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Is the office obsolete? Many travelers hope so

National Geographic logo National Geographic 9/23/2020 Jackie Snow
a person standing in a garden: With offices closed during the coronavirus pandemic, employees have adapted to working from home. Now many of them want to be able to work from anywhere in the world. © Photograph by Gary Yeowell, Getty Images

With offices closed during the coronavirus pandemic, employees have adapted to working from home. Now many of them want to be able to work from anywhere in the world.

Arthur Deane never imagined that the digital nomad lifestyle—traveling the world while working remotely—was for him. As a senior manager for tech giant Google, he thought being in an office was essential for the job. But the pandemic changed that.

Four months of working from his apartment in Washington, D.C., had him going stir crazy and needing to get out. After researching places where Americans were allowed to travel and reasonable safety precautions seemed to be in place, he jetted to Aruba for a week in July.

“I wanted to dip my toes into the water, literally and figuratively,” he says.

a group of people riding bikes on a city street: An outdoor table in New York City’s Flatiron District, with a view of the Empire State Building, subs for an office desk. Technology such as virtual private networks (VPNs) has made remote work more feasible, but there are still security and safety concerns. © Photograph by Alexi Rosenfeld, Getty Images

An outdoor table in New York City’s Flatiron District, with a view of the Empire State Building, subs for an office desk. Technology such as virtual private networks (VPNs) has made remote work more feasible, but there are still security and safety concerns.

Now, he’s looking at returning to Aruba or one of the other destinations open to Americans for a longer trip. There are still details to sort out, but he has time: Google’s U.S. offices aren’t reopening until July 2021—at the earliest.

(Related: Why travel should be considered an essential human activity.)

Freelancers, entrepreneurs, and the self-employed have made up the majority of the digital nomad crowd, but this could change as more companies reevaluate work culture after six months of remote log-ins. The number of people who might remain out of office is staggering—one study found that more than a third of American jobs could be done entirely from home. And a survey of company leaders revealed that 82 percent plan to offer remote work at least part of the time after the pandemic.

“In the beginning, I had no idea how to make this work,” says Aasha Sapera, who began hosting online dance classes in Jodhpur, India, during the coronavirus pandemic. As a dancer in the largely nomadic Kalbeliya gypsy community, many of whom live in mud huts or tents with patchy electricity and nonexistent Wi-Fi, she has faced bigger challenges than most remote workers. © Photograph by Sunil Verma, AFP, Getty Images

“In the beginning, I had no idea how to make this work,” says Aasha Sapera, who began hosting online dance classes in Jodhpur, India, during the coronavirus pandemic. As a dancer in the largely nomadic Kalbeliya gypsy community, many of whom live in mud huts or tents with patchy electricity and nonexistent Wi-Fi, she has faced bigger challenges than most remote workers.

For Deane, the chance to work remotely for a few months each year while maintaining a home base in the U.S. could be an ideal setup—and a reality sometime soon.

“I don’t see returning to an office full-time being the way of the future,” he says. “The pandemic has taught us that we can be productive without being in the office, Monday to Friday, nine to five.”

A growing trend

Remote work was gaining steam before the pandemic, with companies experimenting with work from home days and investing in hardware to ensure safe off-site log-ins. Now that millions of employees have months of experience proving they don’t need to work from an office, some want to take it a step further and find out if they even need to work from home.

The term “digital nomad” dates back to at least 1997, when the book Digital Nomad argued that technology would allow humans to work from anywhere and return to the wandering ways of our ancestors. It took another 15 years before widespread Internet and budget carriers like AirAsia allowed the dream to become reality for a distinct group of travelers. By 2019 one report found that 7.3 million American workers consider themselves digital nomads.

Places such as Bali, Chang Mai, and Mexico City have become popular destinations, and they offer coworking spaces with high-speed Internet and high-octane espresso bars. Most digital nomads, however, rely on tourism visas, which technically don’t allow any work. While many nations are more focused on local jobs and have turned a blind eye to digital nomads, this will not be enough for companies worried about liability.

Some countries now see opportunities to lure workers—and assuage employers—with official programs for extended stays. In July Barbados started to take applications for the Welcome Stamp, which offers a 12-month visa. Applicants must prove they make at least $50,000 per year and have health insurance. Then they need to fork over $2,000—or $3,000 for a family—for the visa fee. Once accepted, visa holders can come and go as they please, gain access to the local school system, and forgo the country’s income tax.

(Related: How clean is the air on planes?)

Estonia, already known for its e-residency program that allows foreigners interested in setting up a business to access the country’s services, has announced a new digital nomad visa. It will permit visitors to work there remotely for 12 months with an application fee of €100 (about $117) and proof of at least €3,504 (about $4,100) per month in income. Americans, however—still banned from traveling to European Union countries—will have to wait.

Bermuda launched its Work From Bermuda program last month, allowing travelers to stay up to a year, income tax free, after securing a $263 visa. New Yorker Kiwan Michael Anderson isn’t applying for the visa but has been surprised to find himself working from the British territory. He goes there every summer to visit family and was worried the pandemic would end the tradition. But the island reopened to Americans on July 1, and he went, intending to stay for two weeks of vacation. When it came time to leave, his aunt asked him if he really had to go.

