It’s been more than two decades since the term ‘digital nomad’ entered the lexicon. In the time since, people have shown they have a lot of imagination when it comes to their remote work-enabled lifestyles. Some stay in one place and lead an otherwise normal life while others use the flexibility of remote work to travel continuously, or at least regularly. As a result, the world of remote work has become a diverse ecosystem where people have varying degrees of commitment and availability, as well as a broad array of purposes for working remotely.
This doesn’t mean that remote workers are on a spectrum of good and bad. Instead, it means different types of remote workers can bring value to your business in different ways. As someone who has experienced remote work in many varieties and as the CEO of a remote company training people for remote careers, I can’t stress enough the importance of understanding the nuance of remote work before you make a hiring decision.
Whether you are scaling your business for the first time, rebuilding after scaling back, or just in need of short-term help on a project, your hiring need can likely be addressed through remote work. But hiring a digital nomad, a full-time remote worker, or a hybrid worker each comes with a different set of expectations and outcomes.
Let’s take some time to understand more about each type of remote worker so you can make the best possible decision for your team to be more effective.
Digital nomads are remote workers who prioritize travel and experiencing new places. While some nomads spend a few months in a given location before going somewhere new, others travel more frequently. When I was a digital nomad in southeast Asia, I would spend about three weeks living and working in a new place, and then spend a week traveling in the area before moving to a new place to re-establish myself again for three weeks of work.
As much as I’d recommend this experience to anyone who has the opportunity, it’s not sustainable for an indefinite period of time. It’s challenging starting life from scratch so frequently. Not only do you need to find a space to work - somewhere with good wifi - but you also need to find where and how to live every single time you move. The challenge is even greater when you consider that digital nomads often look for places that are off the beaten path. This means they’ll be in scenic and desirable locations, and in many cases, places that don’t have a good internet connection.
The energy it takes to do all of these things inevitably has an impact on productivity. Bear in mind, a lot of digital nomads are not primarily motivated by their careers but rather simply want to work enough to be able to fund their travel. Many digital nomads take on flexible project arrangements, allowing them to take breaks from work as their plans permit.
There are surely some exceptions, but it’s hard for most people to sustain this lifestyle for more than a year or two. As human beings, we do need routine and habits, in both work and life outside of work. Digital nomads sometimes go back to their old lives once they’ve had enough of the lifestyle. Some end up moving more permanently to one of the countries they visited as nomads.
Many people who apply to work at companies as remote workers think this means they can become digital nomads. Employers often worry (and rightly so) about hiring digital nomads because they don’t know how productive they will be. Some digital nomads also have the added challenge of working for multiple businesses simultaneously.
Digital nomads can be a great way to get help on short-term projects or in a freelance capacity. For longer-term hires, it’s important for employers to understand the intentions of the remote workers they hire, even if your company has a culture of flexibility.
A full-time remote worker is somebody who simply works from a different location than where the business is primarily based. Whereas a digital nomad moves around frequently, most full-time remote workers tend to stay in the same location.
Full-time remote workers have the flexibility of working from home, a co-working space or even a café or library. Otherwise, their life stays consistently in the same place for most of the year. Like most workers, they might spend a few weeks out of the year on vacation somewhere. On occasion, they might even take advantage of the flexibility their company allows and work a full month from a different location.
Unlike nomads, remote workers don’t have the burden of changing location on a near-constant basis - which also includes the everyday commute for office workers. The time and energy saved gives remote workers a great deal of focus, often even more than office workers. This is because their habits are built around a situation and lifestyle that they chose, which normally makes them better equipped to do their best work, not to mention healthier, happier and more likely to stay in their jobs longer. Remote workers also tend to work for a single company, unlike digital nomads who tend to juggle projects with multiple employers.
On the employer side, it’s a great bet. As I’ve discussed before, remote workers and remote teams tend to be more productive and resilient than other workers. It’s because remote workers are accustomed to creating a work situation that allows them to be their most productive. In other words, since remote workers are constantly optimizing their work habits, they’re far more likely than typical office workers to be able to adapt at any challenge that may come.
Hybrid workers tend to work for one company full-time and split their time living and working from different places. In many cases, this creates advantages for the employers, especially when the location changes are strategic and coincide with the needs of the company, such as onboarding a new key hire or raising money.
In my case, my wife and I have spent the past two years splitting our time between San Francisco, where we mostly live, El Salvador, where my wife’s family lives, Argentina, where half of my family lives, and Spain, where the other half of my family lives.
This has given us the opportunity to live where we are the happiest and also base our travel on our needs of any given month. Of course, there is some loss of productivity that comes with every change of location, but since that only happens a few times per year (and since we go back to the same places), the loss of productivity is minimal over the long term. Plus, people who follow this kind of pattern are often more productive since they live in a way that helps them become their best selves.
I want to stress that hiring someone with any kind of remote work experience will prove valuable. As I’ve worked in almost every conceivable arrangement of remote work - including as a digital nomad - I’ve learned to be flexible and developed an ability to adapt to different work environments.
When I’m hiring new team members, I tend to look for people who share this characteristic. It makes our team more resilient to challenging circumstances, better collaborators and more likely to solve problems to move our business forward. This is an important part of our vision at Microverse for the future of work and learning. And it’s a reason Microverse graduates always seem ready to handle different circumstances that life throws at them.
The coronavirus pandemic has given companies the opportunity to rebuild and scale in a way that’s smarter and more flexible. It’s time for business leaders to explore how their teams can evolve through remote workers.
Have a question or an opinion about remote workers or digital nomads, or are you looking for guidance for rebuilding your team? Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter @microverseinc and @arielcamus. And to learn more about Microverse, head here.