Who are the new digital nomads and what do they do?

6 min read  |   30 June, 2021   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

A woman is sat on a red deck chair on a wooden balcony which overlooks a forest and small village. She is wearing a white hat and has a laptop on her lap. Next to her is an orange drink with a yellow straw in it. The sun is shining down on her.

In Breathe’s 2021 Culture Economy report, we looked at the implications of COVID 19 and the challenges faced by small businesses and those people responsible for managing HR during a time of crisis.

Although there have been dark times in the last years with many people having experienced illness and much worse, a number of remarkable stories have emerged with underline the resilience of SME business leaders and their teams in their efforts to keep going - and even grow- despite testing market conditions.

In our report, we looked at the role technology has played as an enabler of people and a pivot which has been key to ensuring people remain connected despite working remotely. Many businesses are now planning new hybrid working models where employees combine remote working with a return to the workplace.

For many people working alone in isolation has not been a pleasant experience and a return to the workplace has come as a very welcome relief. Loneliness, anxiety and boredom have taken their toll on so many people and many are now benefitting from a return to the office on a partial or full-time basis.

Direct in-person interaction is an important dynamic for many of us, especially for people who need clear boundaries between work and home life.

But for some people, the pandemic and lockdown have led to a fundamental re-evaluation of their lives and questions whether they need to live and work in the same country. We’ve probably all dreamt of foreign climes at some point during the pandemic and there is now a rise in interest in living abroad and working remotely. People who adopt this lifestyle have been termed ‘digital nomads’.

What are digital nomads?

What jobs do digital nomads do? 

A Breathe story - Small Batch Coffee Roasters

What are the pros and cons of being a digital nomad? 

Has the future of work arrived ahead of schedule? 

What are digital nomads?

Digital nomads are employees who carry out there working duties from countries outside of the UK. They may live abroad on a permanent basis or choose to combine working with short or extended periods of travelling.

For obvious reasons, this lifestyle is not for everyone. Many job roles – retail, hospitality, construction and manufacturing, for instance- require people to be on-site in the workplace or visiting customers or clients in-person.

What jobs do digital nomads do? 

Typically, digital nomads work in one of the following roles:

  • Programmer
  • Website developer
  • App developer
  • SEO specialist
  • Social media marketer
  • Content marketing and PR
  • Affiliate marketer
  • Digital entrepreneur
  • Customer support representative

One of the things these people have in common which is essential to their ability to carry out their duties and collaborate with colleagues, their managers, clients and partners. Most of us are now familiar with communications platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but there are also a whole host of cloud-based project management, CRM, design and business management systems – like Breathe – which can be used from anywhere where a user has access to the internet.

As part of our research for Breathe’s 2021 Culture Economy Report, we interviewed Amichai Ben David of Digital Nomad World, a community website dedicated to supporting people who want to combine work with travelling and living abroad. He told us:

“With today’s high speed internet connection, wide variety of project management software and advanced security systems, the vast majority of companies can easily transform their work into a more flexible environment.”

“Moreover, many companies already do work remotely in this sense, but from an office on a 9am to 5pm schedule. Acknowledging this fact would allow for a more flexible environment, which will in turn give the employees more control over their personal life and directly improve their satisfaction.”

A Breathe story – Small Batch Coffee Roasters

One of Breathe’s customers is a Brighton based coffee importer called Small Batch Coffee Roasters who told us the story of one of their employees (a buyer) who was travelling through Columbia when they needed to submit an annual leave request to their line manager.

Travelling remotely, they were able to login to Breathe’s online app via their mobile phone and submit the request as easily as if they were in the office or at home in the UK. An example of admin on the move on a truly global scale. You can watch a video case study of the story via this link.

What are the pros and cons of being a digital nomad?

The Lonely Planet recently published an article about the benefits of a digital nomad lifestyle which paints a rosy picture of a working life lived on the move. These include saving in rents and a lower cost of living in some countries, through to a more relaxed and sociable lifestyle alongside the opportunity to explore new places.

For many people, a return to commuting on a daily basis, spending time and money on travelling is not an attractive idea. What could be nicer than waking up in a beach-side apartment and commuting to your balcony for the working day?

But the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side.

Many digital nomads who choose to live abroad for extended periods of time, may well become subject to local employment tax rules and regulations. They could end up paying income tax twice; once as a employer of a UK employer and then once again as a resident of their adopted county. Legislation varies from country to country and this needs to be factored into any research about re-locating abroad or this could come as an unwelcome and distinctly expensive shock.

Differing time-zones could also present issues and stand in the way of effective collaboration, especially for employees who re-locate to far-flung countries on the other side of the planet.

There is also the question of employee engagement and productivity. For our 2021 Culture Economy Report we undertook extensive research to assess SME business leaders’ thoughts about productivity during the pandemic. We found that 90 per cent of the SMEs we polled maintained productivity levels despite remote working.

Although this is a positive statistic, would people be able to maintain he same levels of productivity if based abroad, especially following an end to lockdown restrictions? Would there be too many distractions outside of employees’ new homes, wherever they are located? 

Managing digital nomads may not be easy or practical on a number of levels and it would take careful planning with clear KPIs, deliverable and objectives agreed with an employee prior to their relocation.

There is also no guarantee that an employee would be happier having moved abroad. Settling into a new country and culture brings its own challenges and some people may find it harder to adapt than other. For these people, they may require support and help from their employers which may be difficult to provide if an employee s far away, despite advancements in communications technologies.

Has the future of work arrived ahead of schedule?

Although cloud-based technologies are paving the ways for new ways of working – including enabling digital nomads to work in locations around the work – it remains to be seen if this is a practical option for employees and something which employers are keen to support.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella captured perfectly one of the most significant impacts of the pandemic, when he declared that: “We have seen two years' worth of digital transformation in two months.” Indeed, the crisis has arguably fast-forwarded the ‘future of work’ by five or ten years.

Although the technology which is essential to nomadic working and which has enabled people to work from home during the pandemic is here, there is a world of difference (if you'll excuse the pun) between hybrid working and adopting a digital nomad lifestyle. Time will tell if this becomes a popular and practical option which employer are happy to offer as an option to their employees.

For the time being, and as we adjust to new working models and plan for the future, accommodating digital nomads may be a step too far outside of the workplace comfort zone until we have seen compelling evidence that it genuinely works for people and businesses.

Are you a digital nomad or thinking of becoming one? Or are you an employer who employs digital nomads or is considering doing so? We'd love to hear your opinion. Please share your thoughts via the comments box below this article.


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter (2023) & English Language & Literature graduate (BA Hons), Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With 3 years' content marketing experience, Aimée has a passion for writing - and providing SME HR teams with solutions to their problems. She enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: from employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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