Remote work and work from home (WFH) became the ‘new normal’ across the world during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, as many employees were forced to telework rather than go into offices and other shared spaces. As pandemic travel restrictions were being lifted, numerous countries launched digital nomad visas, giving employees, freelancers, and gig workers more options to explore. However, this newfound freedom is now facing strong opposition.
The anti-WFH propaganda has been widespread in the media, especially since the fourth quarter of 2022, and is being met with resistance by workers who don’t want to go back to the office. Interestingly, employers seem to be winning the war, as there has been a notable reduction of fully remote roles advertised on job platforms, such as LinkedIn and Indeed.
The Shift to Remote Work
During the initial phases of the pandemic, it was estimated that nearly 88% of organizations worldwide mandated or encouraged remote work. As a result, digital platforms like Zoom and Slack saw explosive growth in usage, and companies quickly adapted to remote workforces. Data from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that nearly half (49%) of working adults reported having worked from home in April 2020. As the pandemic-induced lockdown lingers across the world, the work-from-home culture became even more popular. A Pew Research Centre 2022 survey shows that nearly two years after the COVID-19 outbreak, 89% of US workers who said their work could be done from home reported to be teleworking.
The Rise of Digital Nomadism
In response to the surge in remote work, countries like Estonia, Barbados, and Portugal introduced digital nomad visas, allowing foreign remote workers to live and work legally in these countries for extended periods. According to MBO Partners, the number of digital nomads in the United States alone grew by 49% from 2019 to 2020, with an estimated 10.9 million American digital nomads in 2020. The freedom offered by digital nomadism resonates mostly with millennials’ idea of work-life balance.
It is then not surprising that this generation which makes up 50% of the current global workforce also accounts for 44% of the digital nomad population, as they have been at the forefront of flexible work culture campaigns even before the pandemic. The world’s first digital visa was launched by Estonia in June 2020. Fast forward to 2023: about 50 countries now offer the same or similar version. The visas provide a combination of flexible work and economic advantage, with a whopping $787 million annual digital nomads spending.
The Anti-WFH Campaign and Impact on Remote Job Opportunities
However, the narrative surrounding remote work began to change as the pandemic situation improved. Arguments against remote work included concerns about productivity, collaboration, and company culture. A study conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2020 found that 78% of business leaders surveyed said remote culture would affect productivity. About three years down, this same sentiment is still widely spread by many employers, with some even backtracking on their earlier commitment to remote culture.
As a result, there has been a significant decrease in remote job opportunities. Various report show up to 12% reduction in remote job postings on job websites since the start of 2023. This begs the question: could the shift potentially hinder the digital nomad movement and force many remote workers to reconsider their lifestyle choices?
While there has been a decline in fully remote roles, it is essential to consider the rise of hybrid roles, which combine remote work with some in-office presence. Many companies surveyed in 2022 had implemented or were considering implementing a hybrid work model. This suggests that although fully remote roles may be decreasing, the overall remote work culture is here to stay.
The shift towards hybrid roles may be attributed to employers recognising the benefits of remote work, such as reduced overhead costs and increased employee satisfaction, while still addressing concerns about productivity, collaboration, and company culture. According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, employees in hybrid roles reported higher levels of job satisfaction, work-life balance, and productivity compared to those in fully remote or in-office roles.
The Future of Digital Nomadism
Despite the decline in fully remote roles, the rise of hybrid roles suggests that remote work, in some form, is here to stay. However, whether the propaganda against WFH culture will affect digital nomadism remains to be seen. One possibility is that digital nomads may need to adapt to the hybrid work environment, spending part of their time in the office and the rest working remotely from their chosen location.
Sharing her thoughts on the topic, immigration lawyer Victoria Idia said with over 50 countries offering the digital nomad visa and many more in the process of doing so, the remote culture war for now will not limit or stop the movement.
“The fact that there are many countries offering this type of visa gives more choice for those of a working age who do not want to be tied down to traditional working cultures or roles. There is no doubt that there are more diverse ways of obtaining income which means individuals do not have to be in an office at all, such as those whose income is derived from social media platforms.”
Adapting to the hybrid model may present challenges for digital nomads, particularly regarding travel and visa restrictions. Some countries, such as Estonia and Barbados, have already introduced digital nomad visas that allow remote workers to stay for extended periods. As the hybrid work model becomes more prevalent, it is possible that countries may revise their visa programs to accommodate this new work arrangement, perhaps offering visas that allow for a mix of remote and in-office work.
Idia, who is a casework performance manager for Immigration Advice Service, a UK based firm that specialises in immigration law, said given the advantages digital nomad offer, “it is more likely that global immigration policies will be adapted to this new way of work especially as countries see the financial benefits and boost it brings to their economies.”
About the Author
Olusegun Akinfenwa writes for Immigration Advice Service, a leading team of legal professionals that specialise in immigration law and represents businesses and individuals across the UK and globally.
Featured image by Christin Hume on Unsplash