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Digital nomads show us how remote workers can find community

Men use a laptop inside a coffee shop in Beijing's tech hub Zhongguancun, China February 22, 2019. Picture taken February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.
What does community mean for remote workers?

What does community mean for remote workers? Although it took a pandemic to shift remote work from an abstract idea to a common practice, recent surveys find that many people now prefer it to their former, office-centered schedules 1. The fact that so many people report satisfaction with working remotely, even when isolated alone, or with no escape from family and roommates, is a striking repudiation of leaders’ visions of workplaces as communities.

1
A survey by PWC of 1,200 remote workers in early June, 2020, found that while 39% did no remote work prior to Covid, only 8% wanted to return to the office full time after the pandemic ended. Nearly a third never want to go back to the office.

Yet as remote work segues from an emergency measure to a new normal, workers need social support for their well-being, productivity, and creativity. Rejecting the office raises the important question of where workers will find community as they and their colleagues navigate their new independence from employer-defined locations for work.

We spent four years studying “digital nomads”, a vanguard known for using remote working tools to earn income while they travel the world. 2 Our research revealed that the most important factor in their migration decisions was a strong desire for in-person community. Beach views are nice, but digital nomads move to be in a place where they are surrounded by people who motivate them to create meaningful work lives. We found that communities that best support remote work lie beyond organizational boundaries and have little overlap with traditional corporate and professional networks.

2
Woldoff, R. A., and Litchfield, R. C. 2021. Digital nomads: In search of freedom, community, and meaningful work in the new economy. Oxford U. Press.

Rooted in shared values rather than common employers or professions, these communities facilitate rapid, intimate connections and allow individuals the freedom to customize their involvement. Grace, a thirty-year-old African American public relations professional, told us that she felt she could connect easily to other nomads based in Bali, Indonesia, because “You’re on the same path, and where you’ve been, someone else has been already. We all say how we get to have conversations that we can’t have with people back home… And they also understand if you have to all of a sudden go back home.” These same qualities of community—particularly sharing values and accepting others’ freedom—may prove useful for supporting the scale-up of remote work through the pandemic and beyond.

How digital nomads build in-person communities

Digital nomads prioritize control over where, and in whose presence, they work. They reject claims that management policies, corporate perks, urban amenities, or even technological platforms foster meaningful community. Instead, they report that their motivation and creativity flourish when they are comfortable with their physical surroundings and among people whom they perceive to be like-minded.

Rebecca, a 29-year-old marketing consultant from Toronto, explained: “First off, is nature and environment. The fact that I am looking outside, and I have greenery all around me and bird noises—and in some cases, I’m looking over rice fields—provides you with that mode of isolation and focus.” Secondly, she says, “the community aspect is enormous. You’re around like-minded people who are trying to have these massive, aspirational, independently driven goals.”

Digital nomad communities are driven by rapidly-formed, intimate, in-person connections.

Free of offices, and the hierarchies, politics, and conflict that fill them, digital nomads build rapid intimacy in their communities through deeply personal and emotional exchanges of stories, problems, and solutions. Untethered from conventional life, they feel little sense of community obligation. Nevertheless, their desire to connect quickly to like-minded others often results in sharing and helping behaviors that end up building the community that they recognize as worth seeking. Nik, a thirty-three-year-old marketer and entrepreneur originally from Siberia, told us that the community around his coworking space in Bali was “like university for those who are in their 30s… We learn, we have fun, we work, and we stay together.”

Digital nomad communities are driven by rapidly-formed, intimate, in-person connections. As newly-remote knowledge workers move away from large cities, their networks will also change. Employees will still interact with their colleagues on task-related matters, but forced socializing (virtual happy hour with your manager!) can easily diminish. 3 Instead, more people will spend work time in whatever communities they are comfortable meeting face-to-face.

3
Although some executives will claim that employees abuse their newfound freedoms and repeat the same tired, unsubstantiated claims about the creative magic of watercooler conversations and in-person brainstorming sessions, evidence does not support them. Research generally shows that remote workers are at least as productive as in-person workers (Allen, T. D., Golden, T., D., & Shockley, K. M. 2015. How effective is telecommuting? Assessing the status of our scientific findings. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16: 40-68.); Research does not show that brainstorming produces better ideas when conducted in interacting, in-person groups (Litchfield, R. C. 2008. Brainstorming reconsidered: A goal-based view. Academy of Management Review, 33: 649-668).

Some may find that conventional residential neighborhoods suit them just fine, while others may be attracted to novel living experiments. Based on our findings with digital nomads, we expect that knowledge workers of all stripes will eventually find remote work to be lonely unless they find what digital nomads call “their tribe”—like-minded others with whom they can connect face-to-face on both personal and work-related issues.

How remote worker communities can help companies thrive

Of course, some employers will see remote work as a separation from community, pessimistically viewing work as more transactional. Yet forward-looking leaders may find ways to leverage workers’ new connections to create value. 4 What if leaders encouraged employees to spend time in the communities of their choice and even provided resources, forums, and incentives to share their new ideas at work?

4
Our research also suggests that employers who focus on transactionalizing knowledge work rather than building relationships to employees may suffer additional risks. Litchfield, R. C., Hirst, G., & van Knippenberg, D. (in press). Professional network identification: Searching for stability in transient knowledge work. Academy of Management Review.

Research suggests that larger, more diverse networks benefit creativity, and strong relationships with employees who are all spending more time embedded in their chosen communities might greatly expand an organization’s access to new ideas 5. For instance, remote workers might be provided with a small budget to use for building their networks via coffee, lunches, or membership fees to community organizations or coworking spaces, tasked with reporting insights through Slack channels or other trackable team communication tools, and recognized specifically for ideas they bring in from external sources.

5
Hirst, G., van Knippenberg, D., Zhou, J., Quintane, E., & Zhu, C. 2015. Heard it through the grapevine: Indirect networks and employee creativity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100: 567-574.
Forward-looking leaders may find ways to leverage workers’ new connections to create value for their companies.

Families with children have been desperate for flexibility in order to be present for their parental duties while remaining engaged with their careers. Remote work offers a transformation in sexist family and work arrangements that may benefit organizations by granting individuals flexibility to meet their family obligations without being seen as uncommitted to work. Counter to stereotypes that childless employees are the ideal workers, research shows that employees with children may be more engaged than their childless peers while working. 6 What if a voluntary community, including family, was seen as a resource for employee productivity and well-being rather than as a distraction from work?

6
Dumas, T.L. and Perry-Smith, J.E. 2018. The paradox of family structure and plans after work: Why single childless employees may be the least absorbed at work. Academy of Management Journal, 61: 1231-1252.

When the current pandemic abates, the realization may dawn that home-based remote work does not have to translate into being homebound. Although few will wish to hopscotch among communities as full digital nomads, our research also uncovered what we call work tourism, a phenomenon where individuals travel for a few weeks to a remote working hub in order to work while gaining inspiration and new networks. As remote work is normalized, such experiences need not wait for vacations or sabbaticals—they may be reprogrammed as intervals within regular work life. What if leaders encouraged such options and even provided resources to help employees take part in them?

With a little vision and creativity, both organizations and workers may benefit from new choices about where to sit (in what chair, in what building, house, or on what beach, in what city or state or country) and whom to sit next to all day.

Rachael A. Woldoff and Robert C. Litchfield are the authors of Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy, recently published by Oxford University Press. Names attached to the quotes in this piece are pseudonyms as required by research protocol.

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