Pierre Herubel & Hélio Brun-Nicouleau

22 August 2019

The digitalization of the world economy has led to the emergence of new lifestyles and new professional practices. At the forefront of this modernity, digital nomadism offers the opportunity for a real redefinition of the relationship with work.

In recent years, the phenomenon of “digital nomads” attracts more and more followers. Placed in a more general context with the reform of the world of work, where flexibility and immediacy have become cardinal virtues, this condition is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among citizens of countries with a service-oriented economy, such as Switzerland or the United States.

But what exactly is a digital nomad? Between dreams of escape and risks of isolation, digital lifestyle decrypts the facets of this new way of working and living. The term “Digital Nomad” should not be confused with expatriates or remote workers. It refers to people who rely on computer technologies and networks to work while traveling, getting on with their job and communicating with their customers, suppliers or employers in the same manner, no matter where they are.

The first to be called a “digital nomad” in the literature was Steve K. Roberts, who traveled across the United States on a computerized recumbent bike, the now-legendary Winnebiko. This bicycle, which was custom-made by himself, allowed him to travel the roads while storing the energy needed for his Radio Shack Model 100, his laptop, which is now part of vintage collections.

Following the example of this pioneer, thousands of people today try to reconcile the traditional antagonism between work and travel. Taking advantage of tourist visas or WHP (Working Holiday Program), they prefer to settle for some time in countries where life is good and whose infrastructure adapt by creating coworking spaces to accommodate them, as in the Medellín hub in Colombia or the one in Chiang Mai in Thailand, one of the largest hubs in the world.

We met some residents of Chiang Mai’s “digital nomad” hub. Most of them are bloggers, web developers, graphic designers, translators, online marketers or virtual assistants. They are usually freelancers, and sometimes also employees of international companies.

For example, we had the opportunity to question Guillaume during his visit to Thailand during which he traveled to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ko Lan, Koh Samui and Koh Tao in the space of a month and a half. For the past two years, he has been managing around ten developers for a US transport company remotely and he describes his experience to be both exceptional and challenging.

Guillaume spontaneously listed the main advantages of such a lifestyle, and also drew attention to the difficulties encountered. For him, just as for all his fellow Nomads, the main advantage lies in freedom. Freedom to travel, to change, to leave, to stay and to choose where they live and work all the time. Above all, digital nomads seek to escape or avoid big cities full of stress, routines and traffic jams: the famous all work and no play routine. Second comes discovering the world, which is no longer limited to annual leave. For him, each new move offers an opportunity to start from scratch, to rediscover a country, a culture and a language.

For some, such a lifestyle also helps to arrange their working time at their own pace while remaining productive. For Guillaume, like many, this freedom finds its limits in the issues related to the time difference of the country where his clients and his teams reside, with whom he must remain in constant contact. Guillaume thus addressed the setbacks of this nomadic life.

It is not a question of constant vacations, but a lifestyle in itself, which requires a lot of willpower and a great adaptability. Necessary qualities, but not sufficient. To get started, it is essential to prepare ahead: taking out insurance, saving for contingencies, finding a secure source of income with regular work and especially conditioning oneself emotionally. Away from their family and loved ones, they must face a rather unstable social life, between isolation and meetings with “limited duration”. So, the reality is often more complex than it appears. Often idealized, especially through social networks, this lifestyle gives rise to many questions.

Losing a place in the world of traditional work forces these men and women to seek a meaning that they cannot find in the sedentary lifestyle elsewhere. Indeed, this search for meaning is a major driver for these pioneers, where selffulfillment clearly overrides traditional career plans.

Paradoxically, in this desire to emancipate themselves from the megalopolises and constraints of modern life, the digital nomad is entirely based on technology, which allows them to make the link with the original freedom of nomadism.

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