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Digital nomads, and making the best of lockdown work:
why I love NBN

Only nine or ten months ago, when business professor Robert Litchfield told people he was researching long-distance workers, the response was "Who cares about that?". Today he and his wife, urban sociologist Rachael Woldoff are being asked to give advice on all aspects of being a digital nomad. They talked with Galina Limorenko of Lausanne's Federal Technology Institute EPFL on the podcast platform New Books Network (NBN). Quick nomad survival tip: it's not like lockdown and the answer is not "a community of Zoom".

By Peter Hulm

Occasional nights of COVID-19 lockdown insomnia have made me a fan of NBN. The New Books Network describes itself as "a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse by introducing scholars and other serious writers to a wide public via new media".

So, waking up every couple of hours to the bright moon recently, I plugged in my earpods and listened via my iPad (there's an app as well as website) to stories of Caribbean revolutionaries who favoured equality but not the end of slavery (slave sales paid their way) and another on the newly fashionable topic of digital nomads.

Rachael A. Woldoff and Robert C. Litchfield identified remote-working "tribes", mainly of young people, in places like Indonesia, Thailand, Colombia, Mexico, and Portugal. From hundreds of hours of Zoom interviews, they discovered unexpected truths:

Anything but paradise

"The creative class and Millennial workers, though successful, often feel that 'world class cities' and desirable jobs are anything but paradise," they report. Their latest publication together looks at the "new ways people are balancing freedom, work, community, and creative fulfilment in the digital age".

book jacket for Digital Nomads

Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy (Oxford UP, 2021, published on 20 January) puts its three major conclusions up front. These thousands of people from Europe and the Americas, mainly young, are looking for freedom from in-office work, for a community that shares their values, and especially for meaningful work.

They spoke on 21 January in a NBN 105-minute podcast with Limorenko. Limorenko is a doctoral candidate at EPFL in neuroscience with a focus on biochemistry and molecular biology of neurodegenerative diseases, and hosts a podcast on sociological and medical topics of all kinds.

 

How the world learned the benefits of remote working

rachael waldoff

She points out: "In the space of a few weeks this spring, organizations around the world learned that many traditional, in-person jobs could, in fact, be performed remotely. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, however, some individuals were already utilizing new options for personal mobility and online work to strike out on their own."

The research couple travelled with their two young children to a digital nomad hub in Bali, Indonesia, to extend their investigations into digital freelancing, entrepreneurship and remote work. In all they investigated nomadism from 18 countries, with 50% of the nomads women.

Today, Woldoff says, they are advising interested people on what works and what doesn't, how to balance life and work, how to avoid monotony and make lockdown at home enjoyable.

Reacting to technology changes

"Both of us adapted at work to the pandemic a lot better than many of our colleagues, and even young students, because we had already been engaged in and thinking about these issues for years," she told Limorenko. "I got very high teaching evaluations this semester, even though it was on line, and I think it was because I had a growth mind set around changing the way I was working, and reacting to the way things are changing around technology and work."

For the first time, both Woldoff and Litchfield had to start teaching online. But they stress that the pandemic has created an artificial situation, which is not how wouldbe digital nomads should expect to live their lives. But working with others in different timezones requires organization. Woldoff said she learned to deal with student and colleagues' differences and difficulties "with a lot more compassion".

Four groups of nomads

rob litchfield

Woldoff and Litchfield divide their nomads into four groups: honeymooners (the term the nomads use), work tourists, visa runners and permanent nomads. That is, people who take a few selfies and go back home, people (main Europeans) who take a break from work to experiment with the digital lifestyle, those who live from visa to visa in the country, and those who don't see themselves as settled in the country but living there almost permanently for years ("people we were really surprised to discover," says Woldoff).

But digital nomads are a long way from some trendy media images: people flying to a new destination each week, Woldoff observes. It is almost impossible to carry out contract work at the level that earns them a living or run a business if they flit from place to place, Woldoff notes.

Find a physical community with your values

In fact, digital nomads seek out "likeminded unconventional people", Limorenko adds. Woldoff agrees: "Travelling alone can be very lonely."

But the remote workers they met were convinced that "community over Zoom" is not a solution, Litchfield said. You need to find a physical community that shares your values. Shared working spaces have become popular.

What makes a community? Length of residence does not build links to the local community for these nomads, in contrast to most expatriates' experience.

Coming together over trauma

Nomads build intimate relations immediately on their experience of leaving a lot behind, often traumatically, and coming to a new place. Some are people who find themselves spending their 20s in big cities working all week with only the weekends to do their chores. They become depressed and hate the idea of going back to work on Mondays. "You may look successful, but you are feeling miserable."

As a digital nomad, your encounters with other nomads are very different from the superficial conversations you would have at home "in Starbucks while working on your laptop".

