If happiness is an elixir for low productivity, and traveling to exotic places can make us happy, should we all become “digital nomads”? Digital nomads are people who choose to work virtually 100% of the time thereby meaning their office can be anywhere in the world. The fact that anywhere in the world most often happens to be idyllic paradise nations is nothing more than a mere coincidence. With the emergence of COVID-19, and the widespread realisation, that with appropriate tools, support and technology, most office workers can do their jobs remotely, innovative nations have mobilised to offer paradise through a laptop.
The offer to work from paradise is compelling but not without it flaws. In its spirit, it embodies an inherently positive human quality: one of resourcefulness. For countries who rely on tourism to bolster their economy, this provides a solution that brings external income in while protecting domestic jobs; And for workers, this is less of a solution, and more of a fait accompli – as our American friends would say – a no brainer. Yet, this is not a new phenomenon, though it has become more popular since the emergence of Covid-19. While an exact number is difficult to trace, a 2018 study found that 4.8 million US citizens recognized themselves as “digital nomads” – a cutesy phrase for those such people who prefer such a lifestyle. In fact, an early adopter of such a trend was Gore Vidal who famously wrote from the idyllic Ravello on the Amalfi Coast – fittingly describing it as “a wonderful place from which to observe the end of the world.”
Despite restrictions on travel throughout much of the world, some innovative nations have seen the shift to remote work as an opportunity to open their doors to remote workers while providing a much needed stimulation to the economy. Nations offering such an opportunity range from Estonia. Georgia and Greece to Dubai, Bermuda, and Barbados. In each instance, the nation in question has transformed their immigration laws to allow for the workers employed overseas to stay for an extended period than would otherwise be permitted. The valid duration of stay varies per each nation but on average 1 year (which can be extended) appears to be the most common. Not wishing to irresponsible, most nations offering the scheme also have strict travel protocols that include COVID-19 testing or a quarantine. Some countries have offered additional sweeteners such as promises to pay for flights (Dubai) or tax exemptions (Greece, Barbados, Bermuda).
And the narrative surrounding the escape is idyllic too. In Estonia, government officials state that “Estonia aims to be the hub for these kinds of new entrepreneurs that we see trending globally.”. In Bermuda, interim CEO of Bermuda Tourism Authority, revels in the opportunity to “share our uncrowded open spaces and coveted island lifestyle with travelers from across the globe”. Their premier David Burt was more pointed in his open letter to applicants stating: “no need to be trapped in your apartment in a densely populated city with the accompanying restrictions and high risk of infection…Come spend the year with us.” Meanwhile in Bermuda Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, asserted “COVID-19 has placed a severe strain on people’s mental wellness, The sunshine is powerful. The seawater is powerful. They are both therapeutic in ways that are hard to explain. And we felt that, why not share it?”. Inspiring words; indeed, a far cry from musings about medicinal bleach and contradictions about staying home, saving lives, eating out and helping.
Yet, while the pandemic paradise promise is offered on a plate, such a plate has a high price tag. Applications range from $236 (Bermuda) to $3000 (Barbados) and almost all come with a minimum earnings threshold. For Barbados’ Welcome Stamp workers must demonstrate they earn at least $50,000 or have the means to support themselves while they’re in the country; In Georgia the monthly salary requirement is $3000 while in Georgia, it’s $3,500; As ever the never understated Cayman Islands goes further still introducing threshold tiers: here individual must earn at least $100,000 a year, couples must make a combined minimum of $150,0000, and families with one or more children must make at least $180,000 a year. Many of these minimum earning thresholds effectively discount graduate and junior employees, while additional earning thresholds for families with children put the plate further out of reach for some families. This may have the undesirable corollary of widening and reaffirming pre-existing inequalities; If you thought your junior working from her bedroom was envious of your private home office, the pink sunsets of Bermuda are highly unlikely to recalibrate the relationship.
And then the final hurdle: your employer. This working from home experiment has very much been borne from necessity and must accept the realities that many employers and executive at C-suite level are desperate to see a return to traditional office-based work life. Even for those comprehend the benefits of remote working, the wound of toxic presenteeism is not yet fully behind us. While we are all remote, working from paradise may be considered a sensible opportunity to do the same work from somewhere else; but once others return to offices, there is a very real worry that employers and managers will revert to a presentee default, where those out of sight surely must be sipping cocktails on a beach. For those out of sight, this may lead to defensive overworking practices, the likes of which were reported early in the pandemic and often pre-pandemic among regular remote workers, where employees unintentionally started working earlier and finishing later. As with most things work and workplace – trust flowing both ways is integral.
Prior to the pandemic, working culture was at the height of hustle where being busy was an icon of working hard. The movement into mainstream of the working from paradise phenomenon is both a symptom and a remedy of our workplace culture. Whether it endured past the pandemic, remains to be seen but for those who have grasped the nettle, the future looks bright. Quite Literally.