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Digital Nomads – Employees of the Future

It was during a short vacation at Kawthaung, a small town at the southernmost tip of Myanmar, that I felt how good it would be, to live there and work remotely. A small cottage at the Victoria Cliff Resort, surrounded by lush greenery, tranquil blue waters, this was idyllic as a place to live for months, if not years. Being a freelance writer, not confined to any place, it is feasible and plausible.

This got me thinking about what it must feel to be a ‘digital nomad’. Even as multiple vaccines offer the promise of protection, the pandemic has yet to subside, and we need to continue our remote work routines, this would be the ideal way to live and work. Digital nomads work remotely, do not have their own base or domain called home, generally renting a place that becomes a temporary abode.

In the last couple of decades, a significant section of youth joining the workforce have been wary of spending the next thirty years confined to a desk and following a drab 9:00 am-6:00 pm routine, an exhausting daily commute, limited and restricted, totally lacking freedom to pursue their interests to travel and explore. This, they feel, would curb their creativity and not bring out their best. These are the youngsters opting to be digital nomads, even more so if they belong to tech fields like programming and web design, freelance writing and translation, software development, online marketing etc, all of which require just a laptop and high-speed internet.

How Digital Nomads Operate

A nomad is a person who does not stay for very long in one place, a wanderer without a base, who stays for indefinite periods of time, in any place that appeals, be it mountains, valleys, tropical sea-sides or remote villages. A digital nomad is any person who uses technology to perform his job, not restricted to any office or city, and works from any remote place.

The term, digital nomad, appeared on the horizon in a book by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners in 1997, where they elaborated on the unconventional lifestyle changes possible with the advent of the internet, including a decline in “materialism and nationalism”. The first known digital nomad was Steve Roberts who biked across the USA in 1984 and worked on his Radio Shack-100 portable computer. Subsequently, thousands of people have travelled for leisure, liked a place and decided to stay and work remotely, for as long as it was legally possible.

Their decision to pursue this life stems from their desire to travel and experiment living in different cultural environments, breaking the monotony of a single place. They work with freedom, meet new people in co-working spaces, enjoy different climates, have minimalist lifestyles and cut expenses by living in cheaper places. For instance, there is a phenomenal difference in expenses while working out of Manhattan, New York and perhaps, Yangon or Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Is it all fun and minimal work for digital nomads? The truth is surprisingly the opposite, they seem to spend more time working and need to exercise self-discipline, to maintain that work-life balance. The day for them, can swing either way, go entirely in fun and sightseeing, or be immersed all day in a complicated assignment. Many have demanding work assignments and need to use ‘time-boxing’ and other time management techniques to stay on track, besides preparing work schedules, prioritizing and ensuring focus during work hours.

They are all risk-takers who discard the popular lifestyle in comfortable homes, secure earnings channels, seeped in domesticity, and take the plunge to explore an unpredictable life, with uncertainties and distractions, face social isolation periodically, and risk difficulties in unfamiliar places without comforting support systems.

COVID-19 and Digital Nomads

The digital nomadic trend, based on the remote work principle, has been gathering momentum since 2014. The covid-19 pandemic has just accelerated the pace and a larger number are finding it more appealing, given that remote work is extended by many companies till mid-2021, and working from home may be monotonous and limiting. The cultural acceptance of remote work is more widespread now, and organizations have restructured their traditional work models, questioning their own need for large offices in multiple locations, and whether the entire staff is required to be physically present at all times.

A big concern about remote work was the level of productivity due to lack of a formal work environment, without discipline and demarcation of work-leisure domains. These worries have been put to rest by a recent study by Harvard University, which found remote workers to be 13% more productive than in-office employees, taking a lesser number of days off as sick leave, and also that 23% of remote workers were willing to put in extra hours to complete the work assigned to them.

