When the pandemic all but shut down the world, offices closed, restaurants and gyms were locked up, and travel came to a standstill to forestall the spread of the disease and reduce the impact on medical facilities. Everyone had to make adjustments.
One of the adjustments was the expanded opportunity to live the digital nomad life. “Before the pandemic, the term ‘virtual nomad’ applied to a privileged few who had found a way to finance perpetual travel — and seemed to do so effortlessly. But when COVID-19 forced employers to go remote, it opened up the possibility of a nomadic lifestyle to entirely new groups of people,” according to an NBC News report.
Meet Some Digital NomadsOne of those “new people” was David Koo, associate director of operations for Global Rescue based in Manila, who become a digital nomad due to the pandemic. “I had to make changes. Governments everywhere were starting to mandate work from home. I had an opportunity to relocate and returned to my home country in Singapore. After five months, my partner and I started traveling and working throughout Europe,” he said.
Another one of the “new people” is Andie Mary, a creative designer based in San Francisco, who decided to live the digital nomad life after the pandemic forced her and her fiancé to live and work in a small, one-bedroom apartment.
“We decided to take the opportunity to leave San Francisco to travel. We sold most of our belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Hawaii,” she said. Since then the couple has visited almost 50 different locations including Mexico, Spain, France, Monaco, Denmark, and Puerto Rico.
For others, digital nomadism was the solution to a love of travel. Lindsay McClure Miller, co-founder of World Story Exchange, an organization that invites people to observe their place and create documentary art for global dialogue, learned about digital nomadism while backpacking the world 14 years ago.
"I had saved money and was spending it as I traveled as a backpacker. I met people who were working remotely through their computers, which allowed them to travel or live in different places while making money. I decided I wanted to live, work and travel all at the same time,” she said.
The Origin of Digital Nomadism
Digital nomads – people using technology to work remotely from anywhere in the world – are not new. Steve Roberts is the original digital nomad. He published his “technomadic" lifestyle in Popular Computing Magazine in 1984. Roberts traveled the U.S. on a recumbent bike, lived in a tent, and made a living as a freelance writer using a solar-powered laptop. He called his on-the-road lifestyle a common yearning for independence and self-determination. “It’s a universal lust…for freedom,” he said.
Boosted by the pandemic, digital nomadism was on the rise before coronavirus, and not only among freelancers, independent contractors, and the self-employed. According to research, Americans self-describing as digital nomads rose by 49%, from 7.3 million in 2019 to 10.9 million in 2020. The recent surge is coming from people holding traditional office jobs. The number of digital nomads with traditional jobs rose from 3.2 million in 2019 to 6.3 million in 2020 — a 96% increase.
"Traditional jobholders now make up a majority of those pursuing this nontraditional work lifestyle," according to the study.
James Clark, a digital nomad running a travel business, agrees. “The global pandemic that ground cities to a halt in 2020 acted as an accelerant to the digital nomad way of life. Millions of office workers who were told to work from home discovered they could work from anywhere,” he said.
The Pros And ConsThe digital nomad life is not without its challenges.
“I like the flexibility, the control, and the integration of work and life. On the flip side, the instability is difficult because of the lack of feeling being grounded,” Koo said, who has visited nine different cities in five countries since leading a digital nomadic life.
“One benefit of being a digital nomad is that you can spend hours intensively at work and then take a break to enjoy things without feeling you are stuck in an office environment. But you have to be disciplined. It is easy to get lazy. You must keep to a routine, even when traveling,” he said.
McClure Miller identified two challenges for the digital nomad: the lack of community and the troublesome issues that pop up when you don’t have an address. “I miss friends and family back home,” she said.
But, she admits, the most frustrating part of being a digital nomad is the need for an address. “The government, utilities, mail services, insurances, vehicle registration, and more entities do not have a category for digital nomads. We are constantly anticipating where we will be or could be, to validate those needs,” she said.
Koo quickly learned a successful digital nomad must be self-reliant. Researching everything — including technical capabilities, available lodging, travel requirements, health care, and employer support — is imperative. “Talk to your supervisors about your plans. Stay connected and keep your promise. Nothing is worse than breaking their trust because you failed to meet a deadline or stay connected,” he said.
McClure Miller agrees, especially when it comes to health care. “There is no simple way to have health care coverage throughout the United States. It’s easy to have it for global trips, but not within the U.S.”
Dental care is difficult to arrange for digital nomads, according to Mary. “Coordinating dental appointments and seeing a doctor has been difficult. I've been able to do virtual doctor appointments,” she said.
Managing your health and safety as a digital nomad is different compared to vacationers, who travel for short periods, or ex-pats who are abroad in a single location for a year or more. Digital nomads may spend years abroad in multiple destinations, in many countries.
Health Care and Travel Protection
There are at least two types of health and safety protections digital nomads should consider, and both should include COVID-related services.
One is health care insurance. Your domestic health insurance plan probably does not provide coverage outside your home country, but check before you travel since a favorable answer could save you a lot of money. If you have Medicare, your coverage does not extend outside of the U.S.
“People don’t understand their health coverage,” says Kyle Bruening, CEO of Cruise Finder Inc., a travel agency in Margate, Florida.
“If you get sick or injured while traveling overseas, domestic health insurance plans likely won’t be accepted in foreign countries,” explains Allianz Partners’ Daniel Durazo in a Forbes report. “That means you’ll need to pay out of pocket for emergency medical care and transportation, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.”
Travel expert and freelance journalist Christopher Elliott say you can either get health coverage as part of your travel insurance policy or you can buy a stand-alone travel health policy. “Standard travel insurance will cover you abroad to the limits of liability but pay attention to the fine print. Sometimes travel insurance coverage is secondary, which means you’ll have to file a claim with your primary U.S. insurance before it kicks in. Generally, a separate medical insurance policy is primary, which means less paperwork,” he said.
The other type of protection is for travel crises and medical evacuation. If you get sick or injured anywhere in the world digital nomads need field rescue services that will come get them from the point of illness or injury, including for COVID-19, and medical evacuation if you need continued treatment or hospitalization in your home country.
[Related Reading: 6 Most Commonly Asked Questions About Our COVID-19 Services
The Future of WorkKoo believes digital nomadism will continue to grow but he admits that human connection is still essential.
“Digital nomadism will continue to expand in a connected world but humans still have a desire for actual face-to-face interactions. Nonetheless, I also see digital nomadism being a green initiative, cutting down our carbon footprint and reducing consumption,” he said.
Miller hopes the increase in digital nomadism will lead to more solutions to meet the basic needs of this growing lifestyle.
Mary forecasts the digital nomad trend will continue if business managers trust that productivity will meet or exceed past performance. “I see it continuing to be more of a trend if employers realize that employees don't necessarily need to sit in an office and employees realize the benefits of working remotely while traveling,” she said.