by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners. The book predicted that in the future, as technology became more advanced, people would be empowered to live, work, and exist on the move — in other words, to embrace a “nomadic” lifestyle through tech.

To an extent, this prediction was right. Although there’s no way to know exactly how many digital nomads are out there, research from MBO Partners has found that there were an estimated 4.8 million independent workers who identified as digital nomads in 2018. What’s more, the same research found that 17 million workers aspired to become digital nomads, demonstrating that it’s something many people might do if the option was there.

Famous proponents of the lifestyle include Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek), Matthew Kepnes (founder of Nomadic Matt, a site which helps aspiring nomads to travel on a budget), food and travel writer Jodi Ettenberg, and journalist and author Mike Elgan. The best-known nomads are usually those who have been able to successfully monetise their lifestyle, becoming figureheads for the movement in the process. But, there are also many other digital nomads who keep a lower profile, often working in tech, journalism, copywriting, or photography.

How the pandemic could increase interest in digital nomad lifestyles

Up until now, the majority of digital nomads have tended to be self-employed professionals or freelancers who can work flexible hours online. But following the events of 2020, all that could be set to change for good, as more and more employees gain the ability to work remotely.

When the COVID-19 virus first began to sweep the country in the spring of 2020, government lockdown restrictions dictated that anyone who could work from home, should do so. By April of last year — when lockdown measures were at their most stringent — 46.6 per cent of people in employment were performing at least some of their work at home, according to figures from the ONS. Of those that were working remotely, 86 per cent were doing so because of changes brought about by the pandemic, showing the extent to which the lockdown forced businesses to implement home working policies for the first time.

Some would argue that the shift had been a long time coming. It’s thought that one fifth of the workforce in advanced economies could work just as effectively remotely, and now that the genie is out of the bottle, it seems that a remote working revolution may be inevitable.

Of course, we’re not quite of the woods just yet, and it’s hard to say exactly what businesses will do once the vaccine is rolled out. There’s always a possibility that employers will ask staff to return to offices as normal after the virus is no longer a threat, and the government may be keen to support them, as they did when the infection rate dropped back in August and September 2020.

But, even if employers are reticent to make the switch, it could also be the case that pressure from workers may force employers to do so. Only 12 per cent of knowledge workers want to return to workplaces full-time after the pandemic, and such widespread, persistent demand may be hard for employers to resist — especially when staff can point to the past year as evidence of their ability to work from home.

It’s also possible that the lockdown restrictions we’ve experience over the past year might whet the public’s appetite for foreign travel — after well over a year cooped up at home, who wouldn’t want to make the most of their newfound freedom to see the world? If this surge in interest is combined with increased uptake of remote and flexible working policies, it could provide the perfect conditions for a new generation of digital nomads to take flight.

What would the wider implications be for businesses?

As we’ve already discussed, there are plenty of benefits to becoming a digital nomad. However, what could the wider implications be for employers and businesses here in the UK?

For employers, the primary concern is likely to be whether a staff member who is working while travelling can maintain high standards of performance. In companies where collaborative working is required, businesses will need to devise new ways for staff to communicate effectively, even if they’re thousands of miles apart. As such, investment in quality communicative technology and project management software is likely to increase.

Conversely, companies that don’t require much physical interaction or communication between employees may start to operate more like open-source communities, with staff functioning in a similar way to freelancers delivering work in a largely self-sufficient way. One side-effect of this — for better or worse — would be the reduced need for middle managers and supervisors, with staff instead being responsible for organising their own workloads and managing their own time.

What about the global economy and tourism?

A rise in digital nomad lifestyles could also have major repercussions for the tourism sector on a worldwide scale. For those who decide to work and live abroad, every day is a holiday — so, this group is likely to turn away from the traditional one- or two-week vacation. As a result, traditional short-stay package holidays may become less popular with those who have the ability to work flexibly from anywhere.

If digital nomads become a force to be reckoned with, countries may begin to market themselves as attractive destinations to live and work, rather than just to visit for a short holiday. Governments may even consider introducing new residency schemes and visa systems to try and appeal to this new type of traveller.

Several nations — including Estonia, Georgia, Bermuda, and Barbados — have already introduced a new type of visa that allow tourists to stay for several months. It will be interesting to see which countries follow suit in an attempt to bring in remote workers over the next few years.