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Digital Nomads: How ‘Work-From-Anywhere’ Can Spur Positive Change

Digital Nomad
by William Fleeson Apr 10, 2023

Digital nomads tend to get a bad rap for their habits. They’re accused of dropping into places, pushing housing costs out of reach for locals, and creating strains for the community. A recent story in the New York Times focused on Mexico City reported that local housing activists claimed adherents to the “work-from-anywhere” (WFA) lifestyle were committing “modern-day colonization.”

Most of these foreign workers are from North America or Western Europe, whose skills and income can mean the dollars, pounds, or euros they earn from their jobs give them an edge in lower-cost cities and countries.

But for all that, is location-independent work — and the impact of digital nomads gathering in attractive, lower-cost destinations — really quite that bad? Other sources are more balanced and even optimistic about the changes digital nomads can bring to local communities.

What are digital nomads?

guy working from the floor - digital nomad

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There’s a new, updated term for traveling professionals who make their living via laptop: “anywhere workers,” first used in a 2022 opinion poll conducted jointly between the gig aggregation site Fiverr and the travel guidebook giant Lonely Planet. The poll surveyed 1,400 respondents across six countries and developed multiple sub-categories for working digital nomads.

The “anywhere worker” can be remote, signing in from home or someplace else; a “digital nomad” is a worker outside their home country; a “slomad” is a foreign traveler working who spends between six months and one year in a single country; and a “domad” rambles domestically within his or her own country.

Interestingly, 44 percent of the poll’s respondents were married — the single largest group by relationship status. That stat undercuts the stereotype that most digital nomads are footloose recent graduates and suggests that remote work itself is changing. That means “anywhere workers” may include people previously excluded from the nomad lifestyle.

According to survey findings from an employment consulting firm, nearly 17 million Americans reported working from the road in 2022, up from about seven million in 2019 — an increase of more than 131 percent. And now that WFA has gone from a pandemic stopgap to a proven work alternative, the wave of mobile workers will likely keep rising. Gig aggregation site Upwork forecasted that more than one-fifth of all US workers will be remote by 2025.

A big prediction to be sure, but not a surprising one. Upwork, Fiverr, and similar companies have millions of customers and dollars to gain by banking on the distance-working economy.

If you’re considering becoming any type of remote working or digital nomad, there are ways to make your impact a positive one. Being an expat or remote worker can actually be good for local communities.

Remote workers can spur local social mobility

digital nomads - person walking several dogs

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Whatever the travel style, travelers are bound to spend money in the places they’re passing through. That cash supply creates demand and numerous opportunities for local workers and their services. In another recent story focused on Mexico City, the tech magazine Rest of World found that workers at the lower levels of the income spectrum in host countries benefited from this spike in business, often due to digital professionals who can’t live without their phones and screens.

These workers ranged from food delivery employees to cleaning people to dog walkers – in other words, everyday people whose modest livelihoods depend more than ever on foreign spenders. App-based delivery jobs in Mexico grew by 100,000 between December 2020 and June 2022, the article said, fueled in part by the influx of digital nomads fleeing pandemic lockdowns. That can make a big difference for locals.

Local companies may offer employees marketable skills training to better serve digital nomads

woman teaching english to students

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Some businesses, like the delivery app Rappi, have begun offering their employees free English language lessons. Better language skills translate to better communication with customers, enhancing the level of service and minimizing misunderstandings with non-Spanish-speaking digital nomads — risks that can affect the bottom line at Rappi or any other company.

Rappi’s English lessons are offered as an “initiative for social mobility,” a company executive was quoted as saying in Rest of World. And they wouldn’t be available if it wasn’t for English speakers moving to the area. Many service workers report that expat customers tip better than local Mexicans, further adding to the list of nomad-related benefits.

Whether in the form of cold cash or transferable job skills like speaking English, the WFA contingent in Mexico City has brought a disruptive, and in many ways positive, impact on their host community.

