Spawned by the pandemic, digital nomads are redefining ‘home’

Why We Wrote This

People often live where they do because of their jobs. But with the pandemic forcing so much remote work, many have moved to places they’d like to live rather than have to live. It’s a glimpse of how work and home may change in the future. 

Courtesy of Megan Todd
Wes Todd works from his “office” outside his RV on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in October. After the pandemic closed his office in San Jose, California, Mr. Todd and his wife decided to trade their apartment for a mobile home.

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The coronavirus pandemic has upended many aspects of our lives, especially, for many of us, the relationships between where we work and where we live. This summer, the Pew Research Center found that nearly a fifth of American adults either moved because of the pandemic or knew someone who did.

Rents in previously booming cities, such as San Francisco, have plummeted as residents go elsewhere with their newly remote jobs. Short-term housing companies say they have seen a dramatic growth in people looking to relocate. One study found that nearly 11 million Americans – 49% more than last year – now describe themselves as “digital nomads.”

“We are in a transition moment where our spaces and our time and our roles are in flux,” says Whitman College sociologist Michelle Janning. “People are challenging the way things were.”

Digital nomads’ peripatetic lifestyle shows a lot about the way Americans are fundamentally rethinking their sense of work and home, and it’s also spawning an industry of temporary spaces for working and living. The company Outsite, for instance, offers co-living communities and lodging worldwide for “remote workers and creatives.”

“Physical spaces will always be important for humans looking for a sense of home,” says Rebecca Males, the company’s head of content.

In February, Marc Fischer heard worrying information from his business contacts at the country’s top medical schools. There could soon be a pandemic disrupting the United States, he recalls being told, and life was about to change dramatically.

Mr. Fischer, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Dogtown Media, a mobile app development company, decided that he needed to react quickly. First, he called his employees and told them that he was shutting down Dogtown’s Los Angeles office, and that everyone should work remotely for the foreseeable future.  

Then he went to Airbnb and booked a remote ranch house near Joshua Tree National Park in the Southern California desert. He and his girlfriend, Caroline Berezina, moved to the house in March. And they haven’t been home since – at least not if “home” means the pricey Marina del Rey apartment they shared before the pandemic. Instead, after three months amid the pinyon pine and magical rock formations of the high desert, Mr. Fischer returned to Los Angeles briefly, gave the keys back to his landlord, transferred his furniture into a storage unit, and, as he puts it, “took off on the open road.”

“We’ve been going strong ever since,” he says. “We have covered 3,000 miles of distance since June.”

Courtesy of Marc Fischer
Marc Fischer and Caroline Berezina pose at Rainbow Curve in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado in July. “We have covered 3,000 miles of distance since June. There’s no reason to stop living this lifestyle. ... All I need to operate my business is Wi-Fi and my laptop.”

In recent months, Mr. Fischer has lived in a home overlooking the mountains in Taos, New Mexico. He stayed for a month in the Colorado Rockies. He went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Whitefish, Montana; and rural Idaho. He makes sure each home has fast internet, is within an hour of a national park, and within a half-hour of grocery stores. And he doesn’t see any reason to settle in one place – at least not now.

“It’s been a very peaceful lifestyle,” he says. “It’s very freeing. ... Technically, I’m homeless. Yet I can have my home anyplace.”

Mr. Fischer is the first to acknowledge that his situation is privileged – he has the finances and flexibility to move from one well-situated rental house to another. But he is far from alone when it comes to people reimagining what it is to be “at home” during the pandemic, and not even particularly unique when it comes to those adopting transient lifestyles. 

This summer, the Pew Research Center found that nearly a fifth of American adults either moved because of the pandemic or knew someone who did. A recent survey conducted by the AceableAgent real estate group found that 23% of respondents had decided to move within the next six months. Some of this is a result of economic trauma, as those facing unemployment look for less expensive housing. But there is also a large group that is deciding, for a host of reasons, that the way and place they live should change. 

Courtesy of Marc Fischer
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is one of Marc Fischer's destinations. Mr. Fischer runs an app development company and can work from the road.

Rural states that early on were perceived as “COVID-19 safe,” such as Vermont and Montana, are seeing a surge of new people. Rents in previously booming cities, such as San Francisco, have plummeted as residents go elsewhere with their newly remote jobs. Short-term housing companies say they have seen a dramatic growth in people looking to relocate. And according to research conducted this year by MBO Partners, a business services company, some 10.9 million Americans – 49% more than last year – now describe themselves as “digital nomads,” people moving from location to location, unattached to a physical workplace. Another 19 million say they want to become digital nomads within the next two years.

