Industry Market Trends

The Rise of Digital Nomads

February 3, 2009

"Digital nomadism" combines the autonomy of telecommuting with mobility for an even more flexible work style. Now more people are ditching the office and using the world as their workspace.

With the advent of wireless Internet, smart phones and laptops, people can stay connected more than ever, even if they are thousands of miles apart. People can check their e-mail, access and share documents, and have voice or video conferencing whenever and wherever. This combination of portable gadgets and connectivity has given rise to so-called digital nomads — professionals who conduct their work virtually and aren't tied down to any particular place.

While it may sound like it's simply telecommuting, "nomadism" is starkly different, James Ware, co-founder of think-tank Work Design Collaborative, tells the Economist. Telecommuting still ties workers to a place because of the landline phone, fax and dial-up Internet. Rather than being cocooned in an office, they were cocooned at home.

Nomads, Ware says, "do not want that: instead they want to mingle with others and to collaborate, though not necessarily under fluorescent lights in a cubicle farm... . [N]omadism combines the autonomy of telecommuting with the mobility that allows a gregarious and flexible work style."

And the nomadic trend is catching on. Even large companies like Sun Microsystems have adjusted their workplace to accommodate nomads. Through its open work program, which more than half of Sun's workforce takes part in, workers have no official desk and, instead, are given the choice to come to the office and find an open space or not come in at all. Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's chief executive, explains to the Economist that because of the program, Sun has been able to retain its employees longer and increase productivity.

While being a nomad may sound like a dream, it's not for everyone and there's a lot of preparation work to do before cutting off the cubicle chains. Those who are currently working should first check if their current job could be done remotely and if so, will the company allow it. "Meet with your supervisor to discuss the possibility of a sabbatical or of working virtually," Laptop Hobo, an Internet resource for working nomads, says, adding negotiating ideas like offering to take a pay cut, showing the benefits of having a time difference and offering to scout out new territories.

If you're an entrepreneur and can conduct your business mostly (if not entirely) online, ease your clients into the idea that you'll be conducting business via telephone or Internet. Well before you leave, assure them you'll be as accessible and the quality of service will not be damaged by switching your interactions to strictly via Internet and phone, Laptop Hobo adds.

If you fall into neither category, there are other means of garnering income while traveling. Freelance Switch suggests building income streams through freelance work, teaching language courses or being a tour guide. Other income generators include having monetized websites, selling e-books and hosting workshops/lectures (if applicable).

Selling stock photography or doing hotel and restaurant reviews are some other options, as is travel writing. Freelance Switch suggests pitching to newspapers, magazines and Web sites, and negotiating deals with editors prior to departure.

For help finding online employment, NuNomad lists some job boards to check out.

Once money is taken care of, there is more to consider before departure. NuNomad suggests taking practice trips to get a feel for what equipment you need/don't need. If you are going abroad, check to see if a visa is needed to conduct work, Freelance Switch adds.

Remember, the more time spent in up-front preparation, the less you have to worry about once you leave, NuNomad says.

Once on the road, there are other challenges to think about. Lea Woodward, digital nomad and owner of business strategy firm Kinetiva, highlights five major obstacles and how to overcome them:

Problem: Unstable Internet connection.

Solution: Find out as much as you can about Internet access and infrastructure in your chosen destination(s). While this may limit the places you can go, it's imperative to have a good connection as it can make or break your business.

Problem: Staying in touch.

Solution: Consider using VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technologies such as Skype that allow you to communicate using the Internet. If you have a mobile phone, ask your provider if it offers an international roaming package. You can also use local calling cards or have an assistant take initial calls and then e-mail you about anything relevant.

Problem: Lack of office equipment.

Solution: Use online fax services like eFax or go to Internet cafes for your printing and scanning needs.

Problem: Sending/receiving snail mail.

Solution: There are services such as eSnailer, Postful or ShinyLetter that print and send out snail mail online. As for receiving, look into Earth Class Mail, Paperless PO Box or Mail Boxes Etc. Important documents should be sent via a courier service.

Problem: Managing clients in different time zones.

Solution: Always write the time of an appointment in your local time and the client's time zone in your calendar. Firefox also has Foxclocks add-on which puts all the time zones you need directly in your browser for reference.

Logistical problems aside, there's also the challenge of managing yourself. "Anybody who works for himself has a tyrant as a boss," observes Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley trend watcher. "The danger is that the anytime, anyplace office will lure us into the tiger cage that is the everytime, everyplace office." (Source: The Economist)

On the flip side, you'll undoubtedly be "surrounded by new and exciting things to do that you'd far rather be doing than working," Woodward says. You have to maintain your focus. For a host of other tips for living nomadically, Woodward also runs a blog for location independent professionals.

As a final tip, Woodward recommends to "think through all your plans very carefully in advance, ensure your clients are going to be minimally impacted and have contingencies for everything."

Resources

Labour Movement

The Economist, April 10, 2008

Quit Dreaming and Go!

Laptop Hobo, 2006

5 Challenges of Working from Anywhere and How to Overcome Them

by Lea Woodward

Freelance Switch, April 22, 2008

Work While Traveling Abroad

NuNomad

Employment/Freelance Jobs for the Nu Nomad

NuNomad

Multiple Streams of Income for Digital Nomads

by Raj Dash

Freelance Switch, Jan. 1, 2009



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