Digital nomads are up 131% over 2019. Will this trend prevail in a tough economy?

In late 2022, Airbnb unveiled a new digital nomad policy, allowing employees to work temporarily in more than 170 countries. Citing the belief that flexible and remote work will continue to gain traction, CEO Brian Chesky said the policy will allow the company to hire top talent from around the world.

The data certainly shows that Airbnb is on to something.

A report by MBO Partners found that nearly 17 million Americans identified as digital nomads in 2022, a 131% increase from 2019.

And it’s not just freelancers and independent contractors. The ranks of digital nomads with traditional employment have more than tripled since 2019, now making up 66% of all digital nomads. These highly skilled individuals work in a variety of industries, the most common of which include information technology, creative services, sales, marketing, and consulting.

Will the digital nomad trend prevail in the economic downturn?

Supporters of telecommuting and digital nomadism are confident the trend will continue even amid an economic downturn and more companies (like Disney and Starbucks) forcing people back into the office.

“At the worst of the economy, we’ve still seen an increase in digital nomadism, particularly among those who are highly skilled,” said Dr Rochelle Haynes, CEO of Crowd Sourcing Consulting and head of research at the Future of Work Association. Dr. Haynes is currently partnering with Barbados to help create the necessary infrastructure to attract and effectively engage digital nomads.

Companies that fail to fit digital nomads into their future talent strategies may lose some highly skilled employees, she notes. “Talent is moving in that direction and companies need to pay attention.” We’re seeing more people choosing to resign and look for other opportunities because they’re rethinking their work-life balance and work experience.”

What’s more, in a time of astonishingly low employee engagement, research shows that 81% of digital nomads are very satisfied with their work and lifestyle, compared to 68% of non-digital nomads. This satisfaction is the key to unlocking the discretionary effort that makes an outstanding, motivated employee.

Easing the way for more digital nomads

Of course, digital nomad policy involves much more than laying off employees from a particular city, region or country. Among the main concerns for companies, says Dr. Haynes, are tax, information security and compliance issues.

“However, remote people management is getting better at offering services that remove these concerns from companies,” says Dr Haynes. “There are now services and apps available for every aspect of the remote work process, such as cross-border health insurance and dealing with taxes.”

States are also joining in by taking steps to smooth the way. As of early 2022, more than 50 countries offer digital nomad visas, including locations around the world such as Spain, Germany, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Barbados, and Norway. In comparison, in 2020 only one digital nomad visa was available worldwide (from Barbados).

Why do these countries care about attracting digital nomads? “Governments at all levels are realizing that digital nomads spend more money than short-stay tourists, reduce the burden on public services, create jobs for local residents – and even start local businesses,” the MBO Partners report said.

Companies are also concerned about connecting and collaborating with digital nomads, although Dr Haynes points out that this is no different than how companies should approach the average telecommuter coming in from home. “There are project management systems and tools that make it easier to build these strong relationships, and managers also need to be trained to work remotely,” she says, adding that time differences can be addressed with asynchronous communication methods, setting expectations on response time and priority channels to help establish time zones and preferred working hours of team members.

Airbnb addresses the connection problem by planning strategic in-person gatherings throughout the year designed to bring all employees—including digital nomads—together to collaborate and build culture. This is exactly how my company, Centric Consulting, approaches building strong relationships and a vibrant culture as a distance-oriented organization.

Where is digital nomadism going?

As a researcher on the future of work and digital nomadism, Dr. Haynes has tons of data available on the trend and where it’s headed. Her message: Digital nomadism isn’t going anywhere, and companies would be wise to consider adopting digital nomad policies to continue attracting highly skilled professionals.

“If employees want to work remotely from around the world, they will find the options that allow them to do so,” she says. “At the same time, countries will seek to establish centralized hubs to look after the welfare, attraction and accommodation of digital nomads. We will see more countries improve their digital nomad policies, not only by working with people like me to ensure they have the right infrastructure in place, but also by partnering directly with companies to bring some of their workforce to their shores. “

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