I have something to say about digital nomads, or rather the phenomenon. I don’t like to generalize, but there’s a certain archetype that really gets under my skin. It’s the freelancing thirty-something who at quarterly intervals migrates to whatever continent has the best beach weather, to build a cool web shop while sipping a tropical cocktail. You can picture the stock images without a Google search. I shouldn’t target certain millennials and their destructive travel habits, being free of student debt myself and happily settled in my low-mortgage house. I used to have a big carbon footprint at one time, but at a time when the environmental impact of flying got a fraction of the airtime it gets now.
It’s all marketing BS that oozes from such stock images. Ever since we had PCs that fit in a briefcase, grinning models sell us the idea that you can work from a deck chair by the pool or on an air mattress inside it, balancing your Compaq or Dell on your lap. It’s called a laptop; that’s where it’s supposed to sit. Sweeping aerial shots of spectacular coastal roads that are supposed to make us want a mid-range hatchback are the same deal.
But hey, if you want to you can create and even present your PowerPoint by the poolside. I never thought I would ever use the phrase ‘thanks to the pandemic’ non-ironically, but management is finally finding out that knowledge workers needn’t spend eight hours in close physical proximity to be productive. Or at least they’re no longer openly hostile of the notion. And hurrah to that. Fast internet is a necessary condition to doing your job, and for some also a sufficient one.
Foreign affairs correspondents and fashion photographers have been trotting the globe for decades. Prone to jet lag myself, I don’t envy that lifestyle one bit. And I’m sure it’s not nearly as carefree as it sounds. Boss or no boss, in the end it’s the work that dictates your next port of call.
How different then to join your team at some drab industrial estate in Slough or Scranton from your boutique hotel in Croatia for the daily Zoom standup. What insane privilege to get paid for working from the same place that is the other guy’s holiday destination! It’s easy to get sold on the idea that this is the best of both worlds. But there’s work mode and holiday mode, and I for one don’t easily switch between the two.
The furthest I ever lived from my native Netherlands was when working as an English teacher for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) at Xianning teacher training college in China (Hubei province). Neither Rough Guide nor Lonely Planet had an entry for that corner of the countryside. Even the nearest major town Wuhan had “little in the way of essential viewing” — something that could only have been written by a blasé travel writer. I was getting the experience of a lifetime, immersing myself in Chinese life and culture. During term time I had neither the time, money, or inclination to travel. I wasn’t on holiday. I went to Wuhan a couple of times for practical stuff. My parents and brother came over midway of the two-year project and treated me to a cross-country trip of the highlights you can’t afford to miss. I couldn’t afford to see them on my allowance from VSO.
The following two years in Edinburgh were the same story, although this time I ended up in one of Europe’s top tourist destinations. My first visit was six years earlier volunteering at a summer holiday project for children from deprived neighborhoods. Wouldn’t it be great to live here, I thought? Six years later I would. Having freshly returned from my Chinese adventure and jobless, I found one with the Edinburgh branch of an international call center. Yes please, sign me up!
But suddenly I wasn’t a visitor anymore. I didn’t catch up on the sights that I had to skip on my earlier visits for lack of time. You tell yourself you’ll do it later, but that’s a delusion, especially when you won’t settle permanently. Even with plenty leeway to arrange your time during the work week, there are always commitments and deadlines. You’re in work mode and work mode doesn’t go well with a piña-colada and a wee paper umbrella.
Besides the psychological difference between work and leisure, working away from home has its own logistical challenges. The deck chair office is a silly and unworkable example, but full-time from a sofa in Starbucks won’t work either. They’re not going to let their entire clientele stay on their WIFI at the rate of two cappuccino’s a day. To do a proper full day of concentrated work you need a sensible office setup with an ergonomic desk and chair, big screen, and not too many disturbing decibels. Any temporary accommodation that ticks those boxes, is going to cost you, especially somewhere popular like Edinburgh. An improvised office at a café can be nice for a few hours a day, but that can only sustain your lifestyle long-term if have a lucrative gig or can afford to live on a shoestring.
Then how about nomad-light? You can go somewhere nice that’s near and still sleep in your own bed. The charming historic city of Maastricht has great museums and good food. My wife and I love it and go there at least a few times a year. Some years ago, before the pandemic, I took a busy commuter train there to work in an even busier office five days a week. The lunchtime strolls were the highlight of my day.
Yet during the last two years I did not hop on the train to transport my home office to a café in one of Maastricht’s leafy, canopied squares. Why not? Because the temptations of leisure mode would seriously mess up my work mode if I wasn’t excited about the work. Let’s be fair, sometimes it isn’t engrossing and there’s the lure of shopping, strolls and a long lunch right under your nose. But if the work is captivating enough, you don’t need an improvement in scenery. You can work from a dank basement and not notice.
It’s a privilege that many knowledge workers can choose where they work. But if you need a regular supply of exhilarating settings to stay motivated, are you still in the right business?