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The rise of the digital nomad

High-speed Wi-Fi, cafes, working spaces and jobs that let you work remotely have given rise to a new kind of work culture

  • James Clark working at café in Saigon. This veteran nomad took up web design courses to help him live the lifeImage Credit:
  • Joanna Szreder at Da Nang Pixel Café in Thailand. She runs the blog The Blond Travels, and teaches EnglishImage Credit: Supplied
  • Youjin Do, maker of One Way Ticket, says increased living costs in cities have given rise to digital nomadismImage Credit: Supplied
  • Colin Wright, an entrepreneur, scaled down his design studio so he could run it while on the roadImage Credit:
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Let’s face it. Office cubicles can really get you down. Being cooped up in a place where you can’t see sunlight can actually lead to depression and behavioural problems. And then there’s office politics. Millions of people around the world wish they had a real say in the way they work, their hours and the places they work from.

Last year a “Guardian” report quoted a study which found that a quarter of British workers hated their jobs. Almost half admitted they dreaded the week ahead on Sunday night, with a whopping seven in ten admitting they watch the clock until the end of the day.

Not just that, it seems even more dream of ditching office life. In 2013, “Forbes” published a similar study that said two million Americans quit their jobs voluntarily every month. That’s in a down economy. Most said they would like to set up their own business. They cited financial independence, better work/life balance and flexible working hours as the main advantages of being self-employed.

The past few years have seen a growing band of people in cities choosing where and when they work. And live. They choose where they work from, and what work they do (according to their skill sets).

Welcome to the world of digital nomads, as they are called. Digital nomads or “location-independent workers” have left the drudgery of cubicles and commutes, thanks largely to high-speed Wi-Fi, and web-based work.

For some nomads, it is about working remotely, not so much about perpetual travel. Being location independent can mean basing yourself from one place – could be the city where you have lived or worked from, or travelling the world and working. In most cases, it is the former where people work from Wi-Fi connected spots, such as cafes, with lots of coffee breaks punctuating the day. Or from co-working spaces.

That’s the one thing this new work culture has thrown up — as the ecosystem of digital nomads emerges, co-working spaces are popping up across the world. Co-working spaces are a critical part of the digital nomads workforce where many entrepreneurs begin initiatives, organise events, and launch start-ups.

When I could not afford to rent an office space in Mumbai when I launched a media collective for youth, I had become a member at The Hub, a co-working space in Bandra. They had an excellent space – three floors with workstations, a library, conference room with projectors and screen (that we would book for many of our workshops), a wood-panelled soundproof room where we recorded our podcasts, a separate room to hold meetings with clients.

They had a coffee machine and electric kettle for tea, a refrigerator and a beautiful balcony where we would chill between work. It was used by a variety of people — from individuals to start-ups to work from, interact, collaborate and network. They hosted interactions between people, workshops and events that all of us benefitted from.

The Hub, and similar spaces, are a blessing for digital nomads. To be productive, remote workers know that an “official” workspace is a worthy investment. The co-working space boom has made that choice a lot easier to make. Today, in many parts of the world, there are ClassPasses for co-working apps providing remote workers with access to a plethora of shared workspaces at a monthly rate. They give them the freedom to travel around a city, country or even around the world while working.

There’s a Global Coworking Unconference Conference “GCUC” that’s held every year. It’s pronounced “juicy”, because — as their website states — “that’s exactly what its subject matter is: a big, juicy wave of awesomeness that’s changing the face of work as we know it.”

The third Coworking Unconference Asia (CUAsia) is set to happen on February 8-12, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The largest shared space provider in the US, Chicago’s WeWork’s motto states — “To create a world where people make a life, not just a living.”

Youjin Do, a digital nomad based in Miami, and Seoul and Jeju, Korea who has made a documentary about digital nomads called “One Way Ticket” thinks it is also the increasingly trend of cities becoming overcrowded and overpriced that has given rise to “remote companies” — typically start-ups — who prefer to work on online platforms with team members across the globe instead of paying high rents.

