5 common challenges for digital nomads and how to support them

Image of a desk with a map, laptop, camera and passport on top of it, representing digital nomads.

Many organisations we speak with are still in the experimental phases of hybrid working, virtual working or embracing the future of work, digital nomads or as some call it, the ‘anytime, anywhere’ working model.

By now, you are probably familiar with hybrid and virtual working, but may not be so familiar with digital nomads.

Digital nomads are employees who use technology as their platform to work and conduct their life in a nomadic manner. For example, workers often work remotely from foreign countries, coffee shops, co-working spaces, or vehicles such as campervans, using Wi-Fi to quite literally work ‘anytime, anywhere’.

So, why do we believe this is the future of work?

Well, the 2021 State of Independence research study found that 15.5 million American workers described themselves as digital nomads, increasing 42% from 2020 and 112% from the pre-pandemic year 2019.

A recent survey of more than 16,000 global employees conducted by EY also revealed that 9 in 10 respondents want flexibility in where and when they work and that more than half would quit their job if their current employer didn’t offer flexible working options.

Digital nomads have been on a substantial increase over the past 3 years. With many organisations having already shifted from full-time office working to home working in some guise, the move to remote working or digital nomad policies looks set to be the next natural step. With the obvious benefits for both the employers (e.g. lower real estate and utility costs, and increased diversity and inclusion in the workforce) and employees (e.g. greater freedom and flexibility), not to mention some of the less obvious benefits like greater innovation and creativity as a result of employees regularly changing their surroundings, there seems little standing in the way. This is especially true for organisations that have equipped their employees with the skills they need to work remotely throughout the COVID pandemic.

Organisations that are quicker to recognise the opportunity to support their employees’ work-life balance as digital nomads, may find themselves at a competitive advantage as we continue to see the effects of The Great Resignation.

In fact, we believe that if employers don’t embrace nomadic working, they will likely lose out on great talent as more and more organisations begin to offer fully remote contracts. And… let’s face it, what a great benefit to offer a generation of employees who want greater flexibility and the ability to travel and work at the same time.

Making this shift to nomadic working, however, does come with its challenges…Despite employees’ and organisations’ best efforts, there are a number of considerations which need to be carefully planned and thought through in order to make it a success.

In this blog, we’ll be sharing some of the common challenges we are seeing in organisations making that shift to nomadic and remote working, discuss some great ways that you can begin to overcome these challenges and support your ‘anytime, anywhere’ team, alongside ways we can help your organisation through our years of experience and the success we’ve seen in our own nomadic team!

What are the 5 most common challenges that digital nomads face in the workplace?

  1. Diversity, equity and inclusion
  2. Hybrid meetings
  3. Nomadic management
  4. The physical office and communicating change 
  5. Employee wellbeing

Read more about each of these 5 challenges for digital nomads below:

1. Diversity, equity and inclusion

We could write an entire blog about DE&I challenges in nomadic working, as it’s by far the one we hear about most often. Nomadic working is forcing us to look at diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in a new light, and the equality and equity of those who are in the office vs those who are remote and nomadic.

Right now, for the most part, organisations are heavily focused on the day-to-day logistical challenges of balancing remote and in-person teams. However, they simply can’t overlook the bigger issue of ensuring a level playing field. There is a natural bias that many managers will hold, often without really realising it, toward in-person vs remote and nomadic workers, and this is due to proximity bias.

Proximity bias is the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team will be perceived as better workers and ultimately, find more success in the workplace vs their remote counterparts. This is absolutely something that needs to be addressed to ensure the inclusion, equity and equality of employees whether they work remotely or in-person, or anywhere in-between.

Tips for overcoming proximity bias

1. Identify the beneficiaries of proximity bias

Before you overcome proximity bias, first you need to develop a meaningful understanding of the cause. Start by identifying when proximity bias manifests itself in your workplace, such as in hybrid teams or in departments with a large majority of remote workers. Once identified, you’ll know where to make improvements in your mindset and the mindset of your managers.

2. Survey employees to get their perspective on proximity bias

Surveying your employees can be a great way to ensure that the lived experience of your employees matches your perception of them. Use the results to determine an action plan bespoke to your organisational challenges.

3. Implement equal employee opportunity policies

Once you’ve reviewed your employee’s perspective on proximity bias you can begin to make changes, shift management mindsets around work from home and nomadic workers and ensure equal opportunities for all, no matter where they work. Awareness of proximity bias is often enough to eradicate it, as it is usually unintentionally manifested.

2. Hybrid meetings

Hybrid meetings are inevitable if some of your teams are nomadic and some in the office. Unlike 100% remote or 100% in-person, hybrid meetings require participants to be in different locations, possibly in different time zones, which pose accessibility, engagement, and collaboration challenges.

Technology has helped make the world a more accessible place, but hybrid meetings can become problematic when it comes to taking actions in a meeting. For example, if you want to conduct a vote, you must ensure the process is fair. The in-person and virtual teams should get the same consideration and accessible alternatives. No one should feel they are an afterthought in the meeting. With the addition of nomads, you also need to consider whether your meeting time is accessible to all too, which can get really tricky and can cause a logistical nightmare.

In terms of engagement, it is often more difficult to keep employees from taking advantage of the added flexibility it brings. It is easier for the team to become distracted, as the spotlight is no longer focused on one platform (remote or in-person) and more difficult to discourage them from multi-tasking.

