What is a digital nomad? Firstly, it’s a sweet title. More than that, it is perhaps the best example of a new reality in the way we (well, some of us!) work now and will in the future.
Dylan Wolff is a 30 something from Melbourne, Australia, working in backend web development. Dylan works for a design and development company based in the inner suburbs, but he hasn’t been to the office for over 12 months. You see, in a mobile world where we have an amazing array of communication and collaboration tools, being planted at the same desk every day isn’t always necessary.
So when Dylan found out his company didn’t require staff to be physically present each day, he sold almost everything he owned and headed for the airport.
Dylan now travels the world as he chooses, and uses co-working spaces in each city to stay connected to his team. If you work in a collaborative environment you’re probably familiar with efficiency and communication tools like Slack, Trello, Skype, and others. All of these tools allow team members from different corners of the globe to work together efficiently.
“I turned 34 towards the end of 2014 and it was around that time that I came to the realisation that I wasn’t happy with the direction in which my life was headed; I felt like I was living life on easy mode back home in Melbourne and wanted something more. I’d always dreamt of living and working overseas but had accepted that it just wasn’t on the cards for me, until I started reading about the “digital nomad” movement and the fact that it’s possible to develop a skill set that will enable you to travel long term and work from the road.
I started thinking about the things I was interested in and where they intersected with skills I could use to work remotely and came up with web development, so I set about learning to code while working full time. After around ten months I landed my first dev role at Icelab and three months after that I packed up and left Australia for the foreseeable future.”
In 2016 alone, Dylan hit 11 countries and 18 cities around the world, and went back to some places multiple times. Some of his favourite locales over the past year have been Chiang Mai (Thailand), Budapest (Hungary), and of course, New York City.
Destinations are chosen for a host of reasons; the city infrastructure, co-working spaces, cost of living, and of course the speed of the Internet connection. There’s an element of chasing the sun as well; skipping winter means not having to lug heavy coats around.
Speaking of luggage, this is probably the most difficult thing to manage for a professional traveler. I have trouble packing for a week at the beach, I can’t imagine cramming my life into one suitcase for the foreseeable future.
Shockingly, Dylan experimented for 6 months using only a carry-on bag.
“When I first left Australia I travelled with a huge checked suitcase which weighed in at around 28kg, partly because I thought carrying so much stuff would mean I was prepared for any situation I might find myself in, but also because I didn’t want travelling long term to mean I had to limit my wardrobe choices.
As time went by I noticed how little of the stuff I’d been lugging around I’d actually used, and also that no one cares if you wear the same thing two days in a row! So I embarked on an experiment in minimalism and cut down to travelling with carry on luggage only and it was a huge eye opener; after years of pretty rampant consumerism back home it finally became obvious to me how little stuff I actually need in order to be happy, healthy and productive.”
There’s a lot we take for granted when we’re based in one spot. Our cost of living is relatively affordable when you factor in long term rental accommodation, the ability to shop at the supermarket, and being able to cook large meals (with a fully stocked and functioning kitchen).
But when you’re moving from city to city each week or each month, some of those conveniences simply aren’t an option. Airbnb makes the travelling lifestyle easier and more affordable, but some of those comforts we’re all used to quickly disappear from reality.
“With each move to a new city the process of getting settled gets easier but it still takes me time to get into a routine where I can be productive.
Working full time for a company back home means I don’t have the luxury of taking an additional day to get organised in a new place if I’ve had a particularly long or tiring flight or whatever, I have to be able to hit the ground running.”
There are other complications too. Like to stay fit? Getting (affordable) gym memberships or playing most sports are out of the question. Try getting medical treatment in South Korea.
“Something else I’ve found really difficult in some cities is eating well and staying healthy. I don’t cook (I eat out for every meal) and finding light, nutritious options in some places has been pretty tough, particularly in Budapest where it seemed most of the to go options were part of the “kebab, burger or pizza” family.”
But those things are balanced out against the experience of travelling the world with a secure job and regular income. Add to that the ability to stay connected every day with your co-workers, and this is an attractive lifestyle for an increasing number of people.
Far from being alone, Dylan has found a large community of location-independent creatives who have roles across a range of industries. Somewhat like backpacking, they share stories of their favourite places, or which city has the best coffee or the best environment for working. Friendships are formed, and often schedules are synced for a future trip (later this year Dylan heads to Marrakesh, Morocco for a holiday with a group of mates he met at a coworking space).
“To this day I keep in touch with people I met in my first weeks in Chiang Mai back in January last year, some of whom I’ll be living with in Marrakesh and others I’ll be catching up with in the US later this year.
The people I’ve met over the last year have such varied professions that it makes me think that it’s viable to work remotely doing just about anything that doesn’t require you to be physically present.
These jobs are of course skewed towards those that have always been part of the digital space (like web development & design, social media management, and copywriting) but also some that have traditionally required a face to face presence with clients like accounting, management consulting, and personal training.”
Obviously this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Some of us have trouble staying focused working from home one or two days a month. So what’s the key to staying focused when you have a brand new city to explore every month?
“In my previous role I travelled on business most weeks and would often go up to a month without seeing my colleagues in person so that definitely prepared me well for working the way I do now.
As long as I know where I can find a local SIM card (usually before I leave the airport), a supermarket, and a couple of options for places to work from I know I can figure the rest out as I go.”
So what’s on the menu for 2017? After a rare couple of weeks back in Australia, Dylan will be speaking at a conference in the Philippines before heading back to Chiang Mai. Spring in Budapest opens up normally frozen climates of Latvia and Estonia, before some planned R&R in the midwest of USA.
Will we all be digital nomads in the future? No, but i think a culture of international collaboration will become more common, especially in industries where the local talent pool may not match specific needs. Why do companies restrict their hiring to employees who can be physically present each day? In the future we may see a truly global workforce, increasing opportunities for everyone.