It was four years ago that I first embarked on my personal journey to become a digital nomad.
I loved the word nomad. It evoked imagery of freedom, exploration, and all-out adventure. I wanted to be that person whose front-gate opened onto La Rambla and whose backyard was Copacabana beach. The pace of technology and ways of working were moving quickly enough that this dream started to materialise in my mind as an actual potential reality.
What is a digital nomad?
A digital nomad is someone who utilises technology to work remotely. Most jobs that don’t require face-to-face interactions should be able to happen remotely. Indeed, COVID-19 has shown that many jobs that were previously considered in-person only can now be conducted via teleconferencing or other channels. Organisations have been utilising remote working for years through offshore call centres, development and testing teams, overseas executives hosting company-wide presentations or employees attending conferences.
If you were planning to go backpacking around Europe and asked your friends for advice, you would be inundated with tips on what to do and what to avoid. On the other hand, because the digital nomad lifestyle is still not so common, there isn’t yet such a large body of knowledge on how to do it right.
When I first began my journey, I ran a series of experiments to test and learn what worked for me and what didn’t. In the spirit of paying it forward and serving out the fruits of my research labour, here are my top 5 tips for becoming a digital nomad.
1. Get ready mentally to work some uncomfortable hours
This one might sound obvious, but it’s not as simple as trying to wake up a little earlier or stay up later. For Australians the worst location to remote work from is Europe. The Australian work day roughly equates to the middle of the night over there — 9 to 5 equals 1am to 9am. If your job requires you to align your hours, then unfortunately your sacrifice will be that you are turning yourself into a night-shift worker. This might seem like an acceptable trade-off for you, but if you haven’t done night shift before, go speak to someone who has and make sure you’ve prepared yourself mentally.
2. Don’t assume that the internet will just ‘work’ everywhere
Even when I’ve visited countries with famously fast internet, I’ve still had connection issues. I learnt quickly that for me the problem was not the internet connection itself, but rather the connection between me and my employer’s servers/VPN. Even if you don’t have to connect to a VPN, there is still any good chance that you might end up in places is poor, think hotel rooms, airports, to name two common culprits.
If you can, get a local SIM card with plenty of included data. Purchasing a local SIM is something I do in every country if I’ll be there for more than a day or two. If your hotel connection drops out or runs like a snail during the evening, just switchover and tether from your phone.
If your job involves a lot of autonomous tasks, make sure that you save local copies regularly so that you can keep working when the internet cuts. I like OneDrive or Google Drive for this purpose.
3. Have a backup plan… seriously
It happens. Things go wrong. And the things that do go pear-shaped are often those completely unpredictable events that you shake your head at and think, ‘how in a million years…’. A backup plan is crucial for a digital nomad. There are many ways to create a backup plan, but one that I use is a risk log and matrix. Think about all the possible risks and their likelihood and consequence. Then plan strategies to avoid or mitigate these risks from occurring.
The key risks that I identified for my situation were:
- Poor or no internet connection (as above)
- Breakdown or theft of computer
- Ad-hoc meetings being schedule that must be conducted face-to-face
Also, get the right travel insurance. If all your stuff gets stolen or you get hurt and you must come home, you’ll kick yourself for not spending an extra $20 that would have covered you for all that mess.
4. Don’t overtly advertise what you’re doing
This one is a little bit controversial and somewhat contradictory to me writing this article.
Prior to COVID-19, many people would write “working from home” with quotation marks, or do a bit of an old nudge, nudge, wink, wink after saying it. I’m sure you’d heard the old ‘Netflix and pyjamas’ stereotype. While COVID-19 has mostly changed that attitude, there will still be a stigma around working in paradisiac locations. Digital nomadism just sounds too good to be true for the boring majority of sheep. “How could he be on a blissful island on the other side of the world and still find the motivation to work? He’s obviously not working too hard!”
I’ve found the best strategy is to tell people on a need-to-know basis. If they are your boss, your reports, or peers in your immediate team, then they should be informed. If you didn’t tell them, they’d work it out quickly for themselves anyway.
If you often do video calls, make sure you continue to turn your camera on. If possible, make your background something neutral like a boring white wall. No poolside calls or sitting at a fancy café in the Champs Elysees.
5. Be overly present — more than if you were in the office
Part of being a digital nomad is selling the idea of digital nomadism to your peers. You need to visibly show them that you are working, hard. This lack of task privacy might be the trade-off required for being able to work remotely. You might not like to hear this one, but I would recommend that you work even harder remotely than you would if you were in the office.
Communicate your work goals and tasks for the week and give regular work-in-progress reports on how you’re tracking. Regularly touch base with your colleagues to ensure that you appear present and are perceived to be contributing as much as you would if you were at home or in the office.
What are you waiting for? … after COVID
I wish I could say that there’s never been a better time to jet off overseas and become a digital nomad, but COVID-19 has put a temporary hold on that trip to Fiji. On the flipside though, COVID-19 has normalised working from home and other locations like the coastal beach house or an Airbnb in the mountains. When the borders do eventually start to reopen and overseas travelling becomes an option again, take the leap and give it a go! Those exotic offices in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Bali are waiting for your visit.
- Have you tried digital nomadism or remote working? How did it go? What did you learn?