Digital Nomads Develop a More Purposeful Model

As digital nomads move from developed countries to emerging economies, giving back to these newly adopted workplaces is becoming a priority for some.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

CREDIT: Christoph Burgstedt

While 42% of workers in the United States have returned to their offices full time as COVID restrictions end, others have gone in the opposite direction, taking their remote work to far-flung tropical paradises and trendy tourist destinations throughout the world.

International remote workers, dubbed “digital nomads,” comprise 16.9 million American workers, a 9% increase from 2021 and a whopping 131% jump from the pre-pandemic year 2019, according to research firm MBO Partners.

Based upon the organization’s recent study, digital nomads are more likely to have been self-employed than their traditionally employed counterparts. Three out of four digital nomad workers (76%) had either started their own businesses or worked as independents before joining the traditional workforce versus 40% of workers overall.¹

Digital nomads report feeling more in control of their own destinies and career futures. And for the past decade, they have tended to move from developed countries to emerging economies.

It’s not all happy travels and working in comfortable pajamas, however. The trend of Americans and natives of other industrialized countries working from their laptops in remote-employment destinations such as Mexico, Portugal, and Thailand has prompted cultural and socioeconomic reckonings.

Media reports have described digital nomads camping out for hours in locally owned coffee shops, talking loudly on Zoom calls, and monopolizing tables where other paying customers could have sat, with no consideration for the owner’s sales, the shop’s ambience, or the local culture’s manners.

Lavinia Iosub, managing partner of Livit, a support ecosystem for tech startups headquartered in Estonia and Indonesia, which includes a coworking and tech innovation hub in Bali, Indonesia
Lia Sadia, chief marketing officer for Remote Skills Academy
Prithwiraj Choudhury, Ph.D., the Lumry Family Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School

Moving beyond “us” and “them”

Lavinia Iosub, who describes herself as “passionate about the future of work,” found herself growing increasingly dissatisfied as she witnessed the disparity between the way local residents and digital nomads lived. Iosub, with a background in business administration and human resource development, is based in Bali, Indonesia, for most of the year. She describes herself as a “location-independent entrepreneur” for the rest of the year. She has lived in eight countries.

In an effort to narrow the skills and lifestyle gaps between the digital nomads and the many low-paid, service-worker natives, Iosub founded the Remote Skills Academy within Livit, a co-living community for startup founders and entrepreneurs, for which she serves as managing partner. Headquartered in Estonia and Indonesia, Livit’s concept is to support the local entrepreneurs with training, meals, laundry, event rooms, and other day-to-day needs so they can focus on their new work lives.

“I believe that when we design more purposeful, sustainable businesses and lifestyles, we shape a better reality,” says Iosub in her LinkedIn profile introduction.

“I have spent the last 10-plus years studying and understanding the mindset, practices, and tools required to make that happen,” said Iosub, whose personal and professional experiences span four continents and more than 40 countries.

A key part of Livit, the Remote Skills Academy is an education platform for Indonesians who want to learn to work online and build successful remote careers. The academy hosts most of its classes online and offers courses on topics such as digital marketing, virtual assistant training, and Web 3.0 community management.

Lia Sadia, the Remote Skills Academy’s chief marketing officer, said the academy keeps up with the latest technology so that its students get the most up-to-date training and promotes itself to digital natives through social media campaigns and thought leadership initiatives.

The Remote Skills Academy has graduated 1,700 participants, including 700 alumni who network, share best practices, and post job opportunities through the Telegram messaging app. Many of the academy’s alumni go on to start their own businesses, and they in turn hire new academy trainees.

“We do a lot of marketing efforts on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube,” said Sadia, who is based in Bali. The promos include those from academy alumni and mentors who are excited to tell others about their experiences.

“We’ve seen, for example, stay-at-home mothers who [after training] went from zero income to making more money than their entire family, after just a few months of learning new skills.”

– Lavinia Iosub, managing partner, Livit

Two success stories, for example, include a mom who switched her career to a virtual assistant after she graduated from the academy so that she could work remotely and spend more time with her children, and a former restaurant server who, after being hired by a European technology company, was able to triple his income and get rid of a two-hour, round-trip daily commute within six months of finishing the academy, Sadia said.

As for the digital nomads who train the academy’s students, Sadia said many are glad to become involved because they grow to appreciate Indonesia and, in some cases, want to try their hands at teaching new ideas they’ve developed.

Iosub said she wished she could have predicted “how remote work would, in the early 2020s, quickly transform from a superpower, a niche skill acquired by fans of [the apps] Basecamp and Time Doctor and [entrepreneur and ‘lifestyle guru’] Tim Ferriss, into a necessity.

