Digital nomads: five key insights into the future of knowledge work

The post-pandemic future of knowledge work presents two very different options, but UNSW Business School experts say it is up to us to move towards the future we want

The last decade saw a significant increase in the number of digital nomads – knowledge workers who pack up their lives and go travelling indefinitely, funded by location-independent work typically for clients all over the world. A survey of 3457 US adults conducted in July and August this year, by MBO Partners, estimated there were 10.9 million digital nomads in the US this year versus 7.3 million in 2019 – that’s a 49 per cent increase.

The wide adoption of remote work has also increased interest in being a digital nomad once travel is safe post-COVID-19, with some governments even offering digital nomad visas to boost their economic growth. Estonia is the most well-known destinations for digital nomads, but the governments of Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Dubai (UAE) also offer a range of remote working visas.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic proved radical work innovations are possible and that there is enormous untapped potential in the workforce; COVID-19 was a catalyst for change, but importantly, a critical juncture in envisioning the future of digital knowledge work, says Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, Professor in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School.

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Working a 9-5 may still be a norm for many, however, it's been predicted that the number of digital nomads will reach 1 billion by the year 2035. Image: Shutterstock

Fortunately, Australia is emerging from COVID-19 lockdown. Still, the discussion seems to be turning to whether we ought to aim for returning to the office “back to normal” or staying with purely working from home – or some kind of ideal balance of the two, says Blair Wang, Research Student in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School.

“It reminds me of how we’d often heard digital nomads say, essentially, it’s about appreciating and leveraging the comparative advantages of digital versus in-person. It’s not so much a quantitative balance between the two, but rather, a qualitative difference: the right mode of work for the right purpose – what do you actually seek to achieve?” says Wang.

Given the transformation of knowledge work into almost exclusively digital work during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, what does this mean for the future, and what can knowledge workers learn from their nomadic counterparts?

Choose between two very different futures

What the future of knowledge work could look like is explored by Prof. Cecez-Kecmanovic and Wang (a current PhD candidate) and others in a recent paper: Beyond the Factory Paradigm: Digital Nomadism and the Digital Future(s) of Knowledge Work Post-COVID-19. Wang also won second place in the UNSW’s most recent 3 Minute Thesis heats, for his presentation on the paper’s research topic.

“As soon as COVID-19 hit, we realised that digital nomads would have a hard time travelling internationally – but they’re also seasoned experts in the art of remote, location-independent work – the kind all knowledge workers are now having to come to terms with due to COVID-19 and various lockdown policies telling everyone to work from home. So, we figured, surely there’s something the digital nomads can teach us about how we as knowledge workers can best do remote work,” explains Wang.

In their paper, the authors explore the “factory paradigm” (the traditional view of work) – as their starting point, and digital nomadism as its polar opposite, in an attempt to map the range of possible futures for what knowledge work might look like in the post-COVID-19 world. Knowledge workers as we know them are typified by working hours of 9-5 in a corporate office, governed by centralised control, standardised work practices supported by technology, with delineated work/life boundaries.

“Our paper presents two futures, the first of which entails the transition to something called 'digital Taylorism', named after the ideas popularised by Frederick Taylor and his efficiency-focused way of running of factories, but taking those ideas into the digital age,” explains Wang.

“It’s basically taking the worst of digital nomadism – the hustle and grind culture that often sneaks up on digital nomads – and combining it with the worst of the factory paradigm.”

In their analysis, the authors find a “worrying tendency in organisations towards the digital Taylorism paradigm… increasing efficiency has become a driving force, one that justifies increased control (often enabled by IT) and the use of overly-simplistic measures of work quality. This is often detrimental to innovation and workers’ motivation to advance work processes and improve outcomes beyond just efficiency,” says Prof. Cecez-Kecmanovic.

“What we do now, what actions companies take in redesigning knowledge work, organising work processes and adopting technologies, and how government regulations of work change, will take us close to one of the scenarios.”

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There is much that digital nomads can teach knowledge workers about the best strategies to working remotely. Image: Shutterstock

Utilise autonomy and a growth mindset

Digital nomads know how to utilise technology to strike the right mode of work to achieve success. So instead of training people to comply with centralised control, employers should foster worker autonomy, says Wang. 

“Instead of enforcing standardisation, we need to celebrate diversity and creativity. Instead of viewing education as a one-off process – as if it were just a series of linear points on the proverbial assembly-line manufacturing of a knowledge worker – we need to encourage and incentivise lifelong learning, like that growth mindset that we often hear about these days,” he says.

