ANEAR MONTHS in confinement in a gray Berlin, Chris Bloom, personal trainer and blogger, planned his escape. Risking the wrath of jealous Instagram followers, he passed a covid-19 test, flew to Lisbon and settled into the coworking and coliving space Outsite, a pleasant property tiled in blue and white with the essential – a stable internet connection and a cafe.
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Mr Bloom is part of a growing brigade of digital nomads in Europe, who work remotely while satisfying their urge to travel. This kind of traveling lifestyle is as old as laptops and free internet. But covid-19 gave it a boost. A lockdown arbitration game began earlier this year as border controls eased and people fled congested cities like Berlin and London. Some headed to other cities, such as Lisbon and Madrid, which offered sunshine and looser lockout rules. Others have chosen remote places in the Mediterranean and the Alps. Now covid-19 restrictions are easing, but the trend continues as many Europeans reject a traditional office routine after a year and a half of working remotely. As Yoon-Joo Jee, an entrepreneur who lived through the pandemic between Seoul, Geneva and Lisbon, puts it: “There is an addiction to moving and exploring new places”.
America has the best data on the rise of new nomads. It had 10.9 million digital vagrants last year, up from 7.3 million in 2019. Academics say a similar leap is underway in Europe, which also offers continental scale and a lack of internal borders, from less within the Schengen area. Europeans looking for a change of scenery can move freely from Helsinki to Seville. During the pandemic, Google searches for the term ‘digital nomad’ reached historic highs in France and also increased in Spain and Germany. And there are plenty of destinations to discover. Eight of the top ten countries for nomads are in Europe, according to the Digital Nomad Index compiled by Circleloop, a telecommunications company, which ranks destinations based on rental costs and internet connectivity, among other factors.
This wandering way of life is likely to survive the pandemic. Covid-19 has caused big changes in the way people work, some of which could become permanent. Many employers are introducing flexible work policies, so it’s not just freelancers and entrepreneurs doing business on the beach anymore. A third of French and German workers will work remotely in 2022, predicts Gartner, a research firm, up from 22% and 27% in 2019, respectively. In a recent survey, 80% of employees considering a new role said the ability to live elsewhere was important to them. “I don’t think being a digital nomad is just a fad at this point,” says Mohammad Jarrahi, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There are fundamental changes in the foundations of work. “
The biggest obstacle to the nomadic way of life is bureaucracy. Filing your tax bill, for example, is complex for anyone moving from one jurisdiction to another. But new companies are trying to help. During the pandemic, John Lee launched Work From Anywhere Team, a marketplace for tax advisers around the world. He argues that nomads like him need an “Amazon for tax advice”. The pandemic has created awareness, says Michael Huertas of PwVS, an accounting firm, that “taxation according to national criteria is really archaic”.
European immigration rules are generally hostile to non-Europeans. But some governments, eager to attract visitors in economically difficult times, are relaxing the rules for digital nomads. Croatia and Estonia have introduced long-term visas for people without EU passports that can prove they are working online. In Portugal, Madeira’s regional government has gone further by offering free workspace, networking events and an online portal full of information on things like paperwork and places to stay. Since its inception last November, more than 9,000 people have registered on the Digital Nomads Madeira Islands website.
The economic benefits that can derive from the attraction of nomads are clear. They are generally wealthy people with significant professional experience who can afford to work from anywhere. They are unlikely to poach local jobs, but spend the money. In Madeira, government officials estimate that the average digital nomad spends € 1,800 ($ 2,100) per month. Hannah Brown, who works for the Estonian e-residency program, says the new visa has the added benefit of putting the small peripheral nation on the map.
Some locals, however, resent the nomads among them. As long-standing nomadic hotspots like Goa and Bali have discovered, well-paid foreigners can raise property prices. Some live in a bubble, having little to do with the locals other than those who serve them frozen lattes. The voltages can work in either direction. Some roaming workers do not like to be called “nomads”, fearing that this will make them rootless. They may oppose even more a new label that is gaining ground. Since so many nomads are male, single, and party-loving, cynics have started calling them “bro-fools” or even “digital gonads”. ■
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This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Travaux itinerants”