Flexibility and autonomy—while some employees want a hybrid work model to achieve these goals, others desire more freedom. The increase in remote opportunities opens the door for people seeking adventure to embrace the digital nomad lifestyle. This cross-section of the workforce chooses to work from RVs, rental properties, coffee shops, and shared workspaces as they travel and explore new places or visit old favorites—but these globetrotters aren’t always on vacation.
Most digital nomads are full-time, remote employees who work about 40 hours a week. Others are part of the gig economy, picking up freelance projects to fund their travels. More workers are opting to see the world and work wherever they are, whether they stay in a city for a week or six months. Here are five things your HR team should know about the growing digital nomad trend.
In 2021, 15.5 million Americans considered themselves digital nomads, up 112% from 2019. The pandemic factors into this surge. As more people realized that working remotely effectively was possible, the demand led to a spike in the availability of telecommuting jobs, making it easier for frustrated, cooped-up employees to hit the road. Plus, many countries and cities are enticing digital nomads to work and play in their backyards.
Aruba’s One Happy Workcation program allows visitors to stay in the country for up to three months with free WI-FI at discounted rates. Italy is vying for digital nomads’ attention by offering 70-90% tax-free income for remote employees with work visas who transfer their tax residence to the country. Even in the US, smaller cities advertise free gym memberships, babysitting services, and cash to attract digital nomads.
Whether embarking on a worldwide tour or traversing the US in an RV, you might expect that the average digital nomad belongs to Generation Z—but that’s not the case. According to a 2021 US study by MBO Partners, Millennials make up the bulk of the group at 44%, followed by Gen X at 23%, Generation Z at 21%, and Baby Boomers at 12%. However, 27% were Baby Boomers before the pandemic. Additionally, a study by FlexJobs suggests that as many as 70% of digital nomads are women, although most people envision them as men.
While some of these workers are self-employed or freelancers, 66% of digital nomads are employed full-time by an organization. They’re tech-savvy, and many work in fields where talent shortages make their skills extremely valuable, giving these employees more leverage to dictate when and where they work. One of the most popular fields is IT, but digital nomads work in all different areas, such as creative services, education, marketing, sales, and finance. Even executives are participating in the trend—for example, the CEO of Airbnb.
A common misconception is that digital nomads are always on the go. However, 73% visit one to two countries a year, and it’s rare for a person to visit more than five. They often have an anchor city they frequently return to, where they may have family or friends. Furthermore, some digital nomads have a primary residence and only travel for part of the year, and this lifestyle is temporary for many people. 54% surveyed only planned to continue for the next two to three years.
Beyond the obvious perks of seeing new places and discovering new cultures, becoming a digital nomad has some practical benefits. Since living costs are cheaper in some countries and cities, employees can stretch their salary further or save more money while still enjoying their travels. No daily commute also saves digital nomads, like other remote workers, up to $4,000 a year on work-related expenses.
85% are highly satisfied with their work and lifestyle. Increased flexibility and fewer office politics certainly help. A greater sense of freedom and more autonomy are other important factors.
Multiple surveys have shown that the biggest challenge to being a digital nomad is reliable WI-FI, which also heavily impacts your deskless workforce. For this reason, they often work from public libraries and cafes or choose where to stay based on WI-FI availability. Additionally, digital nomads face common challenges for dispersed teams, such as communicating with coworkers in different time zones.
According to PEW research, this lifestyle can also be lonely for people under 30, who are more likely to say friends and community give their life meaning. However, some digital nomads cope thanks to anchor cities or travel with fellow explorers. Several programs exist that connect individuals with other roaming workers, so they can travel together or form relationships online, giving them a sense of community.
As the popularity of digital nomadism grows, HR should think through how to support these workers and ensure they stay connected to the company. For example, affinity groups that meet virtually can help digital nomads grow their network within your organization, forging a deeper bond. Furthermore, periodic in-person team meetings, where the company covers travel expenses, allow digital nomads to connect with colleagues and, ideally, get to know each other as people outside the office with an after-hours get-together. You should also have an open office policy and encourage them to pre-arrange work at any office location if they happen to be in the area.
Lastly, consider enacting a digital nomad policy. Policies like these may list countries where employees can and can’t live or specify how long they can be in a particular place, protecting the organization and workers from unexpected tax implications and other potential concerns. A clear organization-wide policy also helps employees feel secure in knowing work rules won't suddenly change and shows that you support their need for flexibility. Law firm Littler offers insight into things to consider when creating a digital nomad policy.
Every person wants to feel supported by their employer, regardless of where and how their work gets done. Your HR team must examine the experience of every type of worker in your organization and ensure everyone is receiving the help and support they need.
Read the ebook “5 Steps to Create a Better Employee Experience for Deskless Workers” for insights on how your organization can improve the experience of the most overlooked labor group—the deskless workforce.
Amber is the Senior Content Marketing Manager, HCM Global Campaigns. She's passionate about writing, dogs, lifting others, and personal growth.