Nomad visa programs generate income for foreign governments

digital nomads - woman working outsidew

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Like companies, many countries have vested interests in accommodating the growing nomad industry. Several dozen nations have or will soon launch digital worker visa programs to attract knowledgeable workers. These include longtime expat favorites like Croatia, Costa Rica, Portugal, and Thailand, where the warm weather and costs of living are far lower than Western countries bring remote workers in droves.

However, more recent visa programs are being developed in places from where digital nomads can’t send a tropical postcard, including Armenia, Estonia, and Norway.

A common requirement of digital worker visa programs is proof of a reasonably high income, confirming not just that the applicant has a job but a good one at that. Iceland’s program requires a single-earner annual income of about $85,000, which rises to more than $110,000 if applying with a spouse or partner. Thailand demands $80,000; Belize wants $75,000. All of these are well above the 2022 US median individual income of $56,000, according to government data.

Plus, applying for a visa can generate income for countries, even if the application is ultimately rejected. Anguilla and Barbados each charge $2,000 with an application, while the Cayman Islands and Grenada ask about $1,500. These countries are after digital nomads with a certain level of income, especially considering these potential nomads are paying serious money with no promise of their visas being approved. That creates revenue for host governments, even if the remote worker never actually shows up.

Talented remote workers and locals can spur an exchange of ideas

digital nomads in conversation


Thought leaders at the highest levels of research have affirmed that digital worker visas can benefit countries and communities. Raj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, has written extensively on the upsides of a nomad visa arrangement. Choudhury urged the United States — a country not exactly lacking for skilled would-be immigrants — to launch its own nomad visa scheme. “Countries around the world are competing for remote talent,” he said. “It’s time for the US to get on board or risk being left behind.”

Choudhury goes further, comparing the digital nomad offerings of 45 countries with their associated slower-moving government immigration policies. He calls such nomad programs a “temporary fix for immigration policy woes and visa delays around the world.” He claims that nomads can act as “catalysts for knowledge and resource flows between regions,” whether that knowledge is work-related, cultural, or both. For ambitious, mobile workers who don’t want or plan to stay in a destination forever, a nomad visa might be the solution that works for a government, communities, and the nomads themselves while avoiding slow-moving immigration systems and policies.

And the mix of digital nomads and host communities can foster entrepreneurship at a local level, Choudhury says. He saw this firsthand through his research on Start-Up Chile, a tech accelerator the South American country launched in 2010. Since then, tech workers from nearly 2,000 companies, some staying for just a few months, have contributed valuable lessons to Start-Up Chile’s staff and participants.

The impacts on the local community

digital nomads buying food in argentina

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Olga Hannonen, a Finnish academic focused on digital nomadism for years, likewise feels that the pros outweigh the cons. Her recently published research pioneers the concept of “new locals,” — nomads welcomed by regular locals — which puts digital workers on a higher level of economic and social standing than they’d find at home. Her research also looks at members of the host communities likely to interact with and benefit from the stable presence of digital nomads, like bar and restaurant workers, hairdressers, and surf-school instructors.

Her research on the island of Gran Canaria, Spain, shows many locals see nomads positively. Local coffee shops and bed-and-breakfasts may be able to hire more staff; locals with a spare bedroom can convert the space into a rental. One Gran Canaria local said his view on nomads was “incredibly positive… For me, it is a pleasure to know that they choose [Gran Canaria],” he said.

Another called the nomads “amazing professionals” and described how his company, already in the habit of hiring nomads as contractors, hired one with skills in graphic design to join his firm full-time. This kind of small-business competition, both between nomads for goods and services and among providers competing for nomads’ business and spending, can create a positive economic cycle at the community level.

Another local source from Gran Canaria summed it up well: “We can attract people that will pay taxes here. They will consume. They will ask for high-quality services. So, I think this is something that can boost our society.”

If locals in places like Gran Canaria appreciate contributions from digital nomads despite the disruptions, then perhaps the positives of a digital-work paradigm outweigh the negatives in other places, too. Clearly, it’s something that more than 50 countries around the world are betting on.

The habits of digital nomads — and their rapidly expanding ranks — might actually be a good thing.

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