In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” he talks about the rise of the digital nomad.
Digital nomads — employees or contractors who work remotely while traveling — were a small growing trend before the pandemic. With large numbers of workers logging in remotely during Covid, however, their ranks rose dramatically. According to an MBO Partners survey, 2020 saw a 49 percent increase in digital nomads compared to 2019.
Like many remote-work trends, digital nomadism poses some interesting questions for businesses. Does it make sense to allow employees to work from the road? How does it benefit the company? How will it impact company policies?
I’ve run a mostly remote company for 20 years and am already an advocate for permanent remote work. After my family recently drove from Ohio to California to spend five weeks as digital nomads, I now believe this is the next benefit companies need to figure out both to keep employees happy and refreshed and to attract and retain top talent.
Every day, I logged in early to sync up with east coast time and was usually free to explore by 2 p.m. To my team, this felt no different from me logging in from Ohio. But for me, the time away offered a badly needed escape from the “groundhog” day feel of 2020 and the endless responsibilities of home life. My work benefitted, too: the change in scenery gave me a surge in creativity and productivity, and I returned refreshed and re-motivated. My employees and contractors who have conducted similar experiments have reported the same benefits.
How to Accommodate Digital Nomad Workers
There are plenty of signs that both remote work and digital nomadism are here to stay. Tech companies such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) are leading the way for the rest of corporate America by making remote work a permanent option. Other companies such as Microsoft are taking it a step further, allowing employees to relocate — even internationally if the arrangement works with their role and responsibilities. Countries are jumping on board, too, with alluring destinations like Antigua, Barbuda, Barbados, and Aruba offering digital nomads extended visas.
Companies that want to attract top talent and keep retention high will be forced to offer similar working arrangements. The pros far outweigh the cons. Employees get to take care of their mental health and escape from the humdrum every day for a while. Businesses get a boost from refreshed and recharged employees full of fresh inspiration and ideas.
To support digital nomads, including both full-time employees and nomad contractors, companies need to make the same changes required to support a permanent remote workforce:
- Foster a culture of connection. According to Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work report, collaboration, communication and loneliness are the biggest challenges remote workers face. To combat these challenges, train workers on building long-lasting relationships virtually. Skills such as being vulnerable, bringing your whole self to work and learning how to resolve conflict virtually are key to remote work success. Incorporate opportunities for connection into virtual meetings by setting aside some time at the beginning for some virtual water cooler talk. Be sure to include nomad contractors, too.
- Create flexibility policies. Policies that give remote employees the maximum flexibility to get their job done allows them the freedom to take advantage of being remote — even in different time zones. Of course, different roles have different requirements for availability. But employees should be able to take a midday break, whether that’s a walk around their neighborhood or exploring an exotic locale. Don’t think of allowing employees this kind of flexibility as an indulgence. Research shows that taking breaks throughout the day improves performance and creativity, decreases stress and makes employees more satisfied on the job.
- Invest in quality collaboration software. Without collaboration software, remote work isn’t viable. Like employees working from home, digital nomads need the proper technology and tools to be efficient and successful. Features such as chat, video, screen sharing and digital whiteboards bring workers together, even if physically they’re far apart. It’s also important to configure collaboration software to seamlessly incorporate contractors who are digital nomads. Erring on the side of allowing them access to as much information as possible will make them more effective and feel like a trusted member of the team.
- Make your company easy to work with for nomads. When you open your company up to digital nomads, you’ll be able to access a far larger pool of talent. To attract and retain these individuals, develop processes and procedures to accommodate their lifestyle – examples include fast, all-digital onboarding, frictionless payment and transparency on upcoming roles.
These tweaks to company policies and procedures are small compared to the benefit that comes with allowing employees to work remotely, even in far-flung locations. Not only will employees see the opportunity to become digital nomads as a huge perk, but they’ll also feel trusted, engaged and eager to stick around.