Hybrid meetings also make collaborating more of a challenge too. Everyone is quite literally in a different place which means that it is often a struggle to function as one unit. This can result in a lack of team spirit which if not addressed as soon as possible, can result in further challenges for the culture of a team.

Tips for better hybrid meetings

1. Do you need to hold a hybrid meeting at all? 

This might seem like a silly question, but it’s valid. It goes without saying that meeting is much easier when everyone is using the same platform, whether in-person or virtually. If it isn’t possible to have the meeting together face to face, don’t have a hybrid meeting, hold it virtually. Have people who are in the office join the meeting via their laptop or desktop with headsets and your virtual team join via their tech at home. Then everyone has the same opportunities for interaction and inclusion on the same medium.

2. Design with intention!

Hybrid meetings work best when the person leading the meeting focuses equally on the needs of the remote participants as well as those attending in-person. That means if you are going to be conducting a poll, that you need an activity designed in a way that people both physically can take part as well as those dialling in remotely. Sometimes the answer is a wingman one person to manage the virtual space and another to manage the in-person environment. And, don’t forget that we all have mobile devices these days, so why not run a virtual poll for everyone whether in-person or remote!

3. Nomadic management

As if managing a remote team wasn’t a struggle enough, now throw in the mix manging a hybrid team and team members working from different time zones. Managers can struggle with the inclusion of their team, due to proximity bias, meaning that they think of the employees who are in-person with them first and remote second…and thirdly the nomads, there is a saying that comes to mind ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Managers can struggle to build relationships, especially with their new staff or people they haven’t met with face to face with prior and creating a safe environment for your employees working both virtually and in-person can be challenging as a result.

Managing the logistics of a team who are rarely in the office together at the same time can also become a frustration, and it is important for collaboration, driving team culture, wellbeing and the overall health of the team.

Tips for nomadic management

1. Build trust and manage expectations

When managing a team from a distance, there will always be a degree of uncertainty… and this is something you’ll need to learn to accept. And in times of uncertainty, managing expectations is key. Just as it is face to face, it remains your responsibility to run regular checks ins with your teams to ensure that things are going according to plan. Be sure to check in on your team and not to ‘check-up’ on them. If the team feel you are checking up, it can damage relationships and trust.

2. Involve new team members from day one

Starting a job with a new company can be nerve-wracking. Starting it remotely feels a little different, but it can be a great success if done well. Be prepared to find alternative ways to express a warm welcome and a smile. You could send your team member a personalised video in an email welcoming them into the organisation, or send them an onboarding hamper with a mug, cup mat, note pad and pen… or arrange virtual cuppas for them with each of the team, so that they can begin building relationships from day one.

3. The physical office and communicating change 

With staff working in the office fewer days per week, or maybe never returning to the office, organisations are reconsidering how they treat their office space to ensure that they get the greatest return on investment. To do this, they must make the best use of the space they have and maybe revaluate whether they need as much space as they did pre-hybrid and nomadic working.

4. Re-create the physical office: Fewer desks, more social spaces

There are two main reasons in-person meetings are so beneficial and it’s this: it makes collaboration easier and for socialising. That’s not to say that collaboration isn’t possible virtually, as it absolutely is through tools like Mural. But if you’re going to re-consider the layout of your office space, make it a space that people want to make the journey for. Create great spaces for people to socialise like gaming rooms, pool tables and comfy sofas, and create workspaces made for collaborating… like whiteboarding spaces, round tables and hot desks, so that people can move between friendship and work groups to socialise and collaborate.

5. Employee wellbeing

One of the many reasons employees advocate a hybrid and nomadic working, is due to the flexibility and having greater autonomy to manage their work-life balance and of course, to travel. But that doesn’t always mean that employees will be better equipped to look after their mental wellbeing.

In Scalable’s Digital Experience Report 2021, and it found that 31% out of 2,000 surveyed employees admitted to struggling to switch off from work. Employers need to take note as when work is integrated with travel and life, it becomes more and more difficult to segment yourself and can result in the knock-on effect where employees begin to experience burnout and rising levels of dissatisfaction.

Tips to support the wellbeing of your digital nomad employees

1. Encourage your team to take regular breaks

Don’t trust that your Nomads know when to take breaks. Encourage your team to add regular breaks into their calendars and check in with the team daily to ensure they’ve been taking them. Maybe take time to help you team understand why breaks are so important and their advantages.

2. Take 1-1 calls outside and take advantage of the daylight

We all know that daylight, fresh air and exercise can help to stimulate the mind, and in the winter… we just don’t get enough of it. So, weather permitting, when you or your team are on 1-1 calls whether with managers, team members or customers, encourage them to take them outside and enjoy the fresh air! Also, if you are encouraging your team to work anytime, anywhere, in the winter especially, encourage a long break in the middle of the day, to get outside, get some exercise and enjoy some vitamin D.

3. Make time for team meetings without an agenda

Make time for meetings with no agendas, just casual conversations like you might have at the ‘water cooler’ in the office. Or you could run weekly team building meetings like we do at VTT. Each Thursday we run a quiz on Kahoot to get the team together and have some competitive fun!

Final thoughts

At VTT we are increasingly supporting organisations in the transition to virtual, hybrid and nomadic working models. We develop managers and help them to manage their virtual teams, help teams to manage their wellbeing and help them to succeed as a remote worker through our expertly designed Virtual Instructor Led Training and Workshops.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can support you and your organisation as you embrace the future of digital nomads and remote working, please get in touch and let’s discuss how we can help.

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