January 15, 2017
According to FlexJobs, 3.3 million full-time professionals in the United States, excluding volunteers and the self-employed, consider their home as their primary place of work. This trend of digital nomads saying goodbye to traditional offices shows no sign of slowing. By 2020, FlexJobs projects that 50 percent of people will work remotely in the United States.
In June 2015, I joined our semi-distributed team at Piktochart as a remote team member. I quickly looked for ways to connect with others who also work outside of a traditional office. I signed up for Remote Year, a dominant player in the digital nomad travel program space. Remote Year participants spend an entire year working abroad, moving to a different city each month.
My cohort kicked off in June 2016, and our itinerary was set to cover 4 continents, 12 cities, and 10 countries. In the end, I traveled with Remote Year for 21 weeks. I decided to leave the program to go back to traveling the world and working remotely on my own.
As I reflected on all the benefits I received from the Remote Year’s program, there were certainly improvements that could have been made along the way. Check out a few challenges that digital nomads face and the solutions to them below:
Challenge #1: A Year With the Same Group Is Too Long
I once compared my time in Remote Year to being in a conference lobby for 21 weeks straight. There were times when it was exciting to get to know people in my group, but there were other times when each interaction felt like a small talk marathon.
For me, it’s important to get new ideas and faces into a community to be sure it doesn’t grow stale. This can be done by incorporating new program participants into the mix over time, or limiting the program time.
Solution #1: Carve Out Time For Smaller Group Travel
A few months before kicking off Remote Year, I joined Hacker Paradise for 3 weeks in Bali. Hacker Paradise is a traveling community for developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and other digital nomads. They’ve had over 300 participants from 35+ countries. Trips to a country vary in length, anywhere from one to three months.
“Our minimum stay is 2 weeks, and most people join us for 4-8 weeks,” said Casey Rosengren, cofounder of Hacker Paradise. “This allows them to form deep connections and have a strong community experience, and then also take off on their own for some solo or small group travel. There are benefits to both types of travel, and I think for many people, the ideal lifestyle mixes tight-knit community experiences with periods of more independent adventures. After living in a close community for 2-3 months, it can be nice to have a break and some time to yourself. It’s also nice for people to go on side adventures to places we may not be able to head as a group.”
Challenge #2: Not Everyone Is In Work Mode
My Remote Year cohort was mostly made up of employees, founders, and freelancers who were working remotely. In the mix, we also had some digital nomads who were not focused on daily work during their year-long journey. There were students, people taking a sabbatical from their corporate job, or people who were open to their next career path.
I found myself longing for more people I could relate to on a professional level. I was interested in redefining what work could be alongside other people passionate about their careers.
Solution #2: A Common Thread is Key
One solution to creating a common thread for digital nomads was developed by Ann Davis, director of Venture with Impact. Her startup is launching a pilot program in January and February 2017 with 15 participants.
What binds these travelers together is an interest in volunteering with local organizations.
“We have a few participants who are taking time off of work or are between jobs, and will be volunteering full-time,” explained Ann. “We have a participant who is working full-time on a Western time zone, so she will be volunteering in the mornings a few days a week. We have a Ph.D. student, who will be volunteering two half days each week.”
Each Venture with Impact participant’s volunteer experience is individualized based on their interests and work schedule. Ann and her team have spent time forming relationships with each non-profit partner so that they have a strong understanding of their programs and needs.
Challenge #3: The Accommodations Aren't What You Expect
Before joining Remote Year, I had stayed in roughly two dozen Airbnbs around the world. At first, I thought having a travel company arrange my accommodations for an entire year would save me time and stress. Showing up to a new city and being given a key to an apartment seemed awesome.
As my 21 week journey with Remote Year went on, I became less and less thrilled about the uncertainty of not knowing where I’d live. And I wasn’t the only one. In a handful of cities, members of our cohort were openly furious about their apartments, which added more stress on the group dynamic and positivity levels.
Each new city meant a roll of the housing dice. Sometimes it turned out well, other times not so much. The stress over how it would turn out month after month caused more anxiety for me than I could have anticipated.
Solution #3 : Preview And Privacy = Productivity
Dane Andrews and the team at Roam seem to have found an innovative solution to housing for digital nomads – an international network of co-living spaces. To date, 300 members have stayed at their spaces.
Roam’s spaces can be seen by members in advance of landing at the location. Participants can also check out the neighborhood to see if it’s ideal for their lifestyle.
One of my favorite aspects of Roam is the private bedroom and bathrooms for all members. Being able to have space to call my own turned out to be something I missed most while on Remote Year. When I happened to land an apartment to myself, I noticed a dramatic difference in my productivity and happiness levels.
“Private rooms and bathrooms is a core aspect of Roam,” explained Dane. “Our members want to know they always have an amazing private sanctuary to retreat to after a long day. This privacy aspect also allows us to connect with diverse groups of travelers, so that we can accommodate boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and everyone in between. This diversity in age, background, and experiences is what creates a proper ‘community,' instead of a homogeneous group of people who are about the same age and all think relatively the same.”
Whether I’m in a new city, country, or continent with fellow travelers , I’m constantly learning and exploring. For me, the key in this experience is trying new things, giving them a fair shake, and cutting loose the ideas that aren’t a good fit. As the digital nomad life comes within reach of more and more professionals, travelers should try to see if this lifestyle suits them. “Living as a service” startups are on the rise with innovative options for people of all backgrounds – and it’s an exciting time to be a remote worker.
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