Why digital nomads have got it all wrong

Remote working has its advantages, but the presence of digital nomads also has its downsides, such as affecting locals
Remote working has its advantages, but the presence of digital nomads also has its downsides, such as affecting locals - Taiyou Nomachi/Digital Vision

Japan has joined the growing list of countries aiming to attract digital nomads to its shores, with The Japan Times reporting that the country will start issuing special visas to travellers who can work remotely within the next few weeks. The scheme will allow United Kingdom passport holders (plus those of about 50 other countries) to visit for up to six months – twice as long as a standard tourist visa – but there are strict conditions: you must earn at least Y10 million a year (that’s more than £50,000, though you’ll need a salary of this sort in order to live comfortably in Japan) and have a health insurance policy.

So should the world of travel be welcoming of the steady expansion of the remote-working phenomenon, or wary? After all, more than two dozen countries now offer tourist or other visas which allow people to stay and work remotely. I realise that I know two of the species myself. One, a radiographer who can analyse scans remotely and spends his winters in Australia, and another who is a London software engineer who also winters abroad – last year Bali, this year Mexico.

Societal impacts

There are lots of ways to look at the situation, but I’m beginning to wonder if the consequences of travelling and living in this supposedly liberating way might have some serious downsides. First, there are the societal impacts, which can be negative both for the local people and for the digital workers themselves. Destinations as disparate as Chiang Mai in Thailand and Lisbon in Portugal – both of which have proved especially popular with remote workers – are seeing rapid rises in the cost of accommodation in what amounts to a reversal of the traditional idea of economic migration. Instead of those from beleaguered economies moving to wealthier countries to improve their prospects, well-paid workers take advantage of cheaper living costs and enjoy a salary geared to a much more expensive home base.

These wealthy nomads may bring welcome spending money with them, but they also compete with locals for places to live. Rents in Lisbon – averaging more than €2,000/£1,700 per month – are now among the highest in Europe. Obviously, this isn’t just down to the nomads, but it is certainly affected by them.

Dangerously alienating trend

Then there is what is surely a dangerously alienating trend in working habits. I have no problem with remote working per se, I do it for part of the week. But surely we degrade our potential for communication and camaraderie, collaboration and creativity, when we engage solely through screens. It’s hard to read the room, difficult to crack jokes, and impossible to enjoy a drink after work.

You intensify that alienation even more by decamping to a different time zone – as is often the case, especially with winter nomads. In some cases – for purely technical jobs, for example, which require little discussion and less co-working – this is less of a hindrance. Being out of sync may even help, providing the opportunity to turn things around for people while they sleep. But most jobs require more communication than that.

Putting their careers at risk

In short, digital nomads may feel as though they are getting the best of all worlds: earning well, living cheaply and travelling the world in one long perpetual summer; but they may be putting their careers at risk.

I realise, as I write that, that I was – in some senses – guilty of this in my mid-20s, when I threw in my job and went travelling for a year, working my way around the world, helped by a young-person’s working visa in Australia. I suppose I was a sort of analogue nomad. But I took the risk consciously, using travel as a way to reboot my life, and in those days, financing your travels by working meant working locally. You had to engage with the people who lived there – whether you were picking fruit, or serving in a restaurant. I may not have been paid very much, but I certainly learnt about Australia and Australians while working behind a bar in Perth, and met many more local Hongkongers while doing a stint of English conversation lessons in a local language school than I would have done glued to a Zoom call with my co-workers back home.