The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice: Digital Nomads: The Final Frontier of Work Arrangements?
Column Editors: Kimberly Acree Adams, Independent Consultant, and Stephanie Zajac, Houston Methodist Hospital
“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, we explore the emerging trend of Digital Nomadism, and the benefits and potential challenges that come along with this novel workplace arrangement with Kaila S. Jacoby and Samantha Holland.
Digital Nomads: The Final Frontier of Work Arrangements?
Kaila S. Jacoby
DCI Consulting Group
In the span of a few decades, telework has evolved from a fringe work arrangement to a staple of the modern workplace—which has come with its own benefits and challenges. Although teleworking part or full time is one of the top desired benefits employees seek (Jones, 2017) and employers can gain great cost savings in absenteeism, real estate, productivity, and voluntary turnover (Wright, 2018), research and practice haven’t yet come together on best practices for incorporating this practice without sacrificing employee engagement and organizational culture. In recent years, major companies such as Best Buy, Yahoo, IBM, Honeywell, and Bank of America have greatly curtailed or completely revoked telework privileges due to perceived damages to communication, collaboration, and teamwork (Wright, 2018).
Whereas the future of telework may be questionable in some companies, the trend continues to grow; as of 2016, 40% more U.S. employers offered flexible workplace options than they did 5 years ago (Global Workforce Analytics & FlexJobs, 2017). In fact, a new work arrangement has been cropping up across the world that can be seen as an extreme version of teleworking: working as a “digital nomad”—a worker who lives nomadically and without a consistent workspace.
Like telework, employer support for digital nomad work arrangements could be a powerful way to retain top talent as well as tap into a much broader talent pool than available locally. With employers worldwide reporting that the need for many specialized skills far outstrips the pool of qualified candidates (ManpowerGroup, 2018), the importance of employers finding a competitive edge to effectively fill their roles cannot be overstated. However, just as with teleworkers, there are a number of significant challenges in the nomadic work environment that can endanger worker productivity and retention, challenges that I-O researchers and practitioners may be uniquely poised to identify and mitigate. As a digital nomad, Kaila Jacoby can attest to the unique considerations at play when considering the emergence of digital nomads over and above that of telework. Her unique perspective as both an I-O and a digital nomad was leveraged when developing the idea for this piece.
In this article, we introduce the digital nomad phenomenon and the potential benefits and challenges inherent in this work arrangement and consider how traditional I-O principles and research may apply.
What Are Digital Nomads?
Digital nomads (DNs) are similar to teleworkers in that they use telecommunication technology—such as conferencing software, shared drives and documents, and other collaboration tools—to perform their job. The uniqueness of DNs stems from their nomadic lifestyle: by living in short-term rentals as they move cities, countries, and even continents several times per year, their physical work space (and often, their time zone) is in constant flux. This lack of regularity had previously relegated DNs to freelance or independent contractor roles, where the connection to the employer is more sporadic.
However, both technological and societal forces have begun to push this trend toward the mainstream. Increases in worldwide technical maturity (e.g., ubiquitous stable wifi, inexpensive communication options) have made the work arrangement logistically feasible, and the shifting millennial values toward life experiences and flexibility over strict monetary rewards have made becoming a DN an attractive option. As evidence of the growing trend, governments are enticing DNs to live (and spend money) in certain locations by offering a special DN residency permit, and programs such as Remote Year will help you secure a job or approval from your employer and organize your full DN experience.
Because the benefits of being a DN are relatively apparent, we keep this section brief. In addition to the benefits cited for traditional telework (e.g., work–life balance, flexible work hours, fewer coworker distractions; Bailey & Kurland, 2002), a key benefit to the DN arrangement is enabling travel experiences without dipping into one’s limited paid time off. Being able to choose (and rapidly change) where you live allows you to work full weeks while maximizing your “home” time to experience the cultures in which you are living or travel to cities that previously were too far away for a quick visit. Often an added benefit is living in a lower cost of living environment, which comes at a great relief as major cities in the US are becoming increasingly unaffordable for all but the upper classes.
On the employer side, many of the benefits of allowing for DNs is the same as for teleworkers (e.g., reducing space requirements and absenteeism, broadening the recruitment pool). However, one additional benefit of employing DNs over traditional teleworkers is that it becomes much easier to create a 24/7 workflow that is beneficial for fast-paced professions such as publishing and software development. In the author’s own experience working as an I-O DN, having coverage across time zones has come in handy for new business proposals and tight assessment development deadlines. Furthermore, the inherent location flexibility of DNs may make these workers more willing and available for some types of work-related travel.
Less publicized, but of more immediate interest to I-O psychologists, are the challenges associated with DN working arrangements. Here, we dive into potential pitfalls across some traditional I-O practice and research areas to lay out some considerations for employers and workers.
As employers contemplate whether or how to incorporate DNs into their workforce, it is important to fully understand the jobs for which this work arrangement is being considered and confirm whether the work activities can still be performed in a DN context. This is a clear issue that careful job analysis can address.
