Digital nomad: the end of an era

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This is a harsh critique of the digital nomad model and what will be the collapse of the remote 100% model. It is easy to anticipate this scenario and anyone who has doubts should read this article - and certainly comment and debate it.

I've written a bit about remote work, the benefits of going to the office, earning dollars as a contractor for an offshore company, and other articles that I invite you to read if you want to get a broader view of my perspective on the matter.

There is a lot of talk about telework and hybrid work. We discuss all the time about new work models and, moreover, in the world of technology there is discussion about the sense of even going back to the office. But there is little talk about the risks involved in remote work and the culture of the digital nomad. So, a little reality and business pragmatism that may just change your perspective on the utopian future.

What is flexible remote work?

A woman uses her laptop on what appears to be the beach.

For the context of this article, flexible remote work is work that can be performed without the need for a work area to be assigned. It is important to clarify that not all remote work is flexible, for example, a person dedicated to the promotion and sale of medicines makes constant visits to doctors and staff of health companies and that makes his work remote. However, he does not have the freedom to perform his work anywhere. The same goes for people working in freight transportation - they drive a delivery truck or even airline pilots.

The flexible remote working means that the work entrusted does not depend at all on the place where it is performed. There we have a large part of the tasks in the world of technology. Programming (coding software), testing, maintenance and operation of services and technological infrastructure in the cloud.

Remote work and digital nomads

Flexible remote work has managed to overcome many barriers and today represents a real opportunity for companies and individuals. This has many advantages, among them:

  1. Accessing talent with skills and abilities that are scarce in your territory - where you are used to operating and having talent
  2. Maintaining operations or work at lower costs - accessing cheaper talent markets
  3. Build 24-hour working mechanisms just by modifying the time zone of the assigned persons

On the other hand, some benefits are available to individuals:

  1. Better compensation for work performed
  2. More job offers - as long as you are fluent in the language of the market you are targeting.
  3. The ability to work from anywhere - as long as you can access the tools of the trade. Those who take this benefit seriously and travel all the time while working are called "digital nomads".

But if there are so many advantages, why is it doomed to fail? Easy, here's why.

The utopian future of the digital nomad

Utopia of digital nomads - photo of a perfect world by Johnny Cohen

To understand the biggest problem with the model, let's think about what it posits as a perfect future. If the model works, and it is as perfect as some propose, it means that anyone capable of accessing flexible remote work - don't forget to see the definition above - should be able to work from anywhere.

For this future to be realized, you must keep in mind that:

  1. You must learn the language of the company hiring your services - today it's English for almost 100% of remote tech jobs (there are exceptions in Europe), but for this side of the world, Uncle Sam rules the market.
  2. Mobility restrictions between countries should not exist - i.e., you should be able to travel to any country to work - and keep in mind that this is not the same as traveling for tourism.

The first point depends 100% on you, the second is not solved for citizens of some countries. This greatly affects citizens of third world countries. This second point is much more complex and the reason is simple. If the only thing that separates me between a poor or developing country and a "rich" country is a plane, I could work anywhere. Can I live the same earning and spending in dollars? Probably not. So it doesn't make much sense.

Visas for digital nomads

Image of a passport with stamps in reference to the digital nomads.

However, it is prudent to mention that there is a whole movement to legalize this mobility through the so called "...".visas for digital nomads".

A digital nomad visa or, in some cases, a temporary residence permit allows a visitor the right to stay in a country and work remotely for an employer or company based abroad. These visas usually last for 12 months and can be extended for one or more years depending on the issuing country.

These digital nomad visas are not for everyone; there will continue to be a large contingent of digital nomads on tourist visas because it is more cost-effective or because they do not need a long-stay visa.

Problems with the nomadic 100% model

I could go on and on explaining many concepts about work, remote work, flexibility, work privileges, the support of nations to digital nomads - transportation systems, health, housing, education and, well, everything that comes with mass migration of people. But let's get down to business.

1. Work dynamics of the digital nomad

Imagine you are a lucky person, you speak fluent English, you know technology, you are good at what you do and a company abroad contacts you to pay you in dollars. BINGO! You have a great opportunity. Surely a very good one.

First possibility: exceptional person

A few months or maybe a couple of years later you aspire to something better, you know the market and have been offered to relocate to the company's home country. You move and the benefit of the differential between your currency and the foreign currency is lost in an instant. You are no longer a cheap "resource". Now the company wonders if it can keep looking for people outside the country or is it really worth relocating you. It will be able to do so with those exceptional people, but not with all of them. Even those with good qualities.

