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

Friday - - Contents -

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

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