The Joys and Pitfalls of Digital Nomadism

  • Dec. 31, 2021

As in many areas of life, the global pandemic has accelerated a trend which had been growing steadily for some time: the “Work From Anywhere” movement.

Apart from being social creatures we are creatures of habit; we tend to fall into patterns of behaviour dictated to us by the furrows of the social fabric. Sticking out or going against the grain can have social costs, whether or not the status quo makes sense. Even when social custom is logically underpinned by social good, the conditions of the world are constantly shifting like tectonic plates under our feet, and when the landscape alters, the trails of behaviour don’t always follow. Like a marble maze, you have to shake the puzzle if you want to make the marbles jump out of their grooves and settle into a new trajectory.

An interesting example of this is journeys on the London Underground. Since every journey is tracked via passengers’ Oyster cards, a 2014 study was able to show that during a tube strike, commuters’ familiar routes were disrupted as they were forced to find alternative routes to work. No surprises there. When the strike was lifted however, researchers found that around 5% of commuters stuck with the new route they had found.[1]

Perhaps the new route involved fewer changes, more time spent above ground or a detour via a favourite coffee spot. Either way, the new route had not suddenly become available — it had been available all the time — the only thing that had changed is that the commuters had been shaken out of their normal pattern of behaviour and forced to consider an alternative.

No marble shake up has been quite so comprehensive in affecting all the marbles of life as the COVID-19 pandemic. In the space of 18 months, proffering a hand in greeting has gone from being considered basic manners to a presumptuous imposition. Commentators who argued vociferously that covering your face in public represented an affront to secular society have begun arguing the exact opposite. And long held individual freedoms such as the right to medical privacy have been brushed aside with the eager support of the exact same people who would have taken to the streets to protect them a year earlier.

And that’s to say nothing of our work. Far from needing to choose between one of two commuting routes, employees and employers alike have realised that the vast majority of jobs can be carried out just as effectively at home as they could in the office. Meetings which had always taken place in person, for little good reason other than that was the way things had always been done, can now take place via Zoom. I am a school governor, and after school governor meetings were forced online in the lockdown, the committee voted unanimously for meetings to remain online when the restrictions were lifted.

With so many employees now working from home, it wasn’t long before people began to question why, if they didn’t have to be in the office, did they have to be at home in particular? Why work from your kitchen in grey damp London when you can do exactly the same job from a beach in Bali, a café in Lisbon, or a co-working space in Athens? And so WFH (Work From Home) quickly became WFA (Work From Anywhere). For the new generation of digital nomads there are basically two criteria: is there good wifi, and is there sun? Tick, tick, and the world is your oyster.

Employees in more inflexible industries which demand their employees return to the office at the earliest opportunity can only curse their luck as their flighty friends make Zoom calls with real backdrops rather than fake ones, send infuriating Instagrams of laptops open on pristine beaches, and Whatsapp messages describing their weekend spent surfing or hiking in the mountains.

But underneath this dreamy existence lurks a tension. Advocates of the digital nomad way of life claim to be ahead of the times, pioneering an existence that will soon be mainstream. But in one crucial aspect they are lagging way, way behind: sustainability.

While studies and hard data are currently lacking, a quick survey of my personal network revealed that digital nomads take roughly double the number of flights per year as your average office-based worker. While digital nomads can argue that they don’t commute every day, and they don’t drain electricity in a brightly lit city office, the reality is that a single long-haul flight (or even short-haul for that matter) is easily enough to negate the emissions of a thousand metro journeys.[2]

There are other ethical criticisms that can be made of the Work From Anywhere lifestyle. While digital nomads bring a much-needed boost to tourism economies which have been ravaged by the pandemic, it’s easy to fall into the role of permanent tourist. When you are only passing through there’s little incentive to invest in the social fabric or engage meaningfully with local people. Why spend time meeting local people who might speak a different language when you have a ready-made community of digital nomads accessible via a Facebook group?

Most digital nomads are cosmopolitan, culturally sensitive and climate conscious: I would be willing to bet that most are well aware of these tensions and do what they can to mitigate them — travelling by bus and train where possible and going out of their way to engage with local culture. But as the movement grows it’s important that digital nomads find a way to bake these values into the movement as a whole.

$BEACH is a new currency for digital nomads which addresses both of these issues with every transaction. Rather than paying a 3% fee for currency conversions to Visa and Mastercard, with $BEACH, 1% of every transaction is invested into blue carbon projects like mangrove restoration, coral restoration and seaweed farms. Simply by adopting $BEACH as their currency of choice, a digital nomad can offset the emissions of their jet-set lifestyle, paying the planet, not the bank. Furthermore, via Beach Token’s worldwide beach clean partners in Brazil, Phillipines, Tonga and others (who receive a further 1% of every transaction), we invite digital nomads to join locals in organised beach cleans. Soon these cleans will be organised in partnership with forward-thinking co-living spaces so that digital nomads and locals can work shoulder to shoulder cleaning up beaches and earning $BEACH.

But Beach Token is not simply a remedy for certain issues with the digital nomad lifestyle — it’s also an opportunity to enhance it. Digital nomads who work as freelancers can tap into new markets via Beach Gig. Those who own their own ethical brands, whether it’s sustainable swimwear or dog leads made from discarded fishing tackle, can sell their products via Beach Shop. Co-living and co-working spaces who adopt $BEACH will gain prominent positioning and exclusive marketing opportunities across Beach Collective. And due to our 3% reflection rate any $BEACH earned will automatically accrue more $BEACH, allowing digital nomads to live more for less.

Ultimately, only that which sustains life can be allowed to live. If digital nomads want to go from being a flash in the pan to a global movement, they need to find a way to harmonise with the communities and ecosystems on which their stylish lifestyle depends.