“It now makes the difference between those ‘remote-privileged,’ who can work from anywhere, access opportunities from all across the world, make dollars, and spend rupiah, enjoy their coconut lattes, morning surf, and tropical smoothie bowls in Bali or Thailand, and the rest, the ‘others,’ who have to depend on low-paid, highly seasonal jobs within 5 square kilometers around where they happened to be born,” Iosub said at Running Remote, an industry conference for distributed teams held in April in Lisbon, Portugal. She shared her quotes with SWE Magazine.

“We’ve seen, for example, stay-at-home mothers who went from zero income to making more money than their entire family, after just a few months of learning new skills,” Iosub said.

Iosub’s company helped hire more than 300 people for its own tech startups and other partner projects — not just in Bali, but also in other areas of Indonesia and Asia as a whole.

Some of the startups that came out of the various programs that Livit facilitated, such as Labster, MagLoft, and Mailbird, have been hiring local Indonesian tech talent since as early as 2013.

Above all else, Iosub said, it’s important to stop “otherizing” the locals. “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she said. “We are all together sharing this experience called life, and the same goals and needs and hopes.

“As digital nomads, location-independent professionals, expats, or however else we might want to label ourselves, we should be respectful and considerate residents, aim to create opportunities for locals, and contribute to the local economies, just like we would at home.”

Local connectors make the difference

Prithwiraj Choudhury, Ph.D., Lumry Family Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School, who studies the geographic mobility of workers, said it’s vital that an active organization such
as Livit connect digital nomads with local residents.

“If I were the mayor, the head of [a nonprofit organization], or the leader of a powerhouse foundation [in the digital nomad’s adopted homebase], I’d say, ‘Can we create a program where we can create connections with local residents? Organize lunches or events around topical issues? What can we do that will lead to our local residents getting hired, trained, and able to start new businesses?’” Dr. Choudhury said.

Dr. Choudhury’s research shows digital nomads’ involvement can boost economies through their spending and their cultural connections with local residents.

“As digital nomads, location-independent professionals, expats, or however else we might want to label ourselves, we should be respectful and considerate residents, aim to create opportunities for locals, and contribute to the local economies, just like we would at home.”

– Lavinia Iosub, managing partner, Livit

He cited as an example Start-Up Chile. The 13-year-old program, managed by the Chilean Economic Development Agency, initially brought 22 startup companies from 14 countries to Chile and provided them equity-free seed capital and a temporary one-year visa. They joined a 24-week program in Santiago where they received mentoring, office space, and access to social and capital networks.

Many of the entrepreneurs had graduated from Stanford and Harvard universities and ended up hiring local residents, who in turn started their own companies, Dr. Choudhury said.

“The country now has a vibrant startup community,” he said. “They’ve made connections that last after the remote worker leaves to go elsewhere.”

Other examples of notable connectors include:

  • KINO, which introduces digital nomads to small villages away from tourist hotspots — what KINO calls “hidden gems” — to forge deep relationships with local residents
  • Nomads Giving Back, an organization that connects nomads and locals through events and volunteer opportunities in Bali; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Medellín, Colombia

Other tips for the digital nomad life

As for working remotely in a new location, U.K.-based IT consultant Ainhoa Borobia Aldanondo advises digital nomads to be mindful of other details, such as those recommended in an International Citizens Group blog:²

  • “Find a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees to save money as you travel. Foreign transaction fees can add 3% or more to every expenditure. Additionally, when you pay with your credit card, always choose to pay with the local currency. Paying in your own currency will often come with a terrible exchange rate and an added surcharge.
  • Figure out if your phone will work with a local SIM card. There are different kinds of mobile networks and not all of them are compatible with all phones. Switching SIM cards can cause problems with WhatsApp and other applications because it changes the phone number of your device. It can also create problems if a company is texting you a code for two-factor authentication because it will go to your home country number and not the number on the SIM card for your new country. You can get around some of these problems by using your home phone number with a virtual phone line such as Google Voice.”

Kirsten Sargent, P.E., C.Eng., a Denver-based senior engineer with engineering firm Jacobs, worked in the U.K. during the COVID pandemic lockdown. She advised:

  • Pay attention to such details as whether you have the correct work visa and your visa’s expiration date, what your visa permits you to do, and what it doesn’t permit you to do. Governments have started to notice the rise in digital nomads visiting their countries and have begun introducing special visas to enable the remote workers to stay in their new remote workplaces. Some digital nomad activists want governments to prioritize digital nomads’ incomes and professions, rather than their countries of origin, to provide greater access to the nomadic visas.
  • Pay attention to your taxes. “When I was living in the U.K., I was paying U.K. taxes,” Sargent said. “There is a threshold where you don’t have to pay tax in the United States if you are paying in another country, but you still need to file to prove that.”

1. “Happier, Healthier, and Wealthier: State of Independence in America 2022,” MBO Partners.
2. Gustas, N. “31 Tips for Digital Nomads No One Tells You,” International Citizens Group.