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The rise of the digital nomad

Technological advances and changing employee attitudes and demographics are driving a rise in the ultimate flexible work set-up

Much has been made of the impending global skills shortage. Korn Ferry’s Global Talent Crunch study found that, if left to run its course, this shortage will create 85.2 million unfilled jobs and nearly $8.5 trillion in unrealised global revenue. Labour shortages in financial and business services are to be most severe, according to the study, with innovative technology fields also hit – global tech giant Microsoft announced earlier this year that a global skills shortage is affecting the fast-growing artificial intelligence (AI) field.

It’s not news that the desire for greater workplace flexibility is on the rise. Working from home used to be a real coup for employees who would relish the thought of logging into the work system in their pyjamas and breaking off for a cup of tea whenever they liked. But working from home has now morphed into working from anywhere – not just from the comfort of your own home, but from any international destination. The result – we’re seeing a rise in digital nomads: people who carry their workplace around with them.  A digital nomad isn’t just a worker with access to the company intranet, a digital nomad is someone who can work freelance on a large project for a global company from a youth hostel in Kho Tao.

By shifting to a truly results-based environment, a business will find it far easier to cope with digital nomads

Advancing tech, internet speeds and cheap flights mean that digital nomads can take their work anywhere they like, from the airport to the beach, jump on conference calls in cafes and present PowerPoints in bed. Digital nomads are essentially able to work on vacation. In fact, they combine work with holidaying, taking calls by the pool and having long brunches on work days, safe in the knowledge that their devices will alert them of any impending disaster. Digital nomads communicate by WhatsApp, Twitter and SnapChat, they share ideas on Trello and files in Google Docs and Dropbox. They find coworking spaces on Copass and they expense it with Concur. There’s almost nothing a digital nomad can’t do on the hoof and this is changing our attitude to work-life balance and job location. This way of working has proved so popular that executives, entrepreneurs and business academics at London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit have suggested that more than half of us will be working remotely by 2020.

The Ius Laboris forces for change research found that 28 per cent of the total respondents ranked access to more skilled workers or a ‘greater talent pool’ as the greatest benefit of global mobility. This would appear to indicate that the effects of globalisation, leading to a more globally mobile workforce – unbound by location of a business, could be a viable solution to finding the right talent. Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends survey echoes this, finding that agile global mobility models can act as ecosystems to address the requirements of a diverse employee landscape.

Global mobility further aids talent retention as well as attraction. Respondents in the forces for change survey ranked talent retention as the second greatest benefit of a globally mobile workforce.

However, worryingly, 47 per cent of total respondents also revealed that they are not currently a globally mobile business, which exposes a potential problem, or missed opportunity for companies who want to benefit from access to this greater talent pool. Moreover, 89 per cent of total respondents think that ‘flexible working’ is a fundamental or significant consideration for employees when applying for a role, yet only 68 per cent of total respondents currently offer some level of flexibility. Something’s not stacking up properly.

In the research, a cumulative 19 per cent do not offer flexible working because they lack the appropriate technology, or because it is deemed inappropriate for their business type. Supporting this is the finding that ‘suitability of type of work’ is the greatest barrier to flexible working, with 50 per cent of total respondents ranking this above other potential barriers. However, where work is suitable, benefits can be experienced by employees over and above access to more talent, such as cost savings due to a reduction in overheads, and increased employee engagement. Research from Gallup shows that offering workers greater autonomy makes them more engaged at work. But still, businesses need to be doing more to fully accommodate the rise of the digital nomad, says business adviser Carl Reader.

Eric Deur, partner at the Ius Laboris firm in the Netherlands, Bronsgeest Deur, notes that a further issue may be that “employers fear a complete blurring between work time and leisure time, because mixing them in such a way runs the risk of an employee never fully experiencing a real weekend or vacation”.

“To be able to embrace a change, the first step that a business management team must do is make sure that their focus is on output, not input,” Reader says. “Many businesses track input KPIs such as hours clocked in, as this is easy to manage. By shifting to a truly results-based environment, a business will find it far easier to cope with digital nomads.”

The next step, Reader says, “is to make sure that the right tools are in place. Collaboration tools such as Slack, Zoom and Google Docs allow teams to work remotely and stay in touch.”

While allowing a fully flexible working arrangement has some obvious benefit for employees, there are potential benefits to employers as well. “Productivity often increases, as disruptions are reduced, and commute times are a thing of the past,” says Reader, “and, of course, it’s yet another thing that can make a company great to work for.”

To find out more about how demographic forces are changing the workplace, visit theword.iuslaboris.legal/demographics