The wide availability of co-working spaces and strong coffee have fuelled this trend. Cities have seen a boom in cafes with high-speed Wi-Fi where you will find people with a double Americano, mobile phones and laptops working through the day logged on to wireless internet connections. Even college students do that now. Digital nomads will roam around town, alighting at these oases that cater to them.

They will often have favourite spots. The nomad lifestyle can also mean that those who can afford to can relocate to a different country entirely and work from there. Gone are the days when you needed to get a transfer from the company you work for.

Pieter Levels is one such case. He has the distinction of having launched 12 start-ups in 12 months; he lives out of a backpack, and until recently held no permanent address. Levels is a Dutch programmer who among other things has founded Gifbook, which lets you print animated GIFs as flipbooks, and Go [expletive] Do It, a personal goals setter. And he’s doing all this while travelling around the world. He works from coffee shops and co-working spaces.

Levels, who lives in Amsterdam now, runs NomadList, which rates the best cities for digital nomads on criteria from places to work from and internet speed to cost of living and racial tolerance. NomadList is just one of the many websites on living and working location-free that have emerged in the last five years or maybe even more recently. They serve as guides, have interviews with people who have chosen this lifestyle, some are personal blogs — such as ExileLifestyle, a blog by author-entrepreneur Colin Wright who hosts a podcast called Let’s Know Things, a show called Consider This, and has co-founded a publishing company called Asymmetrical Press. He had a design studio in Los Angeles, which he scaled down so he could run it from the road.

Originally from the San Francisco area in California, he travels full-time, moving to a new country every four months or so, “my next home determined by the votes of my readers”.

“Reykjavik is my favourite place to spend a cold, productive winter. I find I can easily get into writing for long periods there,” he says. “Kolkata was probably the most educational and eye-opening place I’ve lived. It was so radically different from any other place I’ve lived, and I was equal parts horrified by how some of the systems work, and impressed by the people who manage to do so much while living within those systems. Prague was probably my favourite all-around place to live, as it was very comfortable, and I love the architecture and design sensibilities of the area. And Boracay in the Philippines was probably my least-favourite place, because it’s a big tourist beach and I’m not a big fan of tourist locations, or beaches.”

James Clark is a veteran digital nomad (since 1999) and works in web design and online marketing. He runs Nomadic Notes, a travel blog. “I was originally working in Ireland for a year on a working holiday visa (which is an option for Australians). This was in 2003, before there was a digital nomad movement. I was working in Ireland and realised that I loved to travel and live abroad, so I needed to find some kind of work that could facilitate that.

I studied web design and set up some travel sites, and started making money from selling travel products online. When my visa expired I continued to work on my business full time, which enabled me to be able to travel and work at any time.

Some professions lend themselves to the life of nomadism. But people earn a living in different ways. There are many freelance writers, consultants and web developers, but there are also professional musicians, start-up entrepreneurs and software developers. The Sparkline, a blog for independent creatives and entrepreneurs building “matterful things”, lists the following professionals as making a location-free living: database consulting for MySQ; sales (other peoples’ products); public affairs and public relations working in digital engagement; coaching and consulting, by helping expats and diplomats cope with homesickness and culture shock; as a music composer and sound designer along with running an audio production company; website design and audio engineering; through a business that produces ready-made newsletters, sold online to people across North America; graphic design for a Fortune 500 company; software development, end user support, training, documentation, database management, project management, technical marketing and strategy; communications strategy consulting and content development; running a yacht charter company; scriptwriters, instructional designer and consultant for large businesses; translation and related language services; geographical information analysis for research institutions; international airline/aviation consultant and lobbyist; arts consulting and a professional poker player!

Joanna Szreder, who was born in Poland, spent 10 years working various jobs in London before moving to Thailand and working remotely for an American company, teaching English to students from around the world and running a blog, “The Blond Travels”.

“One of the most interesting things about the digital nomad scene is how varied the people in it are,” says Youjin Do. “I’ve now interviewed couples travelling together and working remotely for companies back home, attorneys who moved their entire law practice online, and developers bootstrapping their own companies from anywhere.” Her blog http://youjin.do showcases the many different kinds of nomads she has met and interviewed for the film.

