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Kaitlin Chia

Everything you need to know about Digital Nomadism

It’s Monday. As you wait for your coworkers to join the Zoom meeting, you gaze at your reflection in the camera feed and move to choose a new virtual background. What will it be this time – a warm sunset view by the beach? An apartment window overlooking the Eiffel Tower? Or even just a cosy, dimly lit study room by a fireplace…

The point is – anywhere but here. It’s common for people to feel drained, yearning for the next chance to break away and travel, especially when you’re stuck in the same loop of office in, office out. The monotony of doing and experiencing the same things every day is simply not for everyone, and even working from home isn’t hitting the same as it used to during the pandemic. At times like these, one wonders what it would be like to add a little bit of spice to this routine (while still working, of course… unemployment in this economy?).

Here’s where digital nomadism comes in.

So, what exactly is Digital Nomadism?

It was first coined by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners in their 1997 book titled “Digital Nomad”. In their book, they predicted a future where technological advancements would someday enable people to work remotely from anywhere in the world, allowing them to be location-independent and reliant only on digital tools to carry out their work while travelling.

At the time, this concept wasn’t as widely embraced as it is today, but it laid the groundwork for what would become a burgeoning trend, thanks to the growing tide of technological progress and the trailblazing efforts of early adopters. However, it wasn’t until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that digital nomadism truly began to gain momentum. Lockdowns and remote work mandates forced companies to adopt more flexible work-from-home (WFH) policies, revealing the viability and benefits of remote work arrangements. Studies even showed that remote work could enhance productivity and focus compared to traditional office setups. Now, WFH is a norm and for some, even an expectation.

Ushering in the era of remote work

Digital nomadism surged in popularity by embodying an aspirational lifestyle accessible to anyone seeking liberation from the conventional rat race, not just the privileged few with the financial resources to escape the confines of a cubicle. As it evolved alongside society, its definition has become more refined while still honouring the original ethos put forth by Makimoto and Manners. Described as a modern breed of adventurers empowered by technology and affordable travel options, digital nomads are individuals without permanent residences who traverse the globe without strict itineraries, earning their livelihoods online and bringing their work with them wherever they roam.

Technological advancements have overcome significant barriers to the widespread adoption of digital nomadism, particularly in enhancing the appeal of travel. Concerns such as stable Wi-Fi connections and the portability of work devices, which were once major obstacles, are now commonplace and readily available in most locations. Moreover, many countries have embraced digital nomads, recognising the economic benefits they bring. For example, Japan recently introduced a new visa system allowing foreign workers to stay for up to six months. Additionally, there have been investments in partnerships between businesses and local governments to foster an ecosystem conducive to digital nomads, thereby attracting more individuals to Japan and integrating them into local communities. This motivation is fuelled by the substantial economic contributions of digital nomads, including higher average monthly incomes compared to local citizens and increased spending in regional economies.

Anyone can be a Digital Nomad

The common misconception of digital nomads is that only the affluent could afford the luxury of traveling spontaneously and staying in various locations without incurring financial worry while they work remotely. However, this notion has been debunked as many digital nomads are actually working regularly in order to sustain their lifestyle.

Furthermore, people are realising that with increasing inflation rates and exorbitant residential market prices, the digital nomad lifestyle may be more within reach than previously believed. As traditional aspirations of stability, such as starting a family and owning property, become less attainable due to economic uncertainty, individuals are reevaluating their priorities. This shift is evident in the growing acceptance of digital nomadism, where individuals seek to escape the constraints of traditional life by working online, owning minimal possessions, and residing in more affordable countries. This lifestyle enables them to maximise their income while enjoying a higher quality of life for less. By embracing digital nomadism, individuals are able to seize control over their circumstances and embarking on journeys of self-realisation and exploration.

Sign me up!

With the normalisation of remote work and a warmer welcome towards digital nomads, more individuals are finding it easier than ever to embrace the lifestyle of a digital nomad. This lifestyle offers a plethora of benefits, the most prominent among them being the freedom of mobility and flexibility. Gone are the days when people felt tied down to a single location by the demands of a traditional office job. With digital nomadism, individuals can break free from the shackles of the conventional workplace, allowing them to traverse the globe while still earning a living. This newfound freedom enables them to explore diverse cultures, immerse themselves in new environments, and sidestep the limitations imposed by seasonal constraints.

A key allure of digital nomadism lies in its flexible work schedule. Unlike the rigid 9-to-5 grind of a typical office job, digital nomads have the liberty to structure their workday according to their own preferences and priorities. Whether they’re early birds seizing the morning hours or night owls burning the midnight oil, digital nomads can tailor their schedules to maximise productivity and accommodate personal pursuits.

Moreover, the nomadic lifestyle fosters personal growth by exposing individuals to a multitude of cultures, perspectives, and lifestyles. This is especially conducive for creatives who, through exposure to such a lifestyle, are able to stimulate their creativity by encouraging the synthesis of ideas and experiences, leading to innovative breakthroughs. With each new destination, digital nomads enrich their repertoire of experiences, fuelling a continuous cycle of inspiration.

And, another perk of this work arrangement you can count on is hearing your co-workers say “Wait, that’s actually where you’re at right now??”

Hold it right there.

