No traffic, nine-to-five schedules or business suits – for digital nomads, work and play is synonymous.
Technology and a shrinking globe mean it’s easier than ever to pack in your office job and work from nearly anywhere in the world. But is being a digital nomad really a one-way ticket to career happiness? Colin Drury finds out
Amy Molloy has an early work deadline and is a couple of hours into her day before she finally takes a moment to look up from her screen.
Her view when she does, however, is rather different from most professionals.
All around this freelance writer is the riot of colour of the Costa Rican jungle. Directly below her is a deep green swamp. She herself is sitting, with laptop on knees, in a hammock slung between two trees. A soundtrack of exotic birds and faraway monkeys plays through the greenery. This is Amy’s office today. Tomorrow, it will be a bumpy bus carving through the South American countryside. In a few weeks, she will file her story to an editor in London from a Chilean volcano. This 31-yearold is one of a growing new breed of young professionals: the digital nomads.
Thousands of workers across the planet are casting off the shackles of the office and instead holding down full-time jobs – or running businesses – while travelling the globe.
Embracing new technology that allows them to operate remotely – namely smartphones, Skype and global Wi-Fi – these pros still work hard, do eighthour days (or more) and have aspirations to progress up the career ladder or grow their enterprises. It’s just that they do so while moving from country to country, seeing the world, embracing new cultures and quenching their millennial thirst for new experiences.
For some, it is about adventure. For others, it is about economics – many earn Western wages while living between relatively inexpensive Southeast Asian countries. And for a few, one suspects, it is simply about the opportunity to Instagram a picture of a Thai beach and tell the world that’s where they are working today – there are some 500,000 images with the hashtag #digitalnomad on the photoblogging site.
For Amy, however, it was about the coming together of opportunity and inspiration.
‘My partner is an environmental scientist and was offered long service leave from work – three months at full pay – and it seemed like a once-in-alifetime opportunity to go travelling,’ explains the Australian, who has recently released a book on the subject, Diary Of A Digital Nomad. ‘But I’d spent 15 years building up my career as a freelancer and I didn’t want to just quit that. So I made the decision to work while we went around South America.
‘I spent years sitting at a desk in a London office looking at Google images to inspire my imagination. So to suddenly be waking up to such different sights, sounds and colours every day was amazing. It changed my writing for the better.’
So, is this way of life the dream it seems? Could we all benefit from going global? Or does roaming the planet, hopping from one internet connection to the next, come with its own drawbacks every bit as challenging and tedious as seeing the same four walls of a permanent office every day?
At Make Business Hub, in JBR, Dubai, you were never more than a couple of feet from an Apple laptop or a trendy haircut.
This was the Gulf’s first coworking space. Here, young entrepreneurs, self-employed freelancers and remote location professionals came, with their phones and computers, to make money and meet
deadlines. They did so because it provided quick internet access, good coffee, a vibrant atmosphere and the possibility for networking, which you simply don’t get if you spend the day working at your hotel room desk or, for those who live in the city, your dining room table.
The JBR hub is gone now and Make is temporarily based in an old villa in Al Fahidi. It will reopen at a bigger, 300-capacity space on Shaikh Zayed Road this year. And, while Dubai is still a lesser considered stop-off for many digital nomads (though the infrastructure and global links are increasingly seen to outweigh the expense and summer heat), it is Make that is the epicentre for those who do arrive here.
‘On an average week we will have people from all over the world,’ says Mohammad Aslum, a food entrepreneur who set the place up in 2011. ‘We have a lot of city residents and people from GCC countries who are in town for three or four days, but we’ll also get people from Europe, South America, Australia.’
An afternoon spent here is perhaps the best way to understand the benefits of working as a nomad.
These people – designers, software engineers, writers, online entrepreneurs, publishers – are freewheelingly creative, positive in spirit, and international in outlook. Their can-do attitude to getting around the world – book a flight online, book a room when you arrive – is replicated in their can-do zest for work.
