The ‘digital nomad’ workforce is here – will the COVID-spurred ‘workation’ boom last?

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The world witnessed a seismic shift toward remote work in 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when the majority of the world was forced into lockdown.

This shift has impacted the experience of the full-time employee, further boosting the global population of digital nomads. This 'new' workforce continues to grow as remote workers continue to scatter the globe en masse.

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Digital nomads are defined as people who choose to embrace a lifestyle independent of location and enabled by technology as they travel the world and work remotely, settling in any country so long as there is an internet connection for them to carry on working. Unlike regular remote workers who tend to stick to one geographic area, digital nomads choose to travel and explore the world while working.

With the desire to roam the world now more than ever, digital nomads are still globetrotting post-COVID-19 and believe that this trend is here to stay. Many have flocked to Dubai, with the emirate recently voted as the most entrepreneur-friendly city in the world while also offering some of the best infrastructure for nomads to work remotely.

Many businesses have already implemented remote work policies as a result of the pandemic, and it is possible that these policies will continue due to the availability of technology and the rising trend towards entrepreneurship.

Swedish expat, digital nomad and business owner Oscar Johansson, 29, moved to Dubai in 2016 with the aim of starting a business that would give him the freedom to roam the world and generate a stable income.

“I wanted a digital nomad lifestyle. That’s what I really wanted back then. I had been watching YouTube videos of these people traveling and living the good life and I wanted to find a business model that could basically allow me that freedom so that’s when I started an online business and moved to Dubai pretty soon after,” Johansson told Al Arabiya English.

Since beginning his journey as a nomad, he has traveled to around 30 cities in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America.

“I’ve been to Thailand, Cambodia, all over the US. Been in Latin America, Brazil, Argentina, Dominican Republic. Europe, obviously, because it is very accessible. These are just some of the places.”

Since the onset of COVID-19, Johansson said that he has definitely noticed an increase in interest for the lifestyle and believes that this trend is here to stay for many years to come.

“I think the landscape is definitely changing. Before COVID-19, there was this subculture of people I guess that were aware of this lifestyle and were pursuing it, but I think after COVID-19 even the ones that weren't self-employed, like the regular workforce, started to realize that they could work from home, and a lot of places are still having work-from-home days. So I think it's opening up to a broader audience, really,” said Johansson.

“So I think it's here to stay and going to grow because, it's also not just for the people that are doing it, you know, it saves costs for businesses, they can have smaller offices and hire in cheaper locations so, I think it's a given.”

While this lifestyle may be very attractive to many who were cooped up indoors during the global health crisis, it is worth noting that nomading is not for everyone.

Johansson believes that people looking to take on this lifestyle need to be self-disciplined, whether they work for themselves or have a full-time remote job.

“Even if you don't work for yourself but you work remotely, you still need discipline to set those hours, you need to set them to give you that freedom, right? So it's not for everybody, but if you do have like a desire to see the world, I don't think you have any other option.”

People work as they sit in a cafe at Zabeel House - The Greens, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates February 1, 2021. Picture taken February 1, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
People work as they sit in a cafe at Zabeel House - The Greens, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates February 1, 2021. Picture taken February 1, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

Dubai-based Belgian expat and entrepreneur Nour el-Houda Zaanoun, 32, told Al Arabiya English that living like a digital nomad does not come without its challenges.

“It does come with some sacrifice depending on what your needs are like comfort, sense of control and security, distance from family and friends, but it gives you knowledge and experience that can’t be bought through books or courses,” Zaanoun explained.

“I am very grateful for this lifestyle and experience even if, to be honest, it is not always easy. However, being in any other situation will make you go through difficult times. That's just life. So I keep on choosing to focus on what I want rather than on what is easy as that doesn't fully exist.”

Zaanoun used to work as a financial consultant in a Big Four company in Brussels before she decided to start up her own business and travel the world. During her full-time corporate job, she said she was working on creating a business model that would help her become “more location independent.”

“This idea became a reality in 2019 when I set up my LLC in the UAE after a few years’ experience there. It wasn’t COVID-19 that made me a digital nomad, however it did propel my digital nomad journey to one where I moved out of a country every month or three, instead of one to two years, making it much more exciting and challenging too,” she added.

