With our winter office up and running in Cape Town (don’t remember hearing about this? It’s okay, here’s a refresher), we’ve kept busy researching remote work, especially in its newest form: digital nomadism.

Digital nomadism – or the practice of working remotely in a low cost destination and being location independent – is increasing exponentially. In 2016, it is estimated that there were approximately 500,000 digital nomads. If this growth continues, by 2036 the number is projected to be close to 1 billion people.

So you get what a big trend this is, but what are the perks of uprooting your personal and work life to embark on this type of remote venture?


Behold the benefits…

According to ‘One Way Ticket’, the first documentary to track the growth of digital nomads, one of the core reasons for people choosing to become digital nomads is the overpriced cost of living in urban cities like London, Los Angeles or Paris. So in response, many young workers take their laptops and work where their wages can go further.

Not only does being a digital nomad appeal to those on a budget, but it also meets the unconventional employment needs of many Millenials. Reid Hoffman, founder of Linkedin, argues that digital nomadism complements the new era of work: the ‘gig economy’. Young professionals are more likely to bring their substantial technological skills to multiple jobs, in multiple places, and feel able to bring their extensive networks together across positions.

A Harvard study even found that the most successful digital nomads were entrepreneurs or self-employed professionals, with significantly developed skills in tech, business and finance. These people tend to use the digital nomad experience to focus on work more effectively (without the typical office distractions) and leverage their new surroundings to inspire more creative thinking. Definitely something to look into, right?

…but what about the risks?

Naturally, this phenomenon has not been devoid of challenges and criticism. The typical Instagram post showing digital nomads working from a hammock has significant staying power in employers’ minds and doesn’t convince them that digital nomads do in fact work just as hard as non-remote workers.

Even more problematic are the short and long-term effects for the communities on the ground. Criticism has already sprung up in the digital nomad community itself, and despite it being a new and understudied trend, there are vocal and legitimate concerns.  

Let’s look at the following: if there is a massive inflow of expats to a certain community, the locals can easily and quickly be priced out of their own neighborhood. With foreign wages going much further in places like Ho Chi Minh City or Medellín, they also carry more weight in determining which businesses stay and which go (think of the latest trends: more upscale vegan restaurants and yoga studios, less mom and pop shops to meet the average person’s needs). Everyone loves their avocado toast, right?

The same applies to the real estate market, when the “best kept secret” turns into a foreigner’s cluster with special amenities such as pools and intensified electrical grids, suddenly locals can’t afford entire areas. Not to mention the strain these amenities will put on local infrastructure.

WeWork - Wan Chai
WeWork – Wan Chai

Beyond this, according to Medium, digital nomads have increasing power to damage the economic development of communities by (mis)characterizing their home of choice, contrary to the desires of the inhabitants.

For example, in the case of Chiang Mai, the Thai government invested in plans to brand the city as a creative hub for Thai industries and sectors, with a focus on sustainable economic development. These efforts are actively undermined by digital nomads branding the place as a hub for Expats with a focus on short-term business ventures. Naturally, the market will follow those trends, which will in turn take a different direction than the one preferred by the country itself.  

So, knowing the benefits as well as the potential risks, what can a single digital nomad do to counteract this rather large-scale development?

99pathways to make a change

(Okay so we’ve come up with slightly less than 99… but share your tips below and together we’ll get there!)

  1.     Respect and plan for limited local resources

Every country faces unique challenges, so inform yourself and plan accordingly. For example, at 99chairs, we are acutely aware of the drought precautions in the Cape region and tick off as many water saving tips on our list as we can (Like saving leftover shower water to use for flushing, since one flush can use up to 7 gallons of water!)

  1. Explore sustainably

Try using guides that have a more down-to-earth approach and genuinely want you to connect with the local culture. Some examples are the Bradt Travel Guides and Responsible Traveling. Airbnb’s Social Impact experiences are also an amazing opportunity because they offer trips and adventures that fund social projects. We went penguin paddling knowing that the full amount we spent flows back into local nature preservation – how much more fun is this?

  1. Eat local

You can support small family run restaurants (rather than resorts or 4-star expat only enclaves) or even enjoy the new-ish trend of dining in people’s homes, opening up a whole new world for you to discover. Check out the Cuban example or try out the EatWith App.

By eating local grains/meats/produce you also put less strain on land and water use in farming, supporting the local food markets.

  1. Minimize that carbon footprint

Buy carbon credits for your flights to reduce your emissions from all the long-haul flights and weekend island hopping. Delta and JetBlue have an automated program for this.

  1. Be part of a helpful network

Engage in the critical discussions going on in the Digital Nomad sphere. Check out these informative pieces and engage in the discourse: The Digital Nomad Deception, The Harvard Study on Digital Nomadism, Language hacking ≠ Language Love, and keep on eye on  Future Travel.

Adobe HQ

Author: Jenny & Aissa | People Operations & Workplace Culture @99chairs

Bilder: Steven en Diana Zwerink, Pexel, Officesnapshots



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