Amy, for instance, tells an anecdote about suffering writer’s block while in the Amazon. ‘So I climbed to the top of the highest tree canopy for inspiration,’ she says.
It is not just the individuals who benefit either. The cities they visit often do too.
Because digital nomads tend to stay longer than tourists and consider the city a temporary home more than a brief playground, they invest more, both financially and emotionally, in where they stay. They tend to eschew big-name hotels and restaurants in favour of locally run guest houses, diners and shops – pumping money directly into the pockets of local people.
The city of Chiang Mai in Thailand is big digital nomad country. On Nomad List – an online guide to global cities for the community – it is regularly rated the best in the world. The economic impact of so many people working from there for a few weeks at a time is pretty much impossible to estimate, but it’s said if all those travelling workers left and didn’t return, the city’s economy would suffer a mini crisis.
Bryce Adams has passed through both Chaing Mai and Dubai on more than one occasion.
He’s originally from Australia and, aged just 23, has spent the past six years travelling the globe, taking in great swathes of Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. He has done so largely while working as a software engineer for Automattic, a San Francisco-based web development company, which not only doesn’t mind staff working remotely but actively encourages the practice in order to have people covering more of the world’s time zones. ‘For me,’ says Bryce down a Skype line from Melbourne, ‘I did the gap year travelling thing after school and I was planning on going to university afterwards but I didn’t want to stop seeing the world. There’s too much out there. I wanted travelling to become a sustainable lifestyle.
‘If you work it right, it’s an amazing way to live. You don’t have to work fixed hours, there’s no commute, and you get all the benefits of travel – meeting new people, broadening the mind, experiencing things you wouldn’t otherwise.’
There’s a ‘but’ coming, though. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘it’s not easy. It’s not all sitting on a
‘It’s not all sitting on a BEACH, tapping away at a laptop. A lot of times you’re in a HOSTEL hoping the internet stays on. No one INSTAGRAMS that’
beach in Malaysia with a drink, tapping away at a laptop. It can be stressful and shattering. A lot of the time you’re on a bed in a hostel hoping the internet stays on to meet a deadline. Though no one instagrams that.’
A lot of time in new cities is spent searching for good Wi-Fi connections or mobile SIM cards with hotspots. Because digital nomads often work in different time zones to their companies or clients, many say they can never truly switch off. ‘I’ve had times when I’ve had to leave a night out so I can go to work,’ says Bryce.
Travel also comes with the risk of missing out on much wanted assignments.
Amy recalls: ‘I remember getting off the worst boat trip of my life in a tiny boat in the Galapagos. On dry land [I saw] an email from an editor asking if I wanted to interview someone I’d admired for years. Yes! Then another email, saying I’d missed the chance.’
For others, there is another disadvantage: missing home.
Michelle Karam has just arrived home to Al Garhoud, Dubai, from the Maldives when we speak. In two days she’s off to Kenya. She is a digital nomad in that her business – running Travel Junkie Diary, a social network and marketing agency – requires her to travel the globe.
‘I love travel,’ says the 36-year-old from Lebanon. ‘I built my life and my career and, for the past three years, my business, around this passion.
‘But, you know, as you get older you do start to miss home every time you go away. We have a four-year-old daughter and I miss her terribly. I have to travel for work and I would not swap what I do, but I do see a time when I might do less.’
Perhaps that is the ultimate takeaway message: that being a digital nomad is wonderful but it is also, to some extent, temporary.
In the meantime, though, it’s onwards with amassing experiences. I put this to Bryce and he seems to agree. ‘I think people today don’t measure their net worth in how much they earn so much as how much they experience,’ he says. ‘And being a digital nomad gives you so many experiences that weren’t available to previous generations. I think it’s a privilege to take advantage of that.’
Freelancer Amy Molloy took her work around the world, turning her digital nomad highs and lows into a book. Above right: Bryce Adams; Right: Michelle Karam