The provincial life of the digital nomad

by Bloomberg17 Mar 2017

One recent evening, real estate executive Micki McNie stayed late at the office to close a deal with a new client looking to buy a home. Business was booming at the Denver-area company she runs, 33 Zen Lane, but she still couldn’t afford to push the contract to the morning – that would ruin the tour planned for Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

McNie has spent the past six months coordinating the team of brokers at her extremely brick-and-mortar business from abroad – first from the island of Jeju in South Korea, then from Chiang Mai, Thailand – courtesy of Hacker Paradise, a “traveling community for creative types.” Some unfortunately timed phone calls aside, it’s been healthy for her three-year-old company. Going abroad “was a choice to step into a more managerial role, or to walk away,” says McNie, who sought out Hacker Paradise on the advice of a business coach. These days, she’s closing deals from Jávea, across from Ibiza on the coast of Spain.

Should you desire a similar experience, it’ll cost you. A handful of companies will set you up with shared workspaces in far-flung locales for about US$2,000 a month, which may or may not include living quarters. Trips last anywhere from a few weeks to the rest of your life. The patriarch of the roving office clan is two-year-old Remote Year, whose co-founder, Greg Caplan, attributes its sudden popularity to the ballooning of the “odyssey years” between college graduation and settling down. “That period of time used to be about three to six months, but now it can be 10 to 15 years,” he says.

If hordes of wanderlusty young workers are one key component, then the broadening of broadband access is another. “Over the past five years, the soaring infrastructure around the world has made remote work more common and more feasible,” says Hacker Paradise founder Casey Rosengren. While many companies limit their nomads to wired cities such as Prague, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Madrid, part of the allure to travellers lies in going farther afield. WiFi Tribe Co. co-founder Bejarano Gerke says he warns clients headed to less reliable locales: “It won’t be perfect, it won’t be like at home, but we’re setting up fail-safe systems”–i.e., mobile 4G hotspots–“so your work doesn’t need to be affected.”

One irony of the remote-work concept is that constant connectivity winds up throwing barriers between you and the places you’ve travelled so far to inhabit. Some remote workers have to be online at the same time as colleagues in San Francisco, Austin, and New York, meaning they’re often working and sleeping when locals are socializing and going about their days. Sleep deprivation makes it that much harder to adjust to a new culture. “Amid the onslaught of scooters, stray dogs, and seemingly orderless traffic in Southeast Asia, small tasks like buying contact solution had become near-Olympian feats,” said Mashable writer Stephanie Walden in a post about her experience as a part of Remote Year’s first beta-testing cohort.

Others are unfazed, saying they increased their productivity and enriched their professional lives. “I feel like I talk to my team more now that I’m away,” says Thomas Dempsey, 26, who’s traveling in Brazil with We Roam while serving as chief operating officer of a New Orleans venture capital firm. Since he deals mostly with out-of-state clients, moving abroad “wasn’t too hard of a sell to my bosses,” he says.

Most programs focus on recruiting groups of “like-minded young professionals,” which isn’t great for expanding your horizons but does lead to some excellent networking. “People ended up hiring each other, people ended up dating each other,” Rosengren says of his company’s early trips. While it was initially open only to engineers and programmers, Hacker Paradise has since become more tolerant. “If you’re an accountant, you can’t come,” he says. “But if you’re an accountant and you want to work on the next great novel, absolutely.”

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