This segment is also being wooed by countries whose substantial earnings come from tourism, and are badly impacted by the pandemic, and leisure travels unlikely to resume for a long time. These include Estonia, Bermuda, Barbados, Georgia and others, and the currently popular destinations include Thailand, Portugal, Mexico, Indonesia, Spain, and Columbia. The annual Digital Nomad Summit has been seeing increased participation from every continent.  Data collected by MBO Partners, an enterprise solutions company reveals that at the end of 2019, 4.8 million people called themselves digital nomads, and the current remote work trend indicates that by 2035, the number could increase to 1 billion. Even as I write this, a news update says that Microsoft has made remote work permanent, something Twitter decided months ago. Remote work need not mean work from home, it can be work from anywhere – as a digital nomad!

What Digital Nomads Need

The biggest requirement of a digital nomad is to be ‘plugged in’, that is, stay connected. For this, he needs essentially, a laptop and internet connectivity, the rest are just optional add-ons.

It may seem so easy to just travel to a favoured destination and start working from there. In reality, even as a digital nomad, one would require a long-stay visa. Some countries enthusiastic about hosting digital nomads have come up with special visas for them. For instance, the “Work from Bermuda Certificate Program”, Estonia’s Digital Nomad Visa, Antigua & Barbuda’s “Nomad Digital Residence”, Germany’s freelance visa, make a long stay easier for digital nomads. Subject to conditions of course, like a minimum monthly earning capacity to be declared, health insurance etc.

Health insurance needs to be signed up for, since access to medical care especially in emergencies, is important. Many global insurance companies offer a travel insurance that should suffice, though companies like Safety Wing, World Nomads Insurance and Integra Global, offer special insurance to digital nomads.

Taxation is another consideration. Irrespective of where you work and where you come from, income tax has to be paid. Many countries consider those staying longer than six months to be residents and have to pay taxes. Myanmar requires all foreigners staying for longer than 183 days in a financial year, to pay a progressive income tax on their global income.

Resources that facilitate their transition into remote work include websites like Outsite that offer co-working spaces with services. Nomad List is a 2014-website that gives all requisite information including lists of best places to live and work in, ranks them according to facilities and cost of living, and has served to bring together a global community of digital nomads. There are scores of other websites and apps that facilitate settling down, managing travel, accommodation, insurance and finance-related issues. Nomadgate.com, movingnomads.com, coliving.com are some of the most popular ones. 

Yangon’s Coworking Spaces

A comfortable and well-equipped co-working space makes working so much easier for digital nomads. Serving as an ‘office’ away from the office, these provide high speed internet, printers and scanners, meeting rooms, comfortable desks and chairs, private offices or shared spaces, refreshments etc. Co-working spaces serve as the shelter that makes working possible in places otherwise known for tourism. This delineation is important during work hours, as it prevents distractions and seeing others work proves to be a motivation. These also become meeting places for other digital nomads, distinct from tourists.   

Yangon, I was surprised to find, has numerous co-working spaces to offer, including SeedSpace Yangon, overlooking the river, Arcc Spaces in Hledan Center, Outdream Co-working in Myanmar Plaza, KBZ i3, Kloud and Innovation Awaits, to name a few. They offer desks or private rooms for a monthly rental, all-inclusive of facilities.

The concern right now is the full stop on travel, which may place the survival of these co-working spaces at risk. It may take a long time for digital nomads to consider travelling to Myanmar since flying has become harder, and so much more expensive.

The Disadvantages of Remote Work Impacting Digital Nomads

Working remotely can be lonely and difficult, since we all seek company, need friends, engage in group activities, and like to connect with people. While digital nomads may form groups where they live, all of them may not have the same schedules and stay durations.

Digital nomads are a privileged class engaged mainly in white-collar jobs, with access to funds that enable them to travel and spend on their long stays. The pandemic has convinced them even more that they are the future of remote work life. Few realize, however, how their jobs might be at stake. If physical presence is not mandatory, employers can find cheaper manpower with similar qualifications in a remote corner of the world, at a cheaper price, and save a huge amount by employing lower salaried people in multiple locations. This has been correctly described by Jack Kelly in the September 2020 issue of the Forbes magazine, as “out of sight, out of mind, out of work”!

Digital nomads are a growing cult, whose lifestyle is taking digitalization and mobility trends to a different level, transforming the way we perceive work, earnings, interactions and communication. 2021 will see their numbers grow, and hopefully, many will find their way into Myanmar!