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Remote Workers, Digital Nomads & its Implications for the Social Impact Sector?

Author:
Catalina Rojas

March 29, 2022

What do Ko Pha Ngan, Lisbon, Cape Town & Buenos Aires have in common? These are all desirable destinations for digital global nomads.  What are digital global nomads? Isn’t this just remote work? And more importantly, what are the main implications for social impact professionals? This blogpost aims at answering these questions.

I will explore the different terminologies to have a better understanding (remote worker, digital nomad, global covid nomad).  Secondly, and often not as explored, is a brief overview of the legal constrains when it comes to ditching the office and taking off to work during the day and surf in the afternoon (is it as easy as they say?).  Thirdly, I want to be honest and talk about WHO is this lifestyle for and what are some implications for hosts communities (after all I am a social scientist from the Global South and with a Colombian passport, I need to ask a few critical questions here).  Finally, I  explore the implications for us social impact professionals.  Is this a trend for coders and graphic designers or can social impact professionals become digital nomads too?   

  1. Terms and trends

When the leadership of PCDN.global decided to relocate from the expensive Washington D.C. area to the city of Medellin in 2018, we certainly joined the increasing trend of remote workers.  Certainly, since 2020 this trend has been growing even more.   

According to a report by MBO Partners, the pandemic accelerated the transition to digital nomadism or remote working status.  

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in major changes in the make-up of digital nomads. The biggest shift is that traditional job holders have been unleashed from their offices and many, instead of staying in one place, are taking to the road. In 2020, the number of traditional workers working as digital nomads grew 96 percent, from 3.2 million to 6.3 million.[1]

We, at PCDN.global could be defined as “location-independent, technology enabled professionals”, based on the definition suggested by the MBO Partners study

In turn, Digital Nomads are all of the above plus the fact that they chose to stay for finite periods of time and hop from city to city; and from continent to continent.   

A report by the firm Littler adds a more nuanced explanation of different types of remote workers and global covid nomads that range from “overseas local telecommuter; expatriate telecommuter; foreign-hire telecommuter; self-directed international traveler, telecommuter and stealth self-directed international-traveler telecommuter”.  My intention is not to discourage you with an array of confusing definitions but rather provide you with as much information as possible to make an informed decision if this is the right path for you. Regardless of what the specifics of your situation is, it is important to have in mind a number of legal considerations that are not as often explored in popular blogposts that encourage the “dream” of becoming a digital nomad.    It’s not as easy as NOT telling your employer that you will work from home and NOT disclose that home now is not where you used to work/live (Seattle) but is now in Costa Rica.   

Legal parameters, tax and human resources considerations aside, the growing trend of remote workers (in all its shapes and sizes) is requiring a steep adaptation from the employer side as well, because it is very doubtful the world of work will return to the 2019 reality no matter how much some employers are focused on getting their teams back to the “office.” 

One of the leading experts on remote work, Chris Herd, founder of firstbase.co recently tweeted. 

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It is clear that remote work is bringing huge changes to the world and those organizations that don’t adapt will experience sincere difficulties. 

  • Legal mumbo jumbo

If you Google Digital Nomad, you will find a number of popular blogposts with pictures of laptops overlooking rice fields (in Bali); hammocks in Caribbean beaches and all with glowing happy (white folks or mostly white) living their best lives.  Why endure New York City winters, impossibly high costs of living when you can be in Medellin sipping good coffee and buying giant avocados at .35 U.S. cents each? While each situation is different; let’s say you are a professor in a U.S. university and during 2020 you managed to get out of the country to continue teaching online.  Three months became six months and then before you know it, a year.  What are the legal, tax, migratory consequences of this? Did you clear it with your supervisor or with HR? Good for you for clearing this up with your employer but, according to the Little Report , not only is this NOT enough,  but you cleared with the wrong entity.  The problem is not so much with your employer  (many employers are still refuse to allow fully remotework) but also with legal, taxation and migratory laws of the host country.  Say what? Yes.  You are free to explore the three main hurdles exposed very clearly in the Little Report, but if you want the short-version, in many cases the risks are three: Permanent Entry (any business conducting business in any country must be registered for tax purposes); Payroll Mandates (like the U.S., every country has portions of the employee salary that goes for social security; pension, etc.); and Local Labor Laws.

At the risk of boring you with legal mumbo jumbo or you thinking this does NOT apply to you because you are a consultant/freelancer and you generate your own income, have you sorted out your own migratory status in the host country?   Remember the ubiquitous question that the immigration officer asks at port of entry?  Vacation or work? You may enter, for instance, Colombia for “vacation” and you work from a corner coffee but every 180 days you have to leave the country for fear of an economic penalty or worse being denied entry on a permanent basis.   Want to open a bank account? Not without a valid form of identification.  And the list of details go on and on….

What happens if you get injured in a host country while working and your employer is an overseas organization? What happens if your laptop (that your employer provided) gets stolen and you have not told your employer that you are, ooops, 5000 miles away? What about the security risks of accessing company data from outside the office? 

I should be remiss if I didn’t mention that certain hosts governments are developing a Digital Nomad Visa. This site includes one of the most complete lists I have seen, but this is changing fast.  Upon revision of requirements, it’s clear this visa is for freelancers and each country requires proof of  income, a fee to grant the visa, with varying lengths and other requirements.    But for professionals associated or employed by larger organizations which could be the case in social impact, this visa does not apply.  This visa is for self-employed individuals. 