"I don't want to sugarcoat it," she stresses. Families can become digital nomads but that is not the norm. And nomads may find themselves "working all the time or talking all the time about work".

Too busy to do what they became nomads for

Some turned to this life to develop other parts of themselves but have ended up doing none of that because they are afraid to turn down jobs. But the American researchers found that in general nomads "really enjoyed being around people who are energized by their work" and not just working for a paycheck.

Litchfield discussed how nomads differ from workationeers. There is some overlap between digital honeymooners and "work tourists", but these people do not burn their professional bridges at home or jettison their possessions. "We didn't see, really, Americans doing this because in the States vacation times are frankly too short."

But they found "significant numbers" of Europeans who took take three or four weeks off to explore these communities but putting the work at the front of their priorities. "Around where I live, people take their paid vacation time [and] they go to Disney world," observed Woldoff. "They don't take paid vacation time or severance pay from a layoff to look at work reinvention in another country."

'...but I'm on holiday'

An Australian friend who worked in an office and joined the family in Bali on vacation could not understand that nomads see work and leisure time "fluidly", she remarked. When asked if she wanted to see the couple's co-working space, the woman protested: "I'm on vacation." Regular vacationers just want to go to a resort, drinking and relaxing.

"You don't want to go to a talk about building an app, or learning how to write or how to journal, or learning about a different skill-set, that you may not have and you may never want to pursue but you are still interested in and meeting other people who are doing that."

Work tourists have rarely been studied by sociologists. Most research has been in expats for international companies — their living conditions, how spouses adjust, what is their job satisfaction, etc.

Negative stereotypes

But the emphasis on social media of bloggers, "influencers" and Instagrammers who boast of their digital nomadism just encourages negative stereotypes against the people the researchers met, who are more concerned with the sustainability and environmental impact of their activities, Woldoff added.

In Bali, overcrowding is becoming significant and flying around the world has an environmental impact, noted Litchfield. But "nomads are minimalist," Woldoff underlined. "They don't have an SUV, they don't have a house, they are not remodelling their kitchen, they are not commuting into work and all that."

The impact of tourism

But tourism in general has "a huge impact" on islands. "Nomadism increases tourism. That is a problem for Bali, which has a lot of pollution and they have very little infrastructure to handle that. They don't have potable water. People are drinking out of water bottles." The plastic bottles end up in the ocean. Rice fields are impacted by the pollution, and gentrification is increasing the cost of living.

On the other hand, the Bali locals rely on tourists and are suffering from the decline of tourism as a result of the pandemic regulations. Many younger Balinese do not want to go back to traditional agricultural labour for little money when they can be driving a car or working at a resort for tourists.

But the downsides include traffic and exploitation of the Indonesians as a servant class as well differences over gender and sex practices. "There are tensions."

Appreciating the culture

Woldoff said she came to digital nomadism because of her interest in "what makes places liveable". The couple look back with appreciation to the architecture, art, music and culture of Bali.

"It was such a great thing for my children to see another way of living," argues Woldoff. "Balinese society is — it is truly the word awesome. There's something about being in that environment that is very inspiring and calming, and makes your time there feel really special."

However, digital nomads have to disciplined enough to ensure they also do the work that they moved to a cheaper lifestyle to explore.

Some can't cut it

The researchers found many nomads had to put in place rituals to ensure they did their work and not become distracted by the culture around them. "Many people told us they just can't do it."

As a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, "we are all seeing how challenging it is to structure your time," Woldoff remarked. She used a computer timer that set a 25-minute time limit for working on one task. She now advises all her students to do that and set an achievable goal.
But the dropout Millennials are right: "You don't need to be bored at work."

A different mindset

With pandemic lockdowns, she sees "a very different mindset about work".

The digital nomads have given us several lessons that non-nomads can bring home, the researchers argue. For instance, "How can you make your home a place that is hospitable to doing work?"

"Even academics, especially male academics I have noticed, want to escape their families and be in the office all the time," says Woldoff. "But you can't burn a candle at your office. You can't have your dog at your office. You can't play loud music at your office, or music you may want at your office. I exercise between my work spurts in way that I would be uncomfortable doing at work. Instead of taking a shower first thing in the day I may take a relaxing shower between two work springs." She now tries to pace her day in a way that makes the flow of her work pleasurable. But she admits some people might find the office day and its encounters with other people what they want from daily life.

Planning to be productive

At the same time, nomads will often plan to work when they are most productive, saving their worst hours for email and administrative tasks. But non-nomads might find it difficult to organize. Others take a meaningful break, "not eating a sad salad at your desk".

Find a neighbour — someone "who you really like" — and take a walk together, she advises, if you don't want to do something on your own to rejuice your energy. "Get out in nature and use that time in a way you wouldn't normally be able to do in an office." Some people say they can do that in their office, but she finds that is usually not so.

