by Ryan Chatterton
I joined the coworking movement three and a half years ago with high hopes about where we were going as human beings. With the rise in the sharing economy and the “SaaS-ification” of previously inaccessible resources and tools, I could see a future where almost anything was possible.
But over the last year, as more and more huge and well-funded brands entered the coworking scene and began corporatizing every aspect of the industry, not to mention the startups that had begun trying to monetize every interpersonal interaction they could find, it all began to feel devoid of meaning. I was no longer able to find the purpose of my industry beyond occupancy rates and happy hours.
Then Brexit happened, and Trump, and atrocities kept being committed all over the world. By comparison, my work seemed trivial. In all honesty I considered completely shutting down my site, Coworking Insights, firing all my clients, and attempting to figure out something more worthwhile to do with my life.
Then one day I arrived in a Budapest, Hungary with nothing but a backpack and a small carryon bag, which, combined with their contents, comprised my only remaining worldly possessions. It was around this time that I began realizing how important coworking could be. I saw that maybe, just maybe, the rise of coworking and digital nomadism might very well provide some solutions to the problems we’re currently facing.
Let’s go back in time a bit.
In the weeks prior to my arrival in Budapest I started selling and donating nearly everything I owned, much to the dismay of my friend Carmen. “I cringe every time you put something in that bag,” she said through clenched teeth. The bag was for donated items which, when added to the other donations, would take nearly three truckloads to move.
“At least it’s going to somebody who needs it,” I replied.
That week I would also give up my very affordable and very nice downtown apartment of more than four years, party my socks off, say goodbye to everybody I knew, pay a short visit to New York City, and board a one-way flight to Europe.
When I arrived in Budapest I was tired, hungry, and felt like a total outsider. I realized, although I’m unsure why I hadn’t thought of this before embarking on the journey, that I was completely and utterly alone. No friends, no family, no coworkers, no support system whatsoever. All I had were my bags, a few clients around the world, and a remote job with Habu, a coworking software company based in Bristol, England. Although I personally dislike being labeled a “digital nomad,” I had become one, for better or worse, and at this moment it felt like it was for the worse.
That first night was rough. I didn’t speak a lick of Hungarian and couldn’t find a place to eat that was still open. An irrational fear overcame me and I couldn’t help but think, “have I just made the biggest mistake of my life?”
In fact, I’d merely started the process of discovering why coworking, coliving, and the rise of digital nomads were going to be critical components to the future of work and possibly a lot more.
But before tackling such a heavy subject, let’s look at digital nomads and why they get a bad rap.
In truth, digital nomads, despite being in style at the moment, aren’t doing anything all that novel. Long-term wandering and world exploration has long been a reality for some, whether they were college-aged backpackers or jet-setting expatriates. Ever since we were consigned to work in drab offices with nothing but our computer screen and a nosey coworker to keep us company, we longed for escape, the more exotic the better: tropical forests, late-night salsa dancing, the peace of standing upon a cliff overlooking the rhythmic ocean waves crashing below.
But digital nomads took it all to a totally unprecedented level. They’ve taken long-term travel and made it something that could be sustained for years, if not indefinitely. They evolved from the greasy-haired backpackers whose travel was limited by the amount in their savings accounts into laptop-toting, startup-starting, remote-working ninjas with the ability to work in as many time zones as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. They’ve also significantly grown in number, all thanks to fiber optic internet, global economic disparity, and possibly RyanAir.
As Tim Ferriss wrote in the digital nomad bible The 4-hour Work Week, “Fun things happen when you earn dollars, live on pesos, and compensate in rupees…” It’s true. Life is easy, even if you’re earning half the amount of your peers in San Francisco, as long as you have double their earning potential. It’s no wonder the trend toward becoming a remote worker or digital nomad is on the rise: it’s a pretty nice life, if you can get it.
And yet the digital nomad, as a type, is not always a welcome sight. Digital nomads face the same problem that plagued their greasy-haired predecessors, the first of which I encountered on that cold night in Budapest. It’s the problem of the tourist.
When you show up in a foreign land with no network to speak of, you are an alien, an outsider. Those of us who have lived in tourist hotspots know the hate for tourists. Always with their phones or cameras out, constantly stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, walking slowly. The last thing you want when you’re relocating to live somewhere is to be seen as a tourist.