As much as the growth of digital nomads and remote workers poses a challenge to many employers, it’s important to recognize that the world of work is radically changing and the trend is growing. Thus, legislation, tax and labor law considerations should also reflect these growing changes.     

4.  Who gets to be a digital nomad or remote worker and what are its effects on hosts communities?

While there may be exceptions to the rule, the majority of digital nomads tend to come from the Global North to, either the Global South, or cheaper Western locations (Portugal, Hungary, Estonia, and Bulgaria).  One of the “beauties” of this lifestyle is to be able to earn in a powerful currency and spend in a cheaper economy.  I would personally love to have digital nomadism available for everyone, regardless if their passport is British or Congolese.  But also, upon study of who gets to do this, the MOB partners report found that Digital Nomads (in the U.S.) are:

on average, well-educated, with 57 percent having a college degree or higher (versus 35 percent for adult Americans) and 24 percent reporting having an advanced degree (versus 13 percent for adult Americans).

So clearly, even within the U.S. - but fair to assume in other parts of the world- digital nomadism is certainly NOT an option for everyone.  And the pandemic heightened the big divide between essential workers (nurses, janitors, maids) and non-essential.  Many essential and service workers don’t have the possibility of even flex work  1-2 days a week at home, they have to be in the office every day all day.  

If I hadn’t had my coffee and my morning workout, I would be bitter enough to suggest that this “digital nomadism” is in a way a form of neocolonialism where the structural divisions between those that have entry due to certain passports and earning capability get to enjoy this trend.  How can we democratize “digital nomadism” to include professionals and workers from diverse sectors all over the world regardless of nationality?

Besides the limitations regarding who gets to be a digital nomad it’s important to mention as well, the effects that these workers on local and hosts communities have.   Not all is rainbows and sunsets. While many countries such as Spain, Thailand, Colombia are dependent of and eager to expand the economic segment related to tourism, and happily welcome the Dollars or Euros that the nomads bring with them; it doesn’t come without local disruptions.  The short-term stay disrupts communities and also, some short-term visitors (not always and not all of them) can bring with them loud parties; drugs; there’s sex trade and even less dramatically a disruption of local/family traditions.  There is the phenomenon of increasing the costs of housing, food, services as a result of foreigners being able to pay what locals cannot with their local and often meager wages.   However, it’s not all entirely negative or positive as many locals welcome visitors and benefit from an exchange of language; food and, in a city like Medellin, the steady stream of global north visitors have positively contributed to a cultural and gastronomical expansion of an otherwise isolated city.  For more on the impact of digital nomads read here.

5.  And what about this option for social impact professionals?

Digital nomads work in a wide variety of fields, including information technology (12 percent), education and training (11 percent), consulting, coaching, and research (11 percent), sales, marketing, and PR (9 percent), and creative services (8 percent) with other fields represented relatively equally. The unifying theme of these professions is that they can be performed remotely using digital tools and the Internet. From a gender standpoint, more men pursue digital nomadism than women, with a 59 to 41 percent split, consistent with 2019 results.   

I think in a majority of cases it is safe to assume that social impact, social change, social entrepreneurship roles can indeed be done remotely.  However, what about the concerns of the employer? What happens if you are a professor/researcher and work for a university? What about working in direct-services or with communities directly? Then you enter the situation of the three limitations stated at the beginning of this article.  But what if you are a consultant?  If you consult for a variety of organizations and you generate your own income, you will have to sort out your visa status and tax situation in the host country or countries and even figure out how to accept payments from clients in diverse locations.   While in principle social change professionals could be digital nomads, my personal take is that traditional fields such as International Development, and large international organizations or other sizeable bureaucracies, will take longer to adapt and cater for remote workers.   Here I see an advantage for global southern professionals to be preferred by those organizations because a) it’s the right move (de-colonizing development and social impact ) and b) why bring an outragedly expensive global northern professional if you have an equally qualified professional better informed and immersed in the local or regional realities?   

My final question that I pose is finding what are YOUR priorities: your lifestyle or your career advancement (of course these are not always mutually exclusive).  If it’s the former, you may find jobs that are not necessarily better for you career but make sense for your travel/life ambitions. However, if number two is your top priority you may consider certain jobs that are not so in tuned to the latest trends in the world of work, but may be considered a stepping stone to your ambitions.  This is NOT to say that you can’t become a brilliant U.N officer from the comfort of beach sunset, but for many key positions one needs to be based and build networks in the key global headquarters that host such institutions such as Geneva, New York and Nairobi. Of course, one may go out to postings in countries around the world and advance a career but there is still a strong expectation to be in the office. Obviously, nobody will trade fluorescent lighting and a windowless cubicle for a dramatic mountain landscape but as I said before, think about your priorities, understand the market and the organizations and hopefully the world of work will allow for further opportunities to working remote for everyone who wishes to do so.

Sources:

https://hbr.org/2021/07/your-company-needs-a-digital-nomad-policy

https://www.littler.com/files/global_covid_nomads.pdf

https://s29814.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/MBO-Partners-Digital-Nomad-Report-2020.pdf


[1] https://s29814.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/MBO-Partners-Digital-Nomad-Report-2020.pdf

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