It’s pre-pandemic and you’re mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed and see yet another picture of a MacBook in front of a stunning tropical jungle backdrop. Last week it was a bright blue ocean, and before that, a trendy urban cafe. Your friend who posted these was one of the millions of people who decided to give up their office-based lives, while the rest of the world followed their journeys with envy.
As a concept it’s straightforward; digital nomads aren’t tied to a particular place and use technology to do their work. For many, the idea of having autonomy over where and when they work was the dream, but until recently this was only possible for a small population brave enough to go freelance or lucky enough to work for an organisation that allowed it.
Although many tech companies had started offering varying degrees of flexibility in the working week, the roll-out wasn’t as fast as many millennials expected and wanted. The pandemic, however, catalysed this process and within just a few months, most companies the world over introduced a work-from-home model, proving that businesses could continue to thrive even without a shared physical space.
Indeed, it may seem that many people have taken advantage of the newly implemented remote work requirements. According to a survey from MBO partners on US-nationals, the number of digital nomads grew from 7.3 million to just under 11 million, demonstrating a whopping 49% increase from 2019 to 2020. The study goes on to say that the number is expected to grow as more companies invest in infrastructure and resources to allow for more long-term or permanent remote work.
While travel restrictions are probably the biggest barrier to leading a fully-fledged digital nomad life, much of the way we are required to work these days is similar. Some may argue anyway that the travel element of digital nomadism accounts only for a small part of its allure, and it’s more the general concepts of freedom and autonomy that provide the biggest attraction. But now, with many of us bestowed with the ability to work from anywhere but the office, is there something we can learn from our digital nomad friends to optimise what we do with this freedom?
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but anyone considering going remote successfully needs the right gear. A sturdy laptop with good battery life is just the tip of the iceberg, along with a mobile phone that can create a hotspot at any given moment should the internet cut off unexpectedly. Earphones, ideally with a sound-cancelling functionality, can turn any distracting ad-hoc workspace into a calm work haven, while integrated noise-cancelling microphones will even make clients or colleagues on the other line believe it too.
Communication and collaboration tools
Gone are the days when email was the main form of digital communication. Over the past decade, there has been an increasing number of communication and collaboration tools, with Slack probably being the most popular one, offering hundreds of different integrations. Depending on the industry, digital nomads will use a variety of different tools, ranging from universal video conferencing software such as Zoom to the more niche Codeshare for real-time coding with contributing developers. Whatever the requirements, distributed teams and/or clients can easily stay in touch and work together through the use of multiple digital tools.
It’s very easy to get distracted when working away from a classically designated workspace, or as hard as it may be to admit, a clock-watching manager. But luckily there are a plethora of organisational tools available for use from kanban-style list-making applications like Trello, to Asana for tracking and managing projects. The majority of these tools have collaborative elements as well which provide visibility and contribution from clients or colleagues.
Some particularly popular techniques among digital nomads and seasoned remote workers are the Pomodoro method and the newer but delightfully named “workplace popcorn” method. The former focuses on separating work into chunks of time, traditionally of 25 minutes. During this time only one task is meant to be focused on, and when that time is up, a 5-minute break is earnt. This helps to narrow down focus and prevents small distractions from becoming larger procrastinations. The latter, while sadly not related to everyone’s favourite movie-time snack, is still quite fun; work is split into chunks again, but this time, each part is done at a different workstation. This method provides a clear break between activities while you move, say, from your kitchen table to a coffee shop, and allows you to re-focus on each new task.
Quite simply, we’ve conditioned ourselves to get into “focus-mode” upon entering the office, so it’s important to be able to replicate this when working remotely. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, all it takes is establishing some kind of pre-work ritual. Whether work is done in the mornings, evenings or the dead of night, it is about the activities that you do to train your mind into easing into the workday. Our minds look out for these cues, even if they’re as simple as having a shower, getting dressed and enjoying the kick of caffeine from your morning coffee, by repeating these processes daily they turn into a routine. Having set hours every day is another useful tool and allows the mind to switch on and switch off at a natural and rhythmical pace.
Without an office to go to, it’s very easy for the lines between work and play to become blurred. The key here is to compartmentalise, that is, to create clear-cut boundaries between activities. This can be achieved through various physical or social indicators, which will allow the mind to focus on one activity and/or mindset at a time. As mentioned previously, setting specific hours could be what works for you, or perhaps designating certain places, to prompt the mind into compartmentalising that particular activity as work. Some people swear by well-curated playlists from Soundcloud or Spotify when needing to focus, while others might find the ritual of putting on makeup and getting dressed in office-wear switches their mind to work-mode.
Socialising in new ways
Before the pandemic, most socialisation took place within work environments, and as a result, the sudden requirement of remote work led to mass reports of loneliness. Digital nomads, however, have learnt how to make friends and meet new people outside of the classic social arenas. By making use of online sites such as Meetup or groups on Facebook, there are plenty of options to socialise either digitally, or in person, without sticking to the core group of office or uni friends.
Stepping away from the status quo and having greater autonomy of one’s own life brings with it both exciting possibilities as well as risky challenges. One needs to be able to adapt to different situations, conditions and issues to get the most out of them. This learning is slightly harder to pin down than the others, and surely every digital nomad will have their own take-away based on their experiences. However, a lesson they will have learnt, is that things never go exactly as initially planned. What remote workers as a result of the pandemic can learn, is how to be comfortable with not necessarily knowing what will come next. There is an incredible inner calmness that can be achieved from first accepting what we can’t control, then learning from it, adjusting accordingly, and keeping going.
Interestingly, all the points that have been covered here have been related to adaptability in some way, either through introducing new tools or techniques to existing workflows, or by achieving new routines and mindsets. The traditional way of working in set spaces has been developed over centuries and is very much embedded in the foundations of our society. Within just a matter of months, the world over has been expected to adapt to a completely new way of working. Indeed, the digital nomads we’ve seen on social media may even have paved the way, providing us with a springboard to adapt to their ways – albeit with a little less travelling – for now.