The nature of digital nomadism means these workers generally have a kind of growth mindset; in many cases, it is the growth mindset that motivated them to leave stable and secure corporate jobs and become digital nomads, adds Wang. “I still remember one of the digital nomads we interviewed in Estonia, whose background was in engineering, and he’d taught himself how to become a drop-shipping e-commerce merchant through his own personal research.”

Another essential trait of digital nomads is the importance of self-determination and taking responsibility for your professional development and career – something today’s knowledge workers can utilise in building the future they want for themselves, says Prof. Cecez-Kecmanovic.

“We should not take for granted the working conditions imposed on us. Many rules, norms and constraints are unproductive and unnecessarily limit our contribution to an organisation. As knowledge workers, we should have agency and draw attention to and help change them.”

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The most practical and proven solution to burnout is to reward a period of intense work with a quieter period afterwards when they can travel more. Image: Shutterstock

Learn to balance work with play

Like traditional knowledge workers, burnout remains a danger to digital nomads – especially since digital nomads are often sole-trading entrepreneurs who genuinely want to succeed in setting up their brand.

For digital nomads, the most practical and proven solution to burnout is to leverage their flexible lifestyles to reward a period of intense work – perhaps chasing a project or a deadline – with a quieter period afterwards, when they can travel more. For knowledge workers, this means creating balance over some time, even if there may be a bit of hustle and grind during peak periods, says Wang.

So the awareness of work/life balance (or lack thereof) is a first step in addressing potential burnout. “Digital nomads are often aware of their own unsatisfactory work/life blurred boundaries, and they take explicit actions to deal with it,” says Prof. Cecez-Kecmanovic.

Reimagine old structures, systems and statistics

Easy-to-collect metrics often fail to capture the contribution of employees, precisely because the outcomes or value creation aren’t explicitly specified – nor are they measurable, suggests Wang. But that doesn’t mean this kind of work doesn’t have a significant impact on the organisation’s success; often, it does.

“There’s a good case to be made that people are more creative and productive when they’re not hustling and grinding to meet short-term metrics, but instead thinking about how to make a meaningful impact or think outside the box,” explains Wang.

So, the best thing that leaders and managers can do to support their teams is to listen to them and ask them to identify the structures and systems and statistics that no longer make sense, and reimagine them for a post-COVID-19 world – not just to cope with the pandemic but to take this crisis as an opportunity to reinvent, he says.

“Employees and their leaders/managers don’t have to be seen as the old-fashioned subordinate/superior hierarchy but as a mutually-beneficial partnership: the employees bring knowledge, experience, skills, diversity and much more to the table, and the true leaders help create conditions for these faculties to be productively engaged in developing and pursuing a strategy,” he adds.

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The future is up to knowledge workers and their collective decision-making and action. Image: Shutterstock

That leaders and managers have all relevant knowledge to steer an organisation successfully is a “myth of Taylorism”. Instead, leaders in the digital nomads’ community emerge organically, because they listen to and engage with the community, says Wang. This also means not trying to force a digital option into absolutely everything, but instead, being aware of what the digital option is good for, and how to use it to enable mobility and serendipity, empowering and increasing human creativity.

“The challenge for leaders and managers is to resist such tendencies and take a broader view of what the quality of work means and how knowledge workers can be enabled and empowered to be creative and motivated to contribute to both organisational goals and personal satisfaction,” adds Prof. Cecez-Kecmanovic.

‘The future is up to us’

A critical point the authors make in their paper is that the future is up to us and our collective decision-making and our collective action. “We can build a future in which technology is deployed to support human creativity, rather than crudely attempt to displace it,” says Wang.

Their paper also calls on researchers, particularly information systems researchers, to think about ways in which they can inform the public about the most effective use of remarkable new technologies – such as how artificial intelligence can be used to enhance the quality and satisfaction with work and advance organisational performance, says Wang.

“From our research, we are inspired by the example of digital nomads as prototypical future digital workers. While we are aware that they are actually not typical (being exceptionally well-educated, mobile and entrepreneurial) their experiences are highly relevant to the future of work," he says. "But many other things are happening in the world of information systems and digital work that we can learn more about and reflecting on what this tells us about what the future of work should be like."

Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic is a Professor School of Information Systems and Technology Management and Blair Wang is a Research Student and PhD candidate in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School. For more information read Beyond the Factory Paradigm: Digital Nomadism and the Digital Future(s) of Knowledge Work Post-COVID-19 or How digital nomads keep working as they wander.


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