“There’s a definite advantage to having certain types of jobs: particularly those that don’t require you to adhere to someone else’s schedule, or to be connected to the internet or an office all the time,” says Colin. “That said, you can make it work, regardless of the specifics. It just means you’ll have to build something to suit your specific situation, rather than copying what someone else with another sort of work is doing.”

One destination that many digital nomads seem to flock to is Southeast Asia — especially Thailand, which has consistently been placed on top of best places to work by NomadList. It’s cheap, safe, and with a good internet infrastructure in place. Vietnam is placed close. “The place that works best for me is Southeast Asia,” agrees James, who has been in the region since 2010. “I spend a lot of time in Vietnam and Thailand, and travel to Malaysia and Indonesia regularly. I love the different cultures and living in the tropics, and the food culture (especially in Vietnam).”

There are sites that cater to female remote workers. “There are existing sites and Facebook groups, but they tend to be more skewed towards male digital nomads,” says Chrys Tan, co-founder of Women Digital Nomads, in Medium. “And it makes sense, since a larger percentage of digital nomads are male. TechInAsia even published a post about “The Digital Nomad: lonely, white, male?” So what about more information on community spaces, events or accommodations for women digital nomads?

In an interview on NomadList, writer and nomad Gigi Griffis says the biggest downsides to being a female are safety and harassment issues, and travelling solo “through a culture that perceives women as sex objects or second-class citizens”.

Joanna says women digital nomads have to choose countries that are safe for women. “It depends on which country you want to live in,” says Joanna. “For example, in Thailand women have a lot of power and are very respected. Living there, or travelling, as a single woman doesn’t surprise anyone. But if you go to India, for example, then that’s a different story. I have never encountered serious problems. When I travel alone I try to be reasonable. I usually know what’s allowed in the country I travel to and what’s safe. I usually meet a lot of men, but not that many women. I hope that will change.”

So the question of privilege does come in. Digital nomads who do have the freedom to travel the world and work are privileged — for one thing, apart from gender, they have to have a currency conversion that works in their favour as well as a passport that allows easy travel. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have a passport that allows me to go most places without any trouble,” says Colin. “I feel horrible that so many good people get pulled aside in security lines or turned away at the border just because they happen to be from a particular country. It’s nonsense, and I hope that changes soon. The same is true with currency: it’s pure luck to be born into a particular culture in a particular economy making a specific type of money. Some of us have natural advantages because of that, and it makes the people who succeed globally, who started out with a lower-value currency, all the more impressive, because they are competing with an economic handicap that isn’t their fault.”

There is no fixed lifestyle, schedule or timetables that (most) digital nomads follow. It changes, skewed to fit as work evolves. An average day in James’s life runs something like this: He wakes up around 7, showers, has breakfast, and then goes to a cafe to work. He has lunch and then moves to another cafe, or goes back to his place to work. “I do not have set hours so I could meet someone in the daytime and work later that night. Weekends aren’t really a thing for me either. I might go on a day trip on a Tuesday, yet find myself working on Saturday night.” He prefers working in cafes, usually going to two or three cafes a day, and working from his room the rest of the time. “I find co-working spaces distracting if there are people I can meet there, so I prefer to meet people outside of a working environment.”

He explains that since there are people from all walks of life living the nomad lifestyle, there is no right or wrong way to be a digital nomad. Some people keep a home base where they can keep book collections and have hobbies, but then travel for half the year. “I’ve met families who travel, and there are now dedicated websites for family nomad travel. I don’t consider myself a minimalist as I travel with two bags. My minimalist friends think I have too much stuff, yet when I go back to Australia and see my homebound friends, they are horrified that the two bags are all I have. I respect people who travel with one bag, but I don’t listen to them when they tell you that you are doing it wrong for not being like them.”

A nomadic lifestyle has flipsides too. When you typically live in a place for three to five months, you don’t put down very deep roots. “As a result you learn very specific things, but miss out on other aspects of human experience,” says Colin. “It can also be quite exhausting and sometimes stressful changing location so frequently: often everything is unfamiliar, and that really drains your energy, more than living in a familiar place. It’s the reason I enjoy travel, but it’s also a mental workout.”

Anuradha Sengupta is a writer based in Mumbai.

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