“I thought about it and was like, ‘Actually I don’t,’” he says.

Anderson canceled his flight home and has been in Bermuda for the last nine weeks. Maintaining his work as a manager at the PR firm Nike Communications has not been a problem, he says. “My Wi-Fi is better in Bermuda than in my apartment in Brooklyn sometimes.”

Since he’s an hour ahead of his office in New York, he feels like he gets a head start on work. And at the end of the day, he’s in the ocean doing water aerobics with his aunt or jet skiing. He plans to take up paddleboarding next.

“It’s not about where you are anymore,” Anderson says, “but how hard you work and how productive you are.”

Know before you go

The pandemic, of course, complicates travel. Both Bermuda and Barbados require recent negative coronavirus tests and conduct health checks on arrival. But those protocols don’t stop people who get infected in transit or spot the asymptomatic carriers, according to Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and public health ethicist at Virginia Tech University.

Ideally, Lee says, these countries would add a quarantine for 14 days, the incubation period of this coronavirus. Lee points to Jordan, which enforces a quarantine with electronic bracelets, and Canada, which sent police to check on people in quarantine, as examples of countries successfully pulling off the task.

“It can be done, but you have to have a lot of resources,” she says.

While this 14-day period is longer than most vacations, it would be do-able for extended stays. Even if there’s no mandatory quarantine, Lee recommends doing a self-imposed one and continuing to social distance, wear masks, and avoid indoor gatherings afterward. So far, neither Bermuda nor Barbados has seen a spike in cases, but digital nomads should still take care, especially as epidemiologists expect another surge of infections this fall.

“It would literally take one person that infected two others to set off an epidemic on an island,” Lee says. “No one wants to be the one that brings a disease and devastates a population.”

(Related: If you must travel now, here’s how to make it safer.)

Traditionally the biggest hurdle for digital nomads has been finding fast and reliable Wi-Fi. While Internet connections have improved in many places, new digital nomads are running into other issues.

Besides getting visas, some employees need to meet regularly with teammates or clients, making different time zones tricky. Ensuring the security of work data is also a concern, though many companies now have virtual private networks, or VPNs, and provide regular training on topics such as how to spot phishing e-mails.

Still these practices won’t be enough for everyone wanting to go abroad. For those working with sensitive information, a company’s legal department may not allow offshore access. Other companies are wary of letting employees work from countries with a history of hacking.

David Cusick, chief strategy officer for House Method, a North Carolina-based company that provides research on home service providers, has seen these types of problems emerge since the start of the pandemic.

“Employees come ensuring us that time zones won’t be an issue and that tourist visas are no sweat,” he says. “But when it comes to legal liability, our hands are often tied—we’re a U.S. company at the end of the day.”

Cusick said the company is still sorting out what work looks like in the long-term but is leaning toward making a remote option permanent. Employees like it, and there is a chance to save money on office space. If employees want to go abroad, he’s happy to consider it.

“Employees who can bring a comprehensive ‘this is where I’m going, this is why it’s legal, this is what I’ll do’ package to me have a much better shot of actually flying to their tropical oasis,” he says.

There are also personal considerations for digital nomads. For example, in Barbados, like much of the Caribbean, same-sex sexual activity is illegal. While LGBTQ vacationers have always had to think about this, the calculus might change when considering living there long-term with a loved one.

It can also go the other way. For African Americans and other minorities, going abroad can be an escape from racism in the United States. For Anderson, who had to deal with his personal feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement and help clients to address it, being in majority-Black Bermuda has been a reprieve.

“It’s recharged me,” he says. “It’s given me hope and energy.”

Making it sustainable

Countries were asking how to attract more digital nomads before the coronavirus, and they still want these travelers, says Michaela Murray, head of marketing for Hacker Paradise, a company that has organized trips for groups of digital nomads since 2014.

“Countries around the world are preparing for a boom [of] digital nomads,” she says.

Some places, such as Bali and Venice, were already dealing with overtourism and considering a tax to curb the number of visitors. But Murray says she’s seen growing interest in trips to spots like Kilifi, Kenya, and other off-the-beaten-path locales as the idea of sustainable tourism has gained hold.

(Related: How to make global tourism more sustainable.)

Slowing down is also a way to make travel more sustainable, giving visitors time to see a place in-depth and reducing carbon emissions from flights. Gerry Isabelle quit her office job in 2017 and went full-time digital nomad, supporting herself by organizing trips and writing travel articles. She wanted to have authentic experiences while being conscientious about her journeys, documenting what she learned on Dominican Abroad.

“You should definitely take your impact into consideration as a digital nomad,” she says.

A key lesson she’s learned is that travel guides aren’t made for digital nomads. While a family on a 10-day vacation might not want to risk going to a place during the rainy season, digital nomads can be there long enough to wait out bad weather and skip the crowds. They can also boost communities’ tourism revenue in the slow season, obtain cheaper rates on travel, and enjoy the authentic experiences that longer trips can provide.

“If you can slow down,” Isabelle says, “you can make those local connections and get the richness of the heritage of the space.”

Jackie Snow is a technology and travel writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Instagram.
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