Have work, will travel: How digital nomads are redefining work

coworking digital nomad
CC BY 2.0 Mindaugas Danys

The Internet is enabling so-called digital nomads to travel and work from anywhere in the world. Is it an anomaly or a trend that's here to stay?

The workplace is changing beyond recognition, thanks to new technologies like the smartphone (the new office in your pants) and near-ubiquitous Internet connectivity. Now, people don't have to be tied to a desk or even an office; you can work remotely from home, from a café or really, any place that has WiFi. The freelance economy is growing as more and more people work for themselves, with some predicting that half of the American workforce will be self-employed by 2020.

Here on TreeHugger, we've discussed the ins and outs of this telecommuting phenomenon for the last decade. It appears to have now grown into a critical mass of location-independent digital nomads, who are eschewing the conventional 9-to-5 office job in growing numbers, freeing them up to travel to far-flung places like Asia, Europe and South America -- while still earning a living. Todd Wassermann at Mashable explains:

A global surge in broadband ubiquity and a buyer's market for programming talent have colluded to make digital nomadism a viable option for adventurous self-starters. While no one tracks their number, some 2.6% of U.S. workers — about 3.3 million people — telecommuted at least half the time in 2013, according to Global Workplace Analytics.

Coworking hubs popping up in cities

The growth in the freelance economy has also prompted the emergence of coworking spaces and other measures catering to these self-employed professionals. This is a diverse bunch, with some working in industries like tech, communications, education, design, photography, accounting, sales, or any number of emergent online industries.

In the last few years, digital nomads have been flocking to cities like Berlin, Budapest and Bangkok where costs of living are relatively cheap and the WiFi widely available and reliable. They've been characterized as borderless "citizens of the world." They aren't quite tourists and yet, they aren't quite residents. Co-working hubs and home-office hybrids for travelling professionals are popping up all over the place to bring together these "short-term expats," who seek social interaction, networking opportunities, a good internet connection and a decent place to hold client meetings.

In addition, sites like Nomad List and gatherings like this year's first-ever international conference for digital nomads point to a significant occupational shift, most probably rooted in generational differences about work and ownership, and the loss of traditional jobs from a wonky global economy still in recession.

Besides the constant quest for a decent Internet connection, digital nomads base their travel decisions on cost of living in their host cities, since on average, digital nomads do stay in their adopted communities for longer periods of time than the typical tourist. These are finer points that ordinary tourists might not consider, says to ebook designer Janet Brent:

Contrary to what some people might think, I don’t get paid to travel – I simply choose the lifestyle. Rather than rent in one given city, I choose to travel and do short-term, temporary stays around the world and my travel decisions are literally based on what makes the most sense financially for me. It’s completely different from vacationing – you really sink into the city life and get your feet wet in the communities.

While this kind of lifestyle may seem more suited to carefree Millennial, a quick survey of the blogosphere shows that surprisingly, there does seem to be families with children jumping on the digital nomad bandwagon too.

What's the environmental impact of digital nomadism?

This is a complicated question with no cut-and-dried answer, considering any various different factors and life choices that any individual person may make. While some digital nomads may relinquish any permanent address and downsize drastically to travel perpetually, housesit and work abroad, others may not downsize so much and only make a trip infrequently.

While there's no daily car commute to the office, any ecological benefit is potentially made moot by all those miles and carbon emitted by air travel. Whether we like it or not, the nature of work as we've known it is changing and streamlining into something quite unexpected and not yet totally quantified, but questions of how to do it sustainably do remain. But rather than staying isolated in one spot, we think travel can be good, and in fact, telecommuting can promote slow, responsible travel.

Dream vs. reality

But before you go tell your boss to stick it, take note of some possible, harsh realities of living the digital nomad lifestyle: loneliness; losing contact with friends and family back home; time zone differences when contacting clients; as well as migraine-inducing practicalities like work visas, health insurance, taxes, and the issues that can arise when one tries to open a bank account in a foreign country.

Yet, there are many rewards as well: living lighter and more fully outside of a cubicle, and earning a living while venturing out in the wider world can ultimately be a thoroughly satisfying one. With traditional office work slowly giving way to a new work ethic, redefining what it means to be productive and meaningful, the digital nomad way of life may very well become a new normal. More over at Mashable and The Guardian.

Any experiences as a digital nomad? Please share them in the comments below!

Have work, will travel: How digital nomads are redefining work
As the freelance economy grows, more professionals who work over an Internet connection are finding that they can travel abroad, while still earning their livelihood.

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