Although so far this might seem to hail digital nomadism as the cure to all your blues surrounding the drudgery of work life, it may be a case of “the grass is greener on the other side” when we dive deeper into examining the impacts this practice entails on us and surrounding communities. In fact, the same flexibility afforded by remote work can sometimes blur the boundary between professional and personal life, leading to a lack of structure and difficulty in achieving work-life balance.

As a digital nomad, you can expect to be constantly working odd hours and having to grapple with the transient nature of nomadic living, which can most definitely take a toll on one’s well-being. Every day is a new experience! But also, every single day. Is a new experience. The unpredictability of what would be a basic thing in traditional office settings comes into play. Certainly, you can expect Wi-Fi in almost every country nowadays, but that doesn’t mean it has to have a stable connection. Nor does it mean that the accommodation you found (which was within budget) will have a conducive working space to work in.

Little things like these which you may have taken for granted back home are now glaring stress factors that may affect your productivity and lead to burnout. You may even find yourself crawling back to your office job months later, feeling worse than before you left and with a significantly lighter wallet. What once served as an attractive driving factor for people to take up digital nomadism can be flipped on its head in a matter of months. Once you exit the honeymoon period, the weight of travelling suddenly crashes down and feels more like a burden than liberation.

Removing the rose-tinted glasses…

Did you catch the part about “significantly lighter wallets”? I hope you did, because the financial realities of sustaining a digital nomad lifestyle can be quite daunting. From finding accommodation to funding frequent flights, the costs can quickly add up, challenging the notion that this lifestyle is inherently more affordable than settling down in one place. You have to be on top on your finances to survive long as a digital nomad, especially if you have the mindset that you’ll just “tally everything up after the trip is over”… Guilty, as charged.

Finding a steady source of income to supplement your lifestyle choices can be tough, especially for those who are a little low in the self-motivation department. For some, structured office jobs may be the key that you need – no matter how much you say otherwise – to stay productive and remain on track to meet your deadlines. It may be wise to do some soul-searching before you convert over to digital nomadism in this case.

You should also search if you can handle never having a place where you can truly, permanently call home. If you are travelling alone, loneliness would be another thing added on to your list of worries as you come to terms with the fact that you never spend enough time in one place to build meaningful, lasting relationships. Having to reach out and connect with people every time you hop on to the next place is emotionally exhausting, even for the most extroverted, people-loving individual. Just keeping up with your family and friends back home alone can be difficult due to timezone differences! Sometimes, it’s nice to just be able to kick it back and relax without the ghosts of flights, accommodations and next destinations haunting the back of your mind.

Experience is the new currency

Not only are these valid concerns regarding digital nomadism, but we should also take a step back and examine the bigger picture. In the realm of digital nomadism, consumption takes on a new form—experience becomes the currency. This transition often sees nomads indulging in materialistic habits like frequent air travel and heavy reliance on technology despite being advocates for sustainability. In a study, it was shown that digital nomads believe they are offsetting their environmental impact through advocacy and other eco-friendly choices in a bid to shrink their ecological footprint.

Digital nomads embody a neo-capitalistic ethos by “buying and selling experiences, and making a living out of it”, much like how the tourism industry operates with locations. This shift mirrors a broader societal move towards prioritising experiences over material possessions, shaping the digital nomad lifestyle into a unique blend of adventure and conscious consumption.

Then, is Digital Nomadism the next big thing?

Remote work is definitely in, fuelled by the growing acceptance of remote work and advancements in technology. However, it’s unlikely to entirely replace traditional work models overnight. The sustainability of this practice hinges on addressing its negative impacts and convincing employers on the efficacy of remote work. Sure, remote work may present exciting opportunities for flexibility and mobility, but it is still important to find a way to approach it responsibly. For now, it may be best to not put all your eggs in one basket, but to first take a moment to properly make informed decisions on your work environment based on personal interests and future goals.

What’s next?

Since digital nomadism evidently isn’t going anywhere, you may be wondering what the next step is. Well, from a business perspective, it’s simple.

Destinations all around the globe are constantly improving and evolving forward to make room for the digital nomad wave. These transformations are driven by innovative marketing and tourism campaigns that cater specifically to the needs of digital nomads, such as digital accessibility and building communities. We see this in the establishment of digital nomad associations (DNA, DNWorld, etc.) which provide like-minded people an avenue to share experiences and knowledge with one another.

Similarly, co-working space operators, local travel businesses and accommodation services work closely with these online platforms, leveraging on marketing campaigns to call out certain destinations as the perfect haven for remote work and creativity. Take Airbnb, for example. Their Live and Work Anywhere initiative highlights places they deem are the most “remote worker-friendly destinations in the world” and they have partnered with over 150 governments and Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) in a bid to revitalise their tourism, as well as bolster communities economically in the aftermath of Covid-19. With companies looking for fresh markets to tap into, digital nomadism seems like the perfect fit.

Through it all, destinations are adapting, focusing on being inclusive, sustainable, and making sure they’re meeting the needs of every kind of digital nomad out there. As we move forward, it’s clear that evolving marketing strategies to target the digital nomad market will be essential for destinations to thrive in this new landscape. By embracing the unique needs and preferences of digital nomads, destinations can position themselves as top choices for remote work and lifestyle enhancement, ensuring their continued relevance and success in the evolving tourism industry.