The day of the digital nomad - why organizational implications accompany the 'anywhere worker'

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 11, 2022
‘Anywhere workers’ have emerged as a new kind of digital nomad category. But while many employees are keen to give this kind of lifestyle choice a go, employers really do need to weigh up the risks.

digital nomad

A new form of digital nomad has emerged since the start of the pandemic: so-called ‘anywhere workers’.

Identified as a separate category by travel guide publisher Lonely Planet after conducting a global survey among more than 1,400 people, this group is less about young, solo freelancers with a laptop and a WiFi connection continually moving around from place to place. Instead the term tends to describe older employees and people with families who choose to take advantage of long-term and digital nomad visas.

Their average profile is that of a 24-to-44 year old (70% of the total questioned) who works full-time (61%). While there are slightly more men (56%) than women (44%) living the dream, just under half are married (45%) and 70% consist of parents taking their families around with them as they move.

When compared with their digital nomad cousins, they tend to stay in individual locations for longer, often three months or more (55%), to better experience the local culture. The most popular destinations to date include Thailand, Spain, Japan, Portugal and the US, particularly for domestic workers.

As for digital nomads in the wider sense, there are now apparently 15.5 million of them worldwide. About 19% work in IT, 10% in creative services and 9% in education and training, with just over a third employed by a particular organisation, 28% being freelancers and 18% business owners.

Over the next two to three years though, around 24 million Americans alone are expected to embrace this lifestyle, with another 41 million considering whether to do so too, an increase of 20% since 2020.

Why now?

So, all in all, the trend seems clear – the digital nomad approach, which includes anywhere working, is only set to grow over the next few years, especially in the tech sector. As to why anywhere working is emerging as a phenomenon now though, it appears to be an offshoot of the remote working situation imposed on knowledge workers during lockdown, says Samantha Owen, a Senior Employment Solicitor at Harper James Solicitors:

The concept of working from anywhere has grown organically from the time people were plunged into working from home due to COVID. Many employers didn’t always know where their employees were and whether they’d gone to live in second homes, for example. But now that travel is back and businesses are deciding on more permanent flexible working models, everything’s up for discussion. And employees are thinking ‘if I could work where I wanted to during COVID, why can’t I do it now?’ So anywhere working makes total sense from an employee point of view.

But the same is not always true from an employer’s perspective, although there are definite advantages. Anna Richardson, Vice President of HR at cloud-based data management platform provider Aiven, explains:

To be competitive in a global war for talent, we have to set ourselves apart. We’re competing against the big players, so we have to have a differentiator and we see that as being our ‘work from anywhere’ approach. It’s a key part of our talent, employee experience and retention strategy as the whole premise is to treat staff as adults so they have the freedom and autonomy to chose a setting that works best for them.

But there are other benefits too. As Emoke Starr, Vice President of People at data integration platform provider Onna, points out, not only has this approach opened up a wider talent pool in geographic terms for the company to fish in, but it can also be good for employee’s wellbeing too:

Having the freedom to be where you want to be gives people the opportunity to really live their lives. One of the key reasons for burnout is having too little time to do the things that make you happy outside of work, so it’s about living a more complete life.

Understanding the risks and challenges

But going down this route also presents a number of risks and challenges too. The biggest relates to the fact that employment and tax law is very different throughout the world.

For instance, says Owen, depending on how many days per year an individual resides outside of their own country, they could become subject to tax and social security payments not just at home but abroad too. As there is no international standard here, the number of days varies from country to country.

This situation became a challenge for Onna when one of its employees decided to travel and rent Airbnb properties, and another opted to live in a camper van. The situation was resolved when the former agreed to maintain their legal residence in New York for tax purposes, but in the latter case, they made the choice to leave.

What this means, says Owen, is that doing your research and, as an employer, establishing upfront who pays what, particularly in the case of high earners, is vital.

But the same kinds of issues also apply to employment law and the variable length of time it takes for a given employee to accrue employment rights in a new country of residence. As Owen indicates:

In the UK, for example, you can claim unfair dismissal after two years but that’s not true elsewhere. So employers may think UK law applies as they employed someone there, but they could still potentially sue you from Spain or wherever they’re living, particularly if the laws are more favourable there. When you allow someone to work abroad, you don’t automatically think about that, but it’s a grey area and there are no hard and fast rules.

For some organizations in regulated fields, such as financial services, however, it may even be necessary to check with the industry regulator to see if a given role is licensed to work overseas. The same applies to data processors, who could end up being in breach of local data protection laws. As Owen says:

The problem is that people don’t appreciate how complex this area is. So if someone’s a good, loyal member of staff and say they want to live in the South of France for a while, you’d probably just say ‘yes’ without thinking about the risks. Why wouldn’t you as the risks don’t immediately jump out. But there is sufficient risk there to take it really seriously, think about it and ensure you take good advice. Think through the risks you’re prepared to take and whether you can accept them - and if you can’t, absolutely don’t do it as it can end in dispute.

How to mitigate risks and deal with challenges

As to what can be done to mitigate these risks, Owen recommends undertaking a risk assessment and creating a clear policy to “put parameters around them”, not least to prevent anyone feeling discriminated against. This policy, which should include appropriate processes to follow, might include requiring individuals to have a clean disciplinary record before embarking on anywhere working. It might also cap the number of days per year they are permitted to work abroad and limit them to certain time zones to ensure it is easy to talk to colleagues.

But there are other considerations too. For instance, Starr believes that establishing clear of communication is vital:

It’s about being very intentional in providing clarity of business strategy and what success looks like for each individual based on that. But we’ve also introduced rules of engagement due to the time zones [the workforce of 400 is mainly centered in San Francisco, North Carolina and Barcelona, Spain] in which we work, which means there are only four hours we can count on overlapping for meetings. Not everyone loves their working hours but in a broader context, they’d rather have a meeting scheduled in for between 4-7pm than having something introduced into their calendar at the last moment.

To avoid pointless meetings, however, each is required to have an owner, an agenda and clear outcomes. Every team member is also required to document what they did that day, why they did it and anything else colleagues working across different time zones may need to know to be able to get on with their own tasks without having to wait around.

Moreover, says Richardson, the repetition of key issues, such as company goals, vision and product roadmap, across “a range of different messages and channels”, is vital to encourage engagement and a feeling of purpose. She adds:

There’s not a huge difference between managing remote and anywhere workers, although anywhere workers may experience particular issues around loneliness and mental health, which is something to be mindful of. People who work remotely often have support networks around them, but there may not be the same checks and balances in place if they move around a lot. It was certainly a driver behind introducing our employee assistance plan to ensure we could offer support 24x7.

My take

The idea of the ‘anywhere worker’ is still a new concept for most employers, which means that while some are choosing to give it a go, others are steering well clear over fears of the approach being too risky. As a result, while interest in this lifestyle may be rising rapidly among staff, only time will tell whether it becomes an established flexible working norm or simply a short-lived flash in the pan.

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