So, you want to be a digital nomad?

Tips and advice from the people who’ve swapped WFH for working from the world

We all know the posts. The Monday morning shot of a beach, pina colada, and laptop, with the caption “office for the day”. It’s the kind of post that makes you want to throw your own laptop out of the window – or book a one-way flight to Barbados.

They’re posted by “digital nomads” – people who use technology to live and work on the move. Historically, it’s only been a select few who have been able to embrace this way of living, but it’s become more widespread ever since You Know What forced pretty much everyone out of the office and onto the internet.

“Prior to covid, unless your employer was amazing, it was hard to get any flexibility,” says Employment Partner at Spencer West, Amanda Lennon. “But now, the whole work world has changed.”

It’s not just flexible working she’s talking about. In the post-covid workspace, another acronym has joined WFH on our pandemic bingo sheets: WFA, or “work from anywhere”. It’s a phrase that’s started cropping up in HR policies around the globe – Spotify being a prime example – as a symbol of a wider shift away from the office. After all, if you can work from home for a year, you can definitely work from a coastal town in the south of France, right? Right?

It’s this context that’s created what we’re calling the second generation of digital nomads. These are the people who have a permanent home, but who have used a newly flexible work environment to explore the world – without having to take annual leave.

“It’s not like traditional travel,” says Angela Laws. She’s a founding member of Trusted House Sitters, a site that matches digital nomads with people who need pet sitters while they travel themselves. She’s spent the last 40 years nomadding around the globe.

“We are not tourists. We have work to do, but we do it in an environment we choose rather than the environment we have to be in.”

And choose they have. Airbnb reported the percentage of long-term stays (over 28 days) doubled to 24% in the first quarter of 2021, while Angela has seen a definitive uplift in the amount of people using Trusted House Sitters.

“It can take quite a lot of thinking on your feet.” We’re talking to Laura Stoker, a freelance web designer who, in 2018, traded in her full-time office job for a one-way ticket to Australia. She’s spent the last three years travelling and working around the world and has many a tales about the highs – and challenges – of working while living a nomadic lifestyle. The main challenge is, as expected, having a good internet connection.

“We were staying on a little island in the Philippines, and I was hot spotting off my phone with very little signal,” she recalls. “Everyone on the island was using the same little bit of signal, so I had to get up at sunrise to make sure that no one else was on the internet so I could get the work done!”

However, as with most tales that had a 2020 chapter, the pandemic reared its head and her plans had to change – and fast.

“We were living in New Zealand in a camper van,” she says. “We got 48 hours’ notice that we were going into lockdown, and they were closing all the camping grounds and public toilets.”

She ended up “skillswapping”, exchanging a new website design for accommodation in a suddenly shut holiday rental, before deciding to fly to Portugal with her partner when the lockdown showed no sign of shifting. She now describes Portugal as her more-permanent home, while travel – as we’re sure we can all appreciate – is currently much more complicated than the traditional digital nomad life would have it.

At the moment, things just take a bit more planning,” she says. “And stuff like accommodation is so much more expensive now, as everyone's hyped up the prices to compensate for the losses of last year.”

There are also other things to consider if you’re feeling ready to pack up your laptop and hit the open road. First things first: can you “work from anywhere”? It turns out, this doesn’t actually mean “anywhere”. It means work from anywhere you can be legally employed – as well as where you can pay tax.

“If you’re coming from abroad and spend 183 or more days in the UK, you are a tax resident for UK purposes,” says Amanda. “Basically, if you spend half a year or more in a country, then you will become a tax resident for that country.”

She advises identifying your domicile (however counter-intuitive this may seem for a lifestyle characterised by being nomadic) and ensuring you’re paying the right amount of tax there – and avoid overstaying in one country, as you’ll end up paying tax there, too. Then, it’s all about doing your research.

“The government website is the best one to look at because it’s the least biased. Find out things like the political and economic climate, how to set up tax etcetera, and then approach your employer armed with information about moving your life somewhere else.”

Sounds like those dreamy Instagram posts aren’t that out of reach after all. But while we can’t say what the world of work will look like in a year’s time, it’s certainly clear that our attitude for travel hasn’t been hampered by the pandemic; it has only been heightened.

“We’re still planning on taking to the road,” smiles Laura. “Because the road, for us, is home.”