The importance of presence

As academics, however, they realize that a lot of their value to their universities is what they have to offer in person. As parents of young children, too, they recognize that a lot of their children's lives depends on them showing up.

Their professions made it easy to relate to digital nomads, said Litchfield. But researching the nomads had made them think more concretely about how they want to organize their lives and how to help others, particularly young people, to make a different working life for themselves.

Work as a portfolio of projects

Instead of looking at your career as a series of jobs, Litchfield says, he asks students to consider whether it might be "a portfolio of different projects that you put together. Some of those might look like jobs, some of those look more like gig work, some of those look more like passion projects".

Nomads also tie their view of freedom to "a lot of unconventional choices, [such as] work scripts," Woldoff adds. "They also reject scripts about gender, monogamy, marriage, children, suburbs, materialism, schedules, schooling, education, ageing, adulthood. They are not things Robin and I have rejected. Attachment to freedom rather than security. They have an orientation to the future that is very different from ours. A career track job made them feel they were in a zoo — they were caged."

Elation at being downsized

Nomads even reported a feeling of elation when they were downsized from prestigious jobs. "One thing really love about digital nomads is the amount that they work on self-awareness," Woldoff asserted. "Not to say they achieve it but they are really trying to evaluate what they want. For some people this is really hard to understand." They received some criticisms from other sociologists who argued that without health care packages and welfare, these were not real jobs. Her answer: "What good to you is a benefits package if you hate your life?"

But she agrees embracing digital nomadism without this support has its other side: "That takes a lot of courage."

Litchfield says "they are really out there putting their lives on the line for their vision of their work future and I think that deserves respect. We all should think carefully in our own lives what we are willing to stake something on to have a future that is attractive to us."

Avoid toxic narratives

In academia, says Woldoff, "we think being negative is being realistic" and it can be disturbing to find yourself among a community that is "super-positive". "We kind of make fun of people like that." But many graduate students suffer mental health problems. "Try to escape the culture of nay-saying if you can," she advises. "Think about how you are internalizing toxic narratives about what you life has to look like." She couldn't pull allnighters like the admired researchers around her.

Nomads' mantras are "Get Shit Done (GSD)" and "Know Your Why", and she admires that. Litchfield said this was his big "takeaway" from the research. Why do we praise people who hold down a job they hate for 25 years more than the Millennials who have decided after just a few that it is not what they want? "It took a pandemic for people to really trust workers and evaluate what has to be done in person and what does not," Woldoff comments.

For women, audio conferencing is liberation

She has found a sense of community online in conferences that she had never felt in person, for example. It is not necessarily superficial, and she had been in may meetings where she felt "very muted as a woman in academia, believe me". As a woman, she felt audio meetings were "much less oppressive" with no need to take time to dress up. "It's very nice to have my mind to be the thing that I am using and not worry about ageing and beauty." Most women have to deal with this, "and most men do not," she observes.

Cultural biodiversity was less represented in the research, largely because being free to be a digital nomad currently depends on social opportunities to work outside conventional structures.


Rachael A. Woldoff is Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University, and Robert C. Litchfield is Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Washington & Jefferson College.


NBN publishes 55 episodes every week on 90+ topics. It's run by Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Marshall Poe, with Co-Editor Leann Wilson. The podcast hosts are subject specialists. Limorenko has also hosted podcasts recently with Simon Baron-Cohen, with Rob DeSalle on a natural history of colour, and on ending Parkinson's Disease.

Hosts, rather than Poe, choose what books to feature. The format is standard: explain how and why you came to write the book, what's your background, deal with the book's issues, and tell us what you are doing next. It works.

My prospective podcasts for future nights: Understanding and Teaching the Holocaust, Limorenko's interview of Simon Baron-Cohen on "A New Theory of Invention", maybe the Origins of the Witches' Sabbath.

Link to the podcast

Peter Hulm, Deputy Editor of Global Geneva, has been a remote worker for nearly 40 years and swans between Grand Bahama and the Upper Valais village of Erschmatt, but does not consider himself a digital nomad. His tip for remote working: expect to work weekends and at odd times — take time out on weekdays and afternoons + adopt a dog to make you walk in nature.


OZY: Want to work from an island getaway? (LINK — 30 January 2021)

"Destinations like Barbados, Bermuda, Antigua and the African island nation of Mauritius have all launched one-year, tax-friendly digital nomad visas to attract stir-crazy professionals, with some even promising to drop the upfront charge in expectation of business, now that there’s a vaccine. Similarly, resorts like Vakkaru in the Maldives are offering nomad workers special packages, with ocean-view villa upgrades and office supplies, among other perks."