Life

Screw Commuting, Here's How Being a Digital Nomad Works

This is what might happen if you decide to take your work from home set-up abroad.
04 September 2020, 8:15am
Man working on beach
Photo: Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Thanks to “the new normal” – that vaguely depressing phrase everyone’s using for the post-lockdown environment we’re living in – many office jockeys have realised they are no longer tied to commuting from a £700-a-month shithole in Zone 3. As a result, some people who are currently smashing work from their kitchen table are looking to move further afield – or even head abroad.

The rise of remote working during the pandemic means that digital nomadism – the term for people who have adopted a lifestyle of living out of AirBnBs and working from a laptop – is no longer just the reserve of Instagram-famous vegans and app developers on £80k a year. But is it really viable for people with, you know, normal jobs?

“I think it’s unlocked a lot of stuff,” says Matt, a 31-year-old user-experience designer from Manchester who has been working abroad since June. “I don’t know if companies are going to turn around from this. It’s possible for people to work remotely and they can save on the costs of having people in an office. It’s all about flexibility now.”

Matt headed to Berlin during the height of the pandemic to be with his girlfriend who lives there – and he quickly realised he could work remotely without too much hassle. Since making the move, he has also spent time in Switzerland, Poland and Hungary, crashing in AirBnbs and with friends.

Matt says his work were fine with the arrangement and his constant travelling has become a bit of an ongoing joke in Zoom calls. The hardest part, he says, is keeping up with which countries he can and can’t get into as coronavirus rules change so quickly.

“I feel it’s a bit grey a lot of the time. Like, are you allowed to enter the country from the border you’re leaving from, or is it that you’re based in the UK so are they basing it off that? I don’t know.”

Making the leap to working abroad during a pandemic might sound insane, but the recent rise in remote working has actually led some countries to try and attract digital workers – and their disposable incomes – to help kickstart their ailing economies. A few places that have been hit hard by the collapse of tourism are now looking to appeal to remote workers by offering digital work visas, which allow people who may not otherwise meet a particular country’s requirements for a work visa to do their UK-based job abroad. You can apply for one of these visas from Georgia, Estonia, or, if you really want to put the remote into remote working, Barbados.

These new visas will go some way to standardising something that has existed in legal ambiguity for years. The rise of digital nomadism over the last decade or so has followed in the wake of “disruptive” digital companies – think AirBnb and taxi apps like Uber – that have tested tax and work regulations across the globe. The pace of technological advancement has outstripped laws that often don’t take new ideas and technologies into account. Just as Uber has long tried to argue its workforce is self-employed to avoid falling under certain employment laws and AirBnb has pushed both tax and housing regulations, digital nomads have flown under the radar of their host countries’ tax laws.

“It’s like people coming to the UK and working and not really contributing to the tax system,” Matt acknowledges. “I think a lot of digital nomads are using public transport and putting money into the economy, but they’re not doing it through taxes.”

Because remote working abroad grew organically out of a loose online community of freelancers, it has allowed individuals to skirt around tax and work regulations in a way that employees of big companies cannot. Now the prospect of digital nomadism is opening up to more people, the legal snags are getting harder to avoid.

“The employee could end up having to pay tax in both countries and the employer may be liable to [pay] tax itself, ” says Sybille Steiner, a partner at Irwin Mitchell Solicitors’ employment team. She says that companies are likely to want to avoid the risk of being considered to have set up “permanent establishment” in a country, which means they would have to cough up for local taxes.

The obstacles don’t end there, either: “Local employment law will likely apply at some point as well, which means that an employer will have to familiarise itself with that law and comply with its requirements.”

Recently on the 900,000-member digital nomad subreddit there have been a number of posts from employees trying to negotiate moves to remote working abroad with their employers, to varying degrees of success. One of the more extreme cases is of Emily (who does not want to reveal her surname) – a recruitment manager who wants to start working remotely from a boat and sail during her free time.

Despite getting through the initial stages of negotiation, the HR department at the company she works for rejected her proposal on the grounds that she cannot guarantee a secure internet connection and because of her employer's health and safety responsibilities. She is now considering going freelance, either at her current company or elsewhere, in order to achieve her plan.

But for Will Harris, a 23-year-old data scientist, things were easier. The AI company he works for has been working remotely since the start of the pandemic and will be carrying on for the foreseeable. He recently used the opportunity to spend four weeks working in Porto, a decision that his boss was fine with.

“For me it’s really very similar,” he says. “I had my internet connection, it really just continued as normal. The thing that really helped for me was going to a coworking space for stuff like preparation and to have a proper desk setup.”

Will paid £115 out of his own pocket for a month’s membership at coworking space Porto.io, which offers desk space and reliable internet to remote workers. While it was his choice to work abroad – and he could have also worked out of the apartment he was renting – it’s interesting that he shouldered the cost of hiring a workspace for himself. It made me wonder, once you have finally talked HR into agreeing to let you fuck off to Ibiza with a laptop, is remote working actually all its cracked up to be?

“I think I do miss the social side of the office,” Will says. “It’s not quite the same, I think there are some things you can only get from in-person interactions.”

Matt agrees, saying he misses going for weeknight pints with his workmates and chatting over coffee in the office kitchen. He also says that Instagram might fuel unrealistic expectations of the digital nomad lifestyle, arguing that it’s not the big holiday that some posts make it out to be.

“People are definitely manipulating stuff on social media, sat on a beach,” he says. “There’s no way if I was sat on a beach I could see my screen for one thing and secondly, how much work are you really getting done?”

Despite the drawbacks, digital nomadism and remote working look set to stay for those who have proved they can work from a laptop. Almost any office-based job that can be done without face-to-face contact is a potential candidate for remote working, if the employer agrees to it.

The government is now shitting itself about offices remaining deserted by this shift – and by extension the businesses like gyms, cafes and hairdressers that rely on office workers as customers. The Tories are now on a mission to scare workers back into the office, even hinting that remote workers could be the first in line for sackings if businesses continue to struggle.

But the question is whether this thinly-veiled attempt to prop up Pret’s empty outlets and bail out office landlords will actually persuade people to start commuting again. The pandemic just seems to have accelerated an existing trend and the government has been left playing catch-up.

“Every day more and more large companies are deciding they are not heading back to the office,” remote working consultant Melissa Smith tells me. “Pinterest broke their lease and paid $89.5 million dollars to do so. The greatest challenge job seekers and employers now face is the inexperience of both parties coming together – and learning as they go.”

@HaydenVernon