“Every country has much to offer and to learn from. Both on a business and personal level.”

Since becoming less location dependent, Zaanoun has been able to work and travel to Norway, Egypt, Australia, Montenegro, South Korea, China, Turkey, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, India, Armenia, Georgia, and the Dominican Republic, among many others.

“During my pre-COVID-19 travels, I met many digital nomads, it isn’t a new concept. Those nomads however stayed mostly in a place for six months to a year,” Zaanoun said.

“Since COVID-19 I have met many people like me who are fully nomad, staying less than three months at a time in a country and with no specific country they call home. Additionally, I’ve noticed many traveling remote workers looking to become digital nomads to avoid going back to office.”

Social media platform designed for digital nomads

Israeli entrepreneur Yair Sterman told Al Arabiya English that he and his friend Amichai Ben David set out to create a “one-stop-shop” social media platform to provide digital nomads, or those interested in the lifestyle, with all the information they need to roam the world with less hassle.

Set up shortly before the pandemic, Digital Nomad World now has over 17,000 users, most of whom are digital nomads, as the platform connects them with a community of like-minded individuals, includes the latest and most comprehensive travel and visa information, accommodation offers, and remote job vacancies they can apply for.

“We actually have an active social network where people ask for advice, make plans to meet up with each other and, in the end, we are trying to create this sort of digital community for people who are not in a constant geographical place, and don’t have this constant community,” Sterman explained.

“We are trying to create a community for all of these people to travel, and they know wherever they are that they can talk to this community, they can meet up with them physically if they find people in the same city they’re in too. That’s the main goal, to sort of create the largest digital nomad community in the world.”

Sterman is an avid traveler who has been location independent for many years.

“I’ve always loved traveling. I’ve been traveling ever since I could remember. I’ve been to many places around the world, I love meeting new people from new cultures,” he told Al Arabiya English in an interview.

“I think this is very important for everyone, traveling and meeting new people and sort of leaving your comfort zone and your little bubble, it makes people more tolerant and more accepting in my opinion, so I think this movement is very important.”

He said that although the lifestyle trend has garnered exponential popularity since the pandemic, the concept itself was not a new one.

The platform he created has grown “very fast,” he noted. This, he said, was particularly the case in the last couple of years because the pandemic seemed to shift peoples’ mindsets about how “they balance life and work.”

“It’s definitely not a trend. Digital nomads have been here for a while- way before the pandemic,” he explained.

“The pandemic just sort of gave it a kickstart and pushed it into the mainstream. Remote work was an inevitable outcome, COVID-19 just gave it a head start but this is the way employees and employers are going to understand it as a way to work, it’s going to be more popular, it’s going to have a massive impact in areas we are not even thinking of, like transportation, environmental impact, its going to change the way we commute, travel, live."

“It’s going to be more and more popular, you’re going to see more and more people utilizing this remote work in order to travel and see other parts of the world or just in order to work from home and you know, maintain a better work-life balance get to be more with their family, instead of commuting three hours a day to their office.”

Visa options

Aside from the fact that large multinational companies such as Twitter, Reddit, Spotify and Microsoft allowed their employees to permanently work remotely, several countries recognized the spike in demand for this lifestyle, giving rise to many new visa opportunities, said PRO Partner Group’s Chief Operating Officer Jessica Ashford.

This trend is here to stay, as a new generation of tech-savvy graduates emerge into the world of work and the labor market continues to evolve, she added.

“Now, there are an estimated 1.52 billion people globally working remotely and that is projected to rise to 1.88 billion people by 2023. This comprises a staggering 43.3 percent of the total global workforce.”

“The interest in this new location independent lifestyle has created a surge of interest in digital nomad visas, with online searches for the term ‘nomad visa’ up an incredible 2,400 percent over the last five years. As a result, many countries have launched remote working visa programs, to attract foreigners for longer stays.”

The likes of Germany, Spain, Austria, Canada and New Zealand offer freelancer visa options which are fairly easy to obtain, allowing self-employed professionals to live and work in those countries for up to one year.

Digital nomads and remote workers may be able to obtain a variety of visas depending on their specific circumstances and the country they wish to travel to. These include: tourist, business, work, entrepreneur, and student visas.

Countries like Portugal and Indonesia, among others, also have visa options for those looking to work remotely.

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