Tanja Polegubic: The rise of digital nomads will reshape cities in 3 ways
Interview with the founder of Saltwater Nomads
Tanja Polegubic is the founder of Saltwater Nomads and co-founder of Digital Nomad Association (DNA) Croatia. Speaking to TheMayor.EU, she discusses the rise of digital nomads, their impact on cities and upcoming events in Croatian cities.
Ms. Polegubic, how did you come up with the idea for Saltwater Nomads and what does your company do?
I moved to a new city and a new continent and I knew I didn’t want to work alone in my apartment, so I opened a coworking space. This is how Saltwater began. I am originally from Australia, with Croatian heritage. I had always wanted to try living in Croatia and a remote job made it possible.
The goal was to create a physical center that people traveling to Croatia or wanting to live there could use, while carrying out projects that interested me. Since then, I have been involved in European projects around the themes of science, agriculture and sustainable tourism.
Since the pandemic, and Croatia offering a digital nomad visa, the country is now “on the map” for many digital nomads. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great partners, public and private, who started this movement and continue to deliver world-class events and projects to ensure this country is welcoming and people destinations are prepared for remote professionals.
In 2022, I will work with other destinations in the region. Saltwater Nomads is now a consultancy that combines events, tourism and co-creation strategies with sustainability.
What do you think are the benefits of working remotely?
Freedom, sustainability, family and well-being.
I really appreciate freedom, so that’s my number one answer here. This stems from being able to choose which country you want to work in down to sitting on the grass in your backyard rather than at a desk. I try to work outside at least once a day, whether on the terrace, in a café or on the lawn.
I read a statistic that adult UK citizens spend over 50 years of their adult life indoors. So, being in the fresh air or the mild sunshine is something you don’t always get in a regular office or in some climates.
In terms of durability, the environment benefits as traffic and fast fashion become less necessary. We no longer waste time moving around. It’s good for our well-being and the environment. I read posts all the time from people who are going for a run with the time they save or have more time for their physical health and the people (and pets) in their lives.
Moreover, even changing our wardrobes benefits the environment, as corporate or “professional” looks have changed. This affects fast fashion as I know I have personally bought less stuff and if you are traveling you have to consider what you are packing.
The journey also impacts our ability to be with family. Whether it’s young children or in my case right now, I can spend more time with my family in Australia as I can continue to work on projects remotely.
When it comes to well-being, there are definitely benefits to having a supportive community and colleagues around a physical workplace. That’s why many digital nomads use coworking spaces — not just for productivity but also for connections.
How do you think the rise of digital nomads will shape the cities of the future?
It will shape cities through the potential for repopulation, the creation of new jobs and the repurposing of physical spaces.
Brain drain can turn into ‘brain gain’ as those who had to leave for job opportunities elsewhere can now come back and stay or even bring in new people for short or long term stays. For example, colleagues can choose their “offsite” or meeting locations based on where team members are located, bringing a diverse skill set and potential for new industries.
Employment and new industries
There are economic benefits to a city, through new or expanded product and service offerings. It can also mean that a city can benefit from diverse skill sets, thanks to digital nomads engaging with industry, schools, or other institutions in a local community. As a result, industries that may not have existed before can thrive as a hub in new areas.
Estonia is a great example of this, attracting so many entrepreneurs. Lisbon too, with its focus on startups over a decade ago. Cities dependent on tourism come to mind most here. This is certainly the case for Croatia, which derives around 20% of its GDP from tourism.
Rethinking physical spaces
In terms of physical spaces, this is an area with major changes, not only from digital nomads, but also from a local community working from home instead of a CBD (central business district) .
Commercial real estate is disrupted with empty buildings and canceled leases. If these remain empty, the manner in which they are reassigned should be carefully considered. This affects the businesses that support them, such as restaurants and retail businesses that previously served office workers.