To alleviate this sense of otherness, nomads often end up connecting with other nomads or expats, but this results in a different problem. It creates a bubble, which foreigners have a hard time escaping.
True, the old-school wanderer would find some sense of acceptance within the community of a hostel, but only among other tourists, those there to see the sights, eat the food, then go home. These outsiders did little to make the place better. In fact, it’s possible they even made it worse. Where wanderers and travel writers went, resorts and tourist infrastructure followed, turning once pristine landscapes into skylines of hotels and beach umbrellas. They inflated prices and shifted the local economy. So it’s no wonder locals are often averse to the growing trend of digital nomads, who now have the ability to stay longer and have a greater influence on the local economy.
And this is the second problem. The problem of impact.
I’m American, which means I can visit about 166 countries without obtaining a travel visa. Everywhere I visit I ask, “Have you been to the United States?” Most people haven’t because, as it turns out, it’s incredibly difficult and expensive to obtain a visa to travel to the United States for citizens of many countries. What’s more, the United States is by far one of the richest and most expensive countries in the world overall, with an average household income around $51,939 USD which, when you factor in exchange rates and cost of living, grants its citizens an exorbitant amount of purchasing power in many places around the world.
And so the main argument against digital nomadism is that it is reserved for citizens from richer countries whose passports give them nearly unrestricted access to any country in the world, and whose paychecks make it possible to live like royalty in poorer regions. All the while the locals live in poverty and watch the gap between rich and poor widen.
So there we have it, digital nomadism which permits the individual an idyllic life in which they are free to roam the globe, but presents a possible threat to the places they base themselves in. Can these things be solved?
I believe so, and I believe the answers have everything to do with coworking spaces, how they are structured and managed, the programs they offer, and who works within them. Let’s tackle both problems respectively, through the lens of coworking.
My friend Rebecca Georgia is a co-founder at Nomad House, an intimate and modern travel experience for digital nomads which operates nomad retreats all over the world. They partner with local coworking spaces to better integrate the nomads into the local scene.
“Having a coworking community on the ground transforms the way you see a city,” Rebecca explained. “It’s very similar to the way that AirBnB has transformed the hotel experience – people now choose AirBnB over a hotel for the experience they’ll have with the host. A coworking space, or work oriented coffee shop, carries the same notions. On a personal level, it’s changed the way that I travel. I now actively seek out the creative hubs, and I’ll nest in them when I arrive. I’ve made some amazing friends this way. For me, it’s the shared values: usually these people are ambitious, driven, they’ve disagreed with the status quo and they’re seeking out better opportunities. I’ve also noticed there’s a correlation between the digital nomad lifestyle and making better choices outside of work, too. People want to be healthy, mentally and physically [and] they’re aware of climate change and their impact on the community.”
This echoes the perspective of another friend of mine, Thalassa Van Beek, founder of The Travelling Freelancer magazine. Thalassa is from the Netherlands, which I’m told has a culture which tends to promote group-think. Here’s what she told me:
“Travelling and especially coworking and coliving has opened up my mind to wonderful new cultures, new ideas and new experiences. People with tattoos aren’t trashy and guys from other parts of the world aren’t dangerous. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but without actually meeting, working and living with all those wonderful people, I might have been still just as closed-minded as most other people where I come from, but I’m so grateful that I will pass on a different message.”
None of this is terribly surprising. It makes sense that a coworking space can provide an instant connection to the local community, so long as the space is primarily occupied by locals as opposed to other digital nomads.
It was in this way that I overcame my own bout of irrational fear and ignorance. From the moment I met the wonderful people who worked in my current coworking space, Impact Hub Budapest, I felt at home. Among total strangers, many who’d never been to the United States and many who grew up either under the influence of Soviet Russia or in the hard times that followed, I was provided an instant connection to the community, of which over 90% are Hungarian.
That’s the connection problem solved, but that still leaves the question of economic unfairness. How, with all the privilege that comes with being a digital nomad, do we not only connect to local communities, but make our impact minimal, if not beneficial?
To get at the answer, I spoke with a few more friends. Each had a different opinion, but each offered insight into how the rise of digital nomads could be a net positive for local communities.