In cases where job analytic data already exist, a simple approach would be to identify tasks requiring in-person contact, review frequency and importance ratings, and evaluate whether those activities could be changed to virtual contact and/or conducted by other in-person staff. For positions without these data available, designing a streamlined survey that assesses the extent to which jobs involve activities inherently challenging for DNs (e.g., frequent travel to headquarters or client sites) would provide helpful insight. Fortunately, these methods could be easily scaled to examine all jobs within an organization and identify those that are best-suited for DN (or other telework) arrangements. For any employers considering a move toward telework or DN arrangements anytime in the future, it may also be advisable to build these considerations into their next job analysis research plan.
Engagement and Well-Being
Although we know from research that employer factors such as leadership, job design (e.g., resources, autonomy, work–life balance), and organizational interventions are important for employee engagement and well-being (e.g., Bailey, Madden, Alfes, & Fletcher, 2015; Sacks, 2006), we anticipate that these factors may be less influential for DN engagement given that their interactions with organizational culture are likely to be infrequent and/or more discreet. To focus on the uniqueness of DNs, here we consider a few strategies DNs can enact to maximize these outcomes in themselves, noting that employers may take part via providing DNs with the knowledge and tools they need to implement these strategies.
A primary challenge for DN engagement is likely to be in building relationships with colleagues, which can be difficult when you may rarely or never meet in person, have vastly different lifestyles, and do not hear the same current events. It is likely DNs would need to rely on more formalized or task-oriented interactions to build trust and camaraderie with colleagues, leveraging video conferencing whenever possible for its added benefit of allowing nonverbal cues. Furthermore, the author has found that many team-building activities (team lunches, celebrations, happy hours) can be translated to a virtual environment if the participants are willing.
Additionally, although DNs may be at an advantage for work–life balance—especially for finding motivation for exercise given the obvious desire to get out of the house to see new surroundings—other important factors for well-being such as proper workplace ergonomics may suffer. For example, conditions such as carpal and cubital tunnel syndrome, back pain, and visual strain are all more likely when you’re at the mercy of whatever table and chairs are available in your short-term rental or the closest public work space. Providing an ergonomic education to DNs ahead of time could prevent these injuries and motivate them to seek out better ergonomic situations, such as renting coworking spaces, investing in travel-ready external monitors, or piecing together monitor platforms and standing desks with common household objects.
In traditional workplaces, employee performance commonly includes contextual performance criteria (e.g., assessment of counterproductive work behaviors [CWBs] and organizational citizenship behaviors [OCBs]) in addition to the more straightforward task performance evaluations. Contextual performance matters to organizations because it contributes to the overall culture as well as the success of group work.
Applying contextual performance theories to a remote environment is complicated, necessitating both a change in the way we measure the constructs and consideration of whether the significance of contextual components to overall performance still holds. The telework literature has acknowledged these challenges and taken initial steps in developing methods for measuring these behaviors in a manner suitable for the virtual context (e.g. Teleworker CWBs; Holland, Simpson, Dalal & Vega, 2016). This work addresses a key question: When there is no shared physical work environment or standardized work hours, what are the most direct ways to capture employee behaviors that should be considered as OCBs or CWBs? This problem is even further magnified in the DN context, when work is often asynchronous and direct interaction with others may be infrequent.
We also know from research that employees who cannot see a career path within their current organization are more likely to leave (e.g., Johari, Yean, Adnan, Kirana, & Ahmad, 2012; Karavardar, 2014; Miller & Wheeler, 1992). Therefore, it is in an organization's best interest to identify and communicate possible career progressions for its employees. Whereas a traditional climb up the career ladder includes positions with increasing responsibility for others and influence in strategic goals for the organization, this may not be plausible for DNs given the inherently independent nature of their work environment and limited abilities to interact directly with others. Instead, it may be better for DNs to follow an “individual contributor” career path—which many employers are implementing even for in-person work—providing gratifying career progression through opportunities such as additional task complexity and scope or job rotation (Society for Human Resource Management, 2015).
Retention and Turnover
The image of digital nomadism portrayed in many articles (and the accompanying feeds on social media platforms) may make it seem like allowing employees to be DNs would be a slam dunk for attracting and retaining talent. Who wouldn’t want the freedom to work anywhere in the world with more autonomy than you could ever have in a traditional workplace? Although removing the locality restriction of traditional work arrangements certainly removes one reason that employees may leave a job, this freedom may actually be a double-edged sword. Similar to the effect some part-time teleworkers notice where they work more hours at home than in the office, DNs may find it hard to draw the work–life boundary that is needed to maintain a healthy balance. Long hours and working in isolation has led to burnout for a number of DNs who have since returned to a more traditional lifestyle and often new jobs.
Furthermore, being completely removed from coworkers and the workplace creates enormous challenges in finding ways to foster organizational embeddedness, which is a powerful force in keeping employees from leaving their employer. As noted previously, we may need to think outside the box of sport teams and happy hours, and explore alternative mechanisms for team building that allow DNs to feel connected to others and engaged in their own work.
It’s too early to tell exactly what the trajectory of the DN trend will be: Have we caught it just as it is about to explode into a sizeable segment of the workforce, or will this end up being just a blip on the radar? We would argue contemplating about how this type of worker can be best incorporated into the workforce is an important exercise either way, because this won’t be the last time technology is enabling fundamental shifts in how work is done. Though our field is relatively young, the workplace and jobs that we are studying today often bear little resemblance to those used to build our foundational theories and techniques. To stay relevant, I-O psychologists should pay close attention to the alignment of our field with how work is actually being done today and update our research and best practices accordingly.
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