Second possibility: fierce competition between companies

A few months or maybe a couple of years later several companies have seen your profile and you are subject to many good, competitive offers and the temptation to move and look for a change is very high.

Third possibility: absolute boredom

Months or years go by and you keep on doing the same thing. Nothing changes, your work is now monotonous and what you used to do with dedication is now deeply boring.

Of course there are more possibilities, but these are the simple ones. It would be interesting, for example, if you have led a work outsourcing and today you lead a company or a team of people and, beyond the money, you have built an exceptional work environment. But, let's not lie to ourselves, these are very rare cases.

Scaling the model breaks the digital nomad's benefits

Well, now imagine that everyone wants to do the same thing. Change countries, or move between jobs to ensure that their income is always the best they can access. Here are the truths of the model that digital nomads promulgate.

  1. It is only wonderful if there are few digital nomads.
  2. If everyone wants to migrate or move, it makes it very complex for companies to grow their equipment - so it is doomed or limited to small or medium-sized companies.
  3. If everyone is "listening for offers", people within that market are globally recognized as volatile. If you work for a company that offers you projects in other countries, can you say that unexpected staff turnover - known as attrition - is high or low? Do you know people who have accepted offers only to resign within a few months or even a few weeks?

Still in doubt, I leave you with this reflection.

Perspective exercise on the digital nomad

group of people using laptop computer

If you work in this industry and believe that the model is infallible, I invite you to perform the following exercise on remote work thinking.

I am going to suppose that you are a person working in a Latin American country - let's say Ecuador, and you have decided to grow your income. Instead of working as a programmer you are going to take 3 or 4 jobs and subcontract 3 or 4 programmers like you and you just intermediate.

What should be accomplished for this to work? Think about it for a few minutes before continuing.

Why hire remote workers?

Here are some of the reasons why your idea would work.

  1. You should charge more than you pay for your subcontractors. That is, part of the key is that companies are willing to pay X amount of money for your services, and you can pay a little less than that to delegate that work.
  2. The difference between what you get and what you pay should be enough to keep you motivated and not so much as to complicate your work. What is the point of delegating a task if you are going to have to work as hard or harder coordinating that one person?
  3. The people you use to delegate should stay long enough to avoid attrition by "re-explaining" the work to be done or even affecting the perception or quality of your work - this would impact your image and could affect your future projects.
  4. Although the location of the people is not fundamental, you need them to be located in geographical areas where the time difference does not demand too much or complicate coordination. You also don't want these people to move to more expensive places or countries because, obviously, they will ask you for more money.

I could make a list of 1000 things, but I think the point is clear. Being a 100% digital nomad can only work if the project is small or uncritical, or if you are part of a team with which you can compensate for the shortcomings of being on the road.

It is also not interesting in the long term. It might be fun for a few weeks or months, but not in the long term because who wants to travel to a place where they are going to have a hard time. It doesn't make sense. The digital nomad person, is picky about his destinations.

The digital nomad scale model is doomed to fail. However, flexible remote and hybrid work can offer some degree of mobility that rescues a sense of the free spirit.

Digital nomad, no. Remote or hybrid work, yes.

Well, although there are very successful digital nomads - in their model - and happy in their journey. They are and will be exceptional cases within a competitive market dynamics and in search of cost efficiencies.

You may be a digital nomad within the same country - that's quite feasible. You may be a digital nomad in a region where the flow of people working is allowed - like the European Union.

Surely, there are more first world digital nomads living in "cheaper" countries and places than the other way around. The model does not compensate.

If you want the benefits of remote and flexible work to last over time, stop thinking that you can leave for 3 or 4 months to work in another country. At the very least, abandon that idea if at the same time you want the benefits of a stable job with benefits. You should limit these aspirations to working in startups or - surely irresponsible - companies abroad.

Any company that takes care of its employees will limit such travel - in quantity, distance and duration. The company's responsibility is to take care of its employees. Pay the taxes and additional costs of keeping a "full-fledged" person. If you don't have that, well, the company probably doesn't care much about where you work from.

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Alberto Dominguez
Alberto Dominguez

Leading teams from theory to real and sustainable delivery of innovative IT products and services.

Articles: 38

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