“We are in a transition moment where our spaces and our time and our roles are in flux,” says Michelle Janning, professor and chair of sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “People are challenging the way things were.”

Although still a tiny group, these new nomads are emblematic of larger, pandemic-era forces shaking up American domestic life. Once a fairly niche community of primarily millennial and Generation Z workers, often in the gig economy and jetting between low-cost international destinations, digital nomads are now becoming part of mainstream culture, according to Dr. Janning. 

Their peripatetic lifestyle shows a lot about the way Americans are fundamentally rethinking their sense of work and home – and about the challenges and inequalities that may follow. 

Courtesy of Marc Fischer
While working from the road, Marc Fischer stopped at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

***

The only reason Wes Todd and his wife, Megan, lived in San Jose, California, was because of his office. Mr. Todd is a software engineer, and before the pandemic he went to work every day. Ms. Todd ran her own business from home, sewing and selling children’s clothes, and also took care of the couple’s bubbly, 20-month-old daughter.

Neither had relatives in the area, and while they had some nice acquaintances, neither felt particularly attached to the city. They mused sometimes about what it would be like to have a more mobile lifestyle. Mr. Todd had even brought up the idea of traveling around the country in a recreational vehicle. But those were fleeting thoughts, ideas quickly suppressed amid the reality of everyday life and routine.

Then, with the pandemic, Mr. Todd’s office shut down. His work shifted entirely to home. For two months, the family sheltered in place, walking around the same neighborhood block day after day. Finally, one weekend, Mr. Todd recalls, they turned on a television nature show and started watching gorgeous drone footage of the California coast. They realized how much they missed traveling.

“We were like, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?’” he recalls. Two weeks later they bought a truck and trailer, gave their landlord notice, and started planning a new life that would be totally mobile. 

Courtesy of Megan Todd
Megan and Wes Todd hike with their daughter in Yosemite National Park in California in July.

That was four months ago. Since then they have lived in their new 40-foot RV, driving across the country with stops in Dallas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and eventually the East Coast. They have stayed away from crowds, but have deepened their connections with those they know best, visiting people they weren’t otherwise able to see because of pandemic-related travel restrictions.

Mr. Todd still works his 9-to-5 job, but at a standing desk he sets up outside the trailer, connecting to the internet through his cellphone. They expect to continue this way for at least another year or two, assuming Mr. Todd’s work remains remote. 

“It feels like home at this point,” Ms. Todd said recently from their RV, which at the time was parked outside Washington, D.C. “I don’t miss California. The moving around doesn’t affect me as much as I thought it would.”

Chris Gifford, operations director of Ready.Set.Van., a new company that advertises “super comfortable, highly functional off-grid adventure vans,” says he has encountered couples with similar stories. 

Business has exploded during the pandemic as families look for new ways to vacation. But he also estimates that around 1 of every 8 vans he sells is going to a customer planning a more nomadic lifestyle. 

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in ... people who live normal lives but who spend three to six months out of the year driving around the country because their workplaces now allow it,” Mr. Gifford says.

***

The shift to remote work in the U.S. has been dramatic and sudden. Nearly half of the workforce is still entirely out of the office, according to researchers. But there are clear socioeconomic divides reflected in who gets to work at home. 

Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, has been studying this, and he says the data are stark. “There is a very straight class hierarchy,” Dr. Cohen says. “The higher-paid white-collar job people are working from home.”

Dr. Cohen has also found an educational and racial breakdown. Workers still physically tied to their workplace are, on the whole, less educated and less white than the group that is working remotely. They are also more likely to lose – or have lost – their jobs.

He sees another divide as well. Although some families are newly connecting with neighbors during the pandemic, he says many white-collar remote workers are continuing to build lives that are relatively disconnected from a particular place. He calls this a “translocation identity,” in which switching cities or neighborhoods has little impact on their friends, media consumption, distance from family members, and social causes. Their sense of neighborhood isn’t tied up in a physical neighborhood. They are – and can be – more mobile.

“People are living in their communities in very different ways,” he says.

This virtual neighborhood, which has only increased during the pandemic, was already a hallmark of digital nomad existence, says Beverly Thompson, a sociology professor at Siena College in New York who is writing a book about digital nomads.

Although transient workers ostensibly focus their lives around travel and around new destinations, Dr. Thompson argues that location has always been primarily a backdrop for a fairly uniform culture. In her research, she found that nomads typically socialize with each other, don’t learn local languages when traveling abroad, and are rarely “part” of a place they visit.

“They don’t think of themselves as tourists,” she says. “They think they’re more sophisticated than that – that this