Pandemic grounds expats enjoying the digitally nomadic lifestyle

But will more remote working create new opportunities for aspiring expats?

COVID has brought thousands of digital nomads back home. Ironically, the pandemic has never made it so easy to manage a career remotely. So, what’s next for the future of Australia’s globe-trotting digital nomads?

Prior to the pandemic, Bridget John had spent six years managing her business interests and life across home bases in Australia, France and Morocco. From a laptop, and provided there was good internet connectivity, she could operate both her brand consulting business plus her vintage Moroccan rug business, on long-term travel stays or visits home.

After setting up a new home in Marrakech in 2019, a ‘quick trip’ back to Melbourne to visit family in early 2020 changed all this. Stuck in lock-down with her parents, Bridget soon realised that her safest option in a pandemic was to stay put in Australia and pivot her life and business back home.

The rise of the expat as a digital nomad

According to the Washington Post, one of the first mentions of the term ‘digital nomad’ was penned over 20 years ago by Japanese technologist Tsugio Makimoto, yet it has really been inside the last ten years that the movement has started to really build in momentum. Tech Monitor analysed google searches for the term which shows steady growth since 2014. In recent years, shared working spaces have been popping up in places like Chang Mai in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia, to cater for global digital nomads chasing a ‘life by design’. That is, being your own boss, living abroad in a place with lower living expenses so you can pursue the ultimate work-life balance and maybe even a side-hustle. At least in theory.

Such has been the rise of the ‘digital nomad’, that some cities have reported ‘overnomadism’, says the Washington Post, with the influx of a ‘young class of jet-setters’ driving up rent and gentrification.

For many professional nomads, COVID has clipped their wings. Heading into the pandemic and facing a life locked-down in a foreign country versus the safety of the Australian health system, has meant an exodus of global nomads back home.

From Bali-life to #vanlife

Where global digital nomads have retreated, domestic nomads have risen. Post lock-downs, employers are realising that some roles can remain remote or can move to a hybrid model meaning now it is just not creative or IT freelancers contemplating a digital nomad lifestyle, its full-time employees as well.

While Bali is off the cards #vanlife and #boatlife has taken off, as has living on the coast or chasing a quieter life and lower cost of living in the country.

Future of global nomads

But for many millennial digital nomads, the lifestyle play was really a global one.  What might have started as a way to keep the career going and travel at the same time, has often morphed into career opportunities reliant on global connections and networks.

As vaccine programs accelerate, so too has the thinking of many countries keen to target the global rise in remote working and inject some life into their economies after a global exodus of tourists and foreign visitors.

Greece and Italy are offering tax incentives for digital nomads, Spain, Dubai and Estonia are offering ad hoc visas, and Portugal’s Madeira Islands have just launched their own digital nomad’s village.

Most of the initiatives targeting digital nomads are focussing on a post-COVID style of digital nomad and the concept of special short-term ‘digital nomad visas’.

This is due to two factors – firstly even as borders open, country-hopping with just a backpack and a laptop is likely to be a thing of the past for at least the foreseeable future. Secondly, COVID has given many global digital nomads pause for thought around how they travel.

Washington Post has deemed this, the birth of the ‘slomad’.

Bridget, who after a few years of long-term travel, decided to stay put establishing a home in Marrakech, Morocco. A city she loved for its mix of old world and new and mix of local and international community. She says she hopes the new breed of digital nomads in a post-pandemic world will be mindful of their impact on local communities.

“I hope that the new breed digital nomads are really mindful of the community they are joining and actively contributing to being part of it, rather than landing in to just hang out with other expats.”

My Take

The rise of remote working will have a formidable impact on how Australians work and live.  While more of us will now have the choice to live and work where we want, the decision to do so overseas will be harder and take longer to make.

No longer can we contemplate working in Bali for a month and ‘see how it goes’, having in the back of our mind we can be home in 24 hours.  COVID has changed this thinking.

We will now be mindful of where we are moving to and the infrastructure around that life that could support us if the world faced into another pandemic.

Forming and maintaining a network and community both overseas and at home will become even more critical. People will want to ‘pandemic’ proof their careers and not be caught out if markets shut down and they are caught in a foreign country without income security and the financial means to get home.

Ultimately, I think the rise of the ‘slomad’ and the more deliberate expat will have a positive impact on the repatriation experience for future Australians.  The rise of people creating global networks – from anywhere in the world – will only make repatriation easier. Companies will get used to forming and managing teams with colleagues sitting thousands of kilometres away from each other. The ‘stigma’ of hiring someone who has been working abroad for a few years won’t be seen as being ‘out of the market’ but potentially part of a new remote working norm.

This will all mean, when an expat physically lands at home, work can continue, networks can continue and the sharp transition from expat to repat will soften.