Have a strong offer in ‘off season’ and an evening economy is also another area for digital nomads. Many business parks have hospitality businesses that close “after work”. If these become digital nomad hubs, the “working day” schedule may be very different and determined by time zones, as someone may start at 4 p.m. and finish at midnight.
To talk again about tourism-dependent cities, those that have empty spaces for more than half of the year can be repurposed. For example, we are transforming a hostel into a coworking space from October to April. It’s not a big money maker, but it keeps someone employed and serves the digital nomads who come in during the fall and winter months.
Adaptability, local public support and promotion to digital nomads in these early phases of this new wave are essential for cities to thrive.
Saltwater Nomads has collaborated with several Croatian cities to create opportunities for remote workers. Can you share some examples?
The best examples are Dubrovnik and Zagreb. I started working with Total Croatia News and the Dubrovnik City and Tourism Board in 2020, who immediately saw the opportunity in the proliferation of remote work and Croatia’s position in the world since the announcement of a digital nomad visa: the second country in Europe to offer it, and the seventh in the world with the Caribbean islands.
In Dubrovnik, we organized Croatia’s first digital nomad conference in October 2020. We knew that even though millions of people would come to the city, they wouldn’t stay there for long. Thus, the idea of a group of Digital Nomads-in-Residence (DN-IR) was born.
Dubrovnik DN-IR was held from April 23 to May 23, 2021, as a month-long lived experience, with weekly workshops to identify quick wins, short- and long-term goals and interventions. And, who better to inform that than a diverse group of digital nomads from around the world and from different professions.
The city now has a roadmap for success. Details are outlined in the DN-IR case study, and part of the deliverables include a 30-day digital nomad map, a long-stay website resource, and the opening of new coworking spaces.
In Zagreb, another key project was the Zagreb Digital Nomad Week in June 2021. The event took place over 7 days with 7 themes. Additionally, we have added a 6-month Global Ambassador Project. It took place only 6 months after the devastating earthquakes of 2020. The whole city was the place.
In 2021, we covered emerging themes of remote working and highlighted lifestyles and experiences in Zagreb. There were more than 26 speakers, broadcasting live from Bali to Barcelona, Manly Beach to Sydney, to a co-working space in the UK Square of Zagreb, hit by one of the earthquakes.
What collaborations, projects or events can digital nomads expect?
We have two hybrid events coming to Croatia in May and June. And there is also the chance to win a “workwork” in Dubrovnik in May.
May 5-7, 2022
The inauguration To work. Location. Culture. Conference will take place from 5 to 7 May in Dubrovnik (and online). We have some of the leading voices in HR and remote work, plus destinations from Europe and beyond showcasing their work. We are always looking for destinations and any city, region or tourist office can contact us.
May 1-9, 2022
Win a Workation (part of the conference above). A team from anywhere in the world can win a 5-star stay at Sun Gardens Dubrovnik with a workshop of their choice.
May 1-30, 2022
Dubrovnik will also have its first digital nomad ambassadors in May, who will organize a meeting and workshops.
May 9-15, 2022
DNA Croatia was contacted by Nomad Base as they had seen one of their community selected as Zagreb Digital Nomads Ambassador. They will organize a Nomad Base Live event in Primosten on the Croatian coast.
June 13-19, 2022
Zagreb Digital Nomad Week 2022, an event that won major awards last year in B2B/B2C and sustainability.
June 26 – July 3
Bansko’s annual Bansko Nomad Fest takes place in Bulgaria.
October to April
Saltwater’s Nomadic Table is a meet-and-greet event every Friday at the Zinfandel restaurant in Split. DNA Croatia also organizes regular cocktail parties on Wednesdays in Croatia.
It’s not public yet but I know of at least 3 European cities looking to host a series of events and campaigns and a virtual event in the US.
It’s a big year for digital nomads as borders reopen and companies roll out their remote working policies. We hope to see you at some of our future events – and can offer a 10% discount in Dubrovnik for all TheMayor.EU readers who contact us and mention this article.