I recently met Andres Romero Montero, who does more things than I can count, during his brief stay in Budapest. Andres lives in Madrid, Spain and had this to say regarding the impact of digital nomads on his country:
“Currently the impact is very small, since it is only a trend and is very focused on people of technological scope. In my opinion, the economic impact is positive, because of the economic benefit they generate to the local economies, although socially it would have to be analyzed in depth… [We should] encourage productive activities in the locality that are managed by the local communities themselves, not only by private initiative. Mixed models of management that are obliged to form and hire local labor… The impact of tourism must be positive for the local community and the local people should see it this way.”
By contrast, Beatriz Bremer had a more dissenting viewpoint. Beatriz now works with Seats2Meet in the Netherlands, but recently moved from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Although skeptical of the current trend’s impact on her home country, she does offer hopeful suggestions for change.
“From the infrastructure point of view I have to disagree that it would benefit the locals in Brazil. We have a lot made for people from other countries that is just used by them or for the elite, that is due the big difference between paychecks. Usually you will see expats in Brazil living like the elite and they often don’t interact with the middle class or bring any benefits for the people who are actually in need of that infrastructure.”
Beatriz thinks the change needs to come from the digital nomads themselves.
“Instead of only going to a country to benefit from the beautiful view, warm weather, and cheap prices, realize that you are walking in a country where most of people don’t have the same opportunities as you have. So get the benefits, but think on how you can contribute as well. It could be by teaching English, teaching your profession, consultancy, any way you can contribute.”
These conversations made me want to find good examples of coworking spaces that provided an easy and safe connection for digital nomads, but also sustainably supported the local economy and community. This led me to Steve Munroe, co-founder of Hubud, a coworking space in Bali, Indonesia. I met Steve at Coworking Europe in Brussels this November.
Steve agrees, we need to provide a benefit to the local communities, and Bali is an excellent testing ground.
“It is really a tough question to answer. In a country of 250 million, you have a wide range of incomes from incredibly poor to unfathomably wealthy. For many in the digital professional space, yes, it is [affordable]. Some work for companies that pay for it, some recognize it as an investment in work they get from being part of the community, etc.”
In fact, Hubud provides a discount or incentive for Indonesian passport holders. The discount is in the form of a free upgrade to the the plan that is one tier higher than the plan the member signed up for, which essentially doubles the local member’s purchasing power at Hubud. Not a bad idea, but I wanted to hear more of Steve’s perspective on how digital nomadism is affecting the region.
“People have been coming to Bali for hundreds of years in search of inspiration and connection, particularly artists. Digital nomads are simply the latest wave of visitors (tamu, in Indonesian) to be drawn to the cultural richness, natural beauty and inspiring creative environment. If you look at it through an economic lens, there are two primary benefits. The first is that our members tend to stay for a much longer time period. Two to six months. A tourist stays for only six and a half days.”
Steve continued. “Digital nomads live in such a way that the economic impact of their time here is much more widely distributed. Tourists stay in hotels, owned by companies or very rich families, and eat at the one or two restaurants topping the Tripadvisor list. Digital nomads rent houses from Balinese families, eat at all kinds of places including local establishments, and spend more in non-traditionally touristic ways. Another way they create impact is the knowledge exchange they facilitate. Ideas, best practices and opportunities from around the world become much closer.”
Then Steve hit upon the suggestions brought up by Andres and Beatriz. Hubud also supports the community through specific programs and initiatives, one of which he explained to me in detail.
“We launched the Cogiving program this year, as a way to facilitate meaningful human connections between our members and the local community. Working with local businesses or non-profits, we help them scope out time-bound (+/- 30 days) jobs we can do to help them expand their business and impact. We put together a project-specific team from our members to execute and create a positive effect on the partner organization.”
Hubud seems like a great model for doing it right, and I’m sure there are other examples from all over the world, but even with them there’s still so much more we can do if we want to make the digital nomad and coworking industries into bridges for connection and inclusivity in our increasingly divided world. There are definitely challenges to overcome.
And yet never before has there been a vehicle that transcended borders and cultures so easily. Never before have we been able to share so much common ground with people all over the world.
I think it’s when we can feel this sense of home in a place that’s vastly different from our place of birth that we’re no longer a tourist. In fact, we just might become a part of the family and have a chance at making a real and lasting impact in the community. And if more and more people can connect and feel that sense of home anywhere on the planet, especially those from countries ravaged by war and poverty, especially those who currently have little access to travel, then I believe the human race just might have a shot at a long and prosperous future in a less divided world.