Digital Nomad v. Remote Work: Which One Do I Prefer?
I get asked about my life as a digital nomad/remote worker. The fact is: a digital nomad and a remote work isn’t synonymous --- the two are different. If you’re short on time, then the answer is --- I identify as a digital nomad. I’ll explain why and how I feel the world is embracing digital "nomad-ness" for the long-haul.
What’s a remote worker?
Before I get into my answer, let’s first define what a remote worker is. A remote worker is a person who has an approved work arrangement from an employer that allows them to use their home location as their designated office. A remote worker can be in the same city/state where the employer has an office, or they could be working and living in an authorized city/state from afar with an occasional expectation to go into the office.
As a remote worker, you assume risks and responsibilities at home that would ordinarily covered in a traditional work environment. For example, if you need office supplies, that’s on you to figure out what you need. It’s not like you can pull up to the office and access the supply closet. You should also have a clear understanding from your employer about what expenses can or can’t be expensed back to the employer. You’d be surprised when you think about the cost of Wi-Fi, utilities, office equipment, even snacks/coffee to power through the day adds up, but most of the time, it’s on you to cover the bulk of your expenses.
It’s also your responsibility to manage and maintain the office equipment that’s out on loan to you. If you run into a technical issue, you should have guidance on how to mitigate tech issues remotely (with or without IT support); however, there are instances where the technical issue far exceeds what you can solve at home. In those instances, be ready to pivot and have patience with the IT team. If you’re on your own or have agreed to use your own digital devices, make sure you have a backup plan (oh, and invest in an external hard drive). That way, when and if you do separate from the company, you have all your employer's work on an external drive that you can ship to them if they choose to keep the files you worked on.
What’s a digital nomad?
Being a digital nomad is a wanderer who enjoys a minimalist techie lifestyle. It’s someone who has an unconventional belief that great work can happen from anywhere in the world. If you are cool with having a mobile office, or rather, moving/traveling around out of suitcase and setting up makeshift offices wherever you go., then your work possibilities are endless. It’s radical, progressive, and even controversial because it’s the antithesis of how the Western world thinks about “work culture.” The fun fact is being a digital nomad has been going on for years and is widely acknowledged overseas but hasn’t been fully embraced everywhere because some people don't believe in it (and that's okay!). I first learned about the digital nomad lifestyle back in 2012ish, I think. One of my former colleagues mentioned it to me because they felt it aligned with my passion for travel and work. So, they sent me info about a startup company (it’s not around anymore) that was on the brink of radically transforming the future of work. My mind exploded as I consumed all this info about temporarily living out of a suitcase, somewhere in a jungle, and overlooking scenic views while sipping a latte and cranking out creative work. I fell in love with the lifestyle from that day forward and started working on a master plan to redefine my lifestyle. The best part about being a digital nomad is you don’t even have to be abroad to be considered a digital nomad --- you can be one from your backyard.
Shared pain points about being a digital nomad
Like a remote worker, you are on your own with equipment management and how you define your work style. A difference between the two is a digital nomad comes with more sacrifices and risks. Moving around to different countries means you can work crazy hours. If your client /employer is in the U.S., but you’re roaming in Bali, prepare for the 12 hours difference. When you should be sleeping (Bali time), the Western world is waking, and this might require you to align your hours with your clients so you can make important meetings or connections. A digital nomad hack and skill to perfect is becoming a great communicator. Outside of navigating foreign terrain in your makeshift home, you need to make sure you have solid communications skills when it comes to maintaining a stable job. For example, if you and the client can align on work expectations upfront, then it might give you more flexibility, so you don’t have to work a crazy schedule as much. However, you should plan and be prepared to make trade-offs because you don’t want to lose out on a good gig!
The other risks associated with being a digital nomad is your chosen work environment, especially, abroad. It's tricky because it all boils down to your: physical safety, length of stay, your visa situation, housing, mental health, mobility, embassy relations, weather, taxes, travel insurance, cost of living, stable wi-fi & mobile connections etc. (I could write a whole blog about this list lol). Researching your makeshift environment is so important. If you know you’ll need specific amenities to help you work safely, then it's in your best interest to invest in them. I also recommend folks study up on local news, culture and lingo during their stay. You'd be surprised by knowing simple things like learning how to say "hello" or "thank you" in the local language can help you get by with connecting with locals.
Not-so-fun facts about being digital nomad and remote work
On to the not-so-fun subject…TAXES. No one wants to talk about is TAXES! Disclaimer: I'm no tax professional, so please talk to a reputable accountant. When you’re considering a remote gig or being a digital nomad, make sure you understand the tax implications you assume. I’m not going to go into details because tax laws vary, and there are articles and resources that explain this subject better than I can. Another not-so-fun-fact is some employers are not authorized to hire folks from certain U.S. states or countries due to tax reasons. This is impacts remote workers and digital nomads for various reasons. In those instances, ask the employer what you need to do to be brought on board (this should be clear in the initial job posting/contract). For example, this might look like you relocate, so you can work for them. If you’re a digital nomad, it could look like a special visa or a provisional work permit.
