According to the Danish online consultant Michelle Rødgaard-Jessen, most of her workdays don’t differ much from those of her peers. You’d be excused if you disagree. While she does go to the office to work fulltime, earn a salary and keep in close contact with her clients, on some points – some would say crucial ones – the 26-year-old’s life is anything but ordinary.
Her office is in whichever Airbnb apartment she’s staying. Her salary is spent on plane tickets and hotels instead of rent. And when her clients request a meeting, she asks them to meet her on Skype as she’s not currently – or ever – in Denmark. Her everyday consists of exploring ever-changing cities and countries, most of which she’ll stay in for no more than a week.
Michelle Rødgaard-Jessen is not a broke backpacker, a trust fund baby or employed by an international corporation. She’s a digital nomad, and she’s part of a growing global trend. Digital nomads are location-independent entrepreneurs, taking their work – and their laptops – with them as they travel. They take advantage of the fact that a lot of work is done exclusively on the computer with no need of being in the same room, or even country, as your boss, your colleagues or your clients.
“With the way I work there’s no need for me to be in Denmark, and the way I live I get the best of both worlds. I have an amazing job and I’m very ambitious, but at the same time I get to explore the world on a daily basis. Just the fact that it’s possible to live like this made me want to try it,” Michelle Rødgaard-Jessen says on a Skype connection from Finland. Last week she was in Thailand and in a few days she’ll be in Barcelona; since she started traveling the world fulltime two years ago, she has lived in Barcelona, Morocco, Chile, Italy, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Korea, Japan, Finland and “a few other places that I forgot”.
She is traveling with her boyfriend Nikolaj, a Danish entrepreneur, and it’s crucial for both of them that they can work as they travel. After having studied abroad in China, Michelle was looking for a new opportunity to go abroad and decided to start her own company in order to be able to travel and work fulltime simultaneously.
“Our companies are our first priority. The traveling is secondary – if we hadn’t been able to be ambitious with our companies while we were traveling we wouldn’t do it,” Michelle says. Her clients are excited about her travels, and despite her initial doubts, Michelle hasn’t experienced a cut in income due to her constant change of location and time zone.
Enormous growth potential
According to many observers of the digital nomad trend, Michelle and Nikolaj reflect the dominant current trend in digital nomadism increased professionalism. While the term has been misused by backpackers wanting to work just enough to keep traveling, today the majority of digital nomads are at least as ambitious about their work as they are about their travels:
“The movement is growing fast, and it’s getting more and more professional, more and more sustainable, and more and more accepted by other people. Digital nomads and onlookers take it more seriously, and that’s crucial for the movement,” the German digital nomad Marcus Meurer says.
He’s traveling the world with his partner Felicia Hargarten, with whom he has funded the digital nomad conference DNX. Through the several yearly conferences the couple has arranged, they have been able to monitor the movement closely, and they are more excited than ever about its potential for growth. According to the couple, there are a few thousand digital nomads who travel fulltime year round, while their estimate for people who have fixed homes but leave them to roam the world with their laptops in tow twice or three times a year amounts to some hundred thousand. The growth potential is enormous; according to a poll by Ipsos/Reuters, one in five workers around the world telecommute frequently while 10% of the world’s population works from home every day.
Companies are catching up
Marcus Meurer and Felicia Hargarten classify digital nomads into three categories. There are freelancers working for clients, entrepreneurs with their own companies, and then remote workers who are fully employed by one company. The digital nomad couple is certain that the majority of future digital nomads will represent the third category as companies have begun paying more attention to the digital nomads in recent years, especially after the growing trend has begun getting attention in business media like Forbes.
“This will be part of the future of work. We’re approached by more and more companies – they recognize that something is happening and they’re trying to catch up,” Felicia Hargarten says. Together with her partner she provides consulting for companies who are interested in the trend.
While most companies are interested in adopting some degree of the trend – doing company retreats abroad, tapping into the tools and skill sets of digital nomads and allowing some extent of remote working – some companies go further as they realize they’ll need to allow for more flexibility in order to attract the best talent. A few companies are entirely based on remote work, such as Automatic, the company behind WordPress; they have no office and all communication between colleagues is over the internet.
“The companies know that they need to do this to attract Generation Y. The best minds of the generation don’t want to sit in an office in Silicon Valley; they want to explore the world,” Felicia Hargarten says. The German couple decide where to go based on where they want the conferences to take place and, most importantly, where the best kite surfing is, as that’s how they want to spend their time off.
Biggest issue: Loneliness
The flying Dutchman Pieter Levels has made it his career to advise digital nomads on where to go next. He created the app Nomadlist, a tool that tells people what their ideal city is based on their desired cost of living, internet speed, weather and other metrics such as safety, nightlife, religion, whether it’s gay- and female-friendly, and the availability of beaches, surfing and Uber. Pieter has been traveling the world as a digital nomad for three years, and the app started as a tool for his own adventures.
“After I graduated I made money from home as a music producer with a YouTube Channel, and my friends asked me why I stayed in Amsterdam when I could be anywhere. I was bored, so despite being afraid of traveling alone I packed my bags and travelled around Asia. I made a spreadsheet of what cities had nice weather, good wi-fi and low living costs, and that became NomadList,” Pieter Levels says.
The app immediately found a following, and today it covers 1000 cities and has between 250-500.000 visitors per month. Part of the app is a forum allowing digital nomads to connect, and the growing number of members testifies to the fact that digital nomads are struggling to find ways to connect with one another.
“Loneliness is the biggest challenge caused by constant traveling. It’s the one thing that all of my interviewees mentioned when talking about the downside of being a digital nomad,” Youjin Do says. She’s making a documentary about digital nomads – One Way Ticket, to be released later this year – and has interviewed dozens of digital nomads. The documentary attempts to paint an honest picture of life as a digital nomad, highlighting issues such as loneliness and gentrification as well as the freedom and flexibility of life on the road.
“Once you make the statement that everywhere you go is your home, when you abandon your roots, your friends and you family, then loneliness becomes a pretty big deal. Everyone is struggling, and no one I talked to had a solution besides hoping that in time more of their friends will join them as digital nomads,” Youjin Do says.