Anyway, you slice it, compensation and tax talk is awkward and confusing. Therefore, you must know your value at the table. Also, keep in mind that sometimes it's not always about money. If you can't get the dollar amount you want, what are other things can you negotiate on? What about flexible work arrangements, stock equity, annual bonuses, being a digital nomad, sabbatical, etc.— shoot your shot, because why not? The worst they can say is "No."
Why remote work + being digital nomad gets a bad rap
You’ve heard it, read it, or seen it in pictures, TikTok’s, articles, YouTubes, interviews, etc., that some people do not believe working remotely, nor being a digital nomad is considered “real work.” Believe it or not, some people are more productive and work well remotely, in a hybrid, and/or as a digital nomad. However, I admit it's not for everyone -- some people must learn that the hard way, unfortunately. What I would appreciate is more people be open to the concept and don’t judge those who choose to work remotely or roam digitally because the traditional working norms aren’t for everyone, either.
Our world is different, it’s moving different, and people are working differently because they've had to adapt to a new world. There’s also this running stereotype that everyone who works as a digital nomad is doing so on beautiful beaches or pools worldwide. Now, in real life, there’s probably like a tiny fraction of people doing this, but if you really think about it, who is really sitting in a pool, in the hot sun and working comfortably??? NOT ME. Plus, I wouldn’t dare have my laptop near a large body of water when it could get drenched any time due to rain, pool water or salt water --- it’s not worth it. Digital nomad folks do work from anywhere, and what this usually translates to is a popular coffee spot, meet up location or a co-working space. I like working from the beach but what that means is I’m either in a house on a beach or working at a restaurant/coffee shop where I can hear the waves/catch the scenic views, but I still have stable Wi-Fi and power up stations to crank out creative work. I also enjoy working in downtown cities! People watching at a popular coffee shop is a vibe.
Dispelling digital nomad stereotypes + benefits of a diverse community
There's also this strong perception that digital nomads are only one kind of person. Welp, I'm here to dispel that stereotype as well. While many images across the internet promote one type of person, the digital nomad community is eclectic. The beauty of it all is there are micro-communities within the larger community (and it continues to grow). From Black digital nomads to creative nomads to startup founder digital nomads, you name it --- there's likely a community for you and if you don't see a community for you, start one. It's that simple. Digital nomads are innovators, disruptors, tastemakers, and the ultimate travel hackers with all kinds of quirks in our communities. There's room for everyone and, no, you don't have to break your pockets to live this life.
Digital nomads are some of the most resilient people I know because they're entire journey is filled with calculated and uncalculated risks. I always recommend folks to start connecting into digital community spaces ahead of their travels. There are a ton of digital nomad communities online (most of them are free too) that can answer your most burning nomadic questions. If you’re headed to South Africa and you want recommendations on where to stay, to eat, to chill and connect with other nomads, someone will likely be able to point you in the right direction. If you need a short-term place to stay in the UK, there’s likely someone that can help you with that too! This community grows based on knowledge sharing, kindness, and respect – what you put in is what you get out of it – this is the unspoken rule of being a successful digital nomad.
The future of remote work and digital nomad life
I’m excited that remote work and digital nomad life are here to stay! Whether folks like it or not, I do not see this changing, in fact, I find more people embracing both. What’s also been a driving factor is the economy! At a macro-level, everyone’s pockets are being pinched and the cost-of-living expenses far exceed what people can afford. So, it’s forcing folks to make serious and disruptive lifestyle changes. Plus, the pandemic proved most people can, if they have access to technology, do most jobs or school from their kitchen table or on their back porch.
Most humans can adapt to their surroundings, especially, if we’re forced to. I still recognize it’s not for everyone and that’s okay. However, people and companies need to accept this new normal, especially, if they plan to attract future talent and remain relevant for years to come. At a micro-level, remote work has helped the earth like reducing carbon emissions and lowering waste consumption from major commercial buildings. Some companies have been able to cut hefty lease and office expenses as well as corporate travel expenses. Also, the mental health piece – it’s incredible how much your work environment and surroundings can influence your output and performance. Especially for remote workers, because as more companies attempt to call back their employees into the office, it’s been challenging to prove the value of returning to the office. At home, some families have been able to find better balance between work/life; it’s even led to some cost savings in other areas at home.
By far, the digital nomad lifestyle will continue to evolve and be the most transformative. More countries, especially, across the EU, Asia, and parts of the Caribbean and U.S. are creating ways to attract digital nomads by designing a specialized visa program to live/work. These places are seeing the business value and potential revenue they can gain with digital nomads. As more folks divorce the idea of settling into a home and choose a nomadic, minimalist lifestyle, we’re going to see a major shift.
A movement I’ve been following is the tiny home movement or folks moving into an airstream/RV or car to cut corners on their expenses. Folks are having these moments of clarity and adopting the soft life approach. People see there’s more value to life when we create experiences with the ones we love versus owning physical items and dealing with the stress to manage it all. Folks are also recognizing that life is short so why not live out the life you want, even if that means living out of suitcase solo or with your family or friends. People crave flexibility and freedom to live life on their terms. I’m also looking forward to seeing how other emerging technology will evolve remote work and digital nomad experiences. In particular, I'm watching metaverse and AR/VR trends in how they'll infiltrate the workforce next because it's coming. Or, how will the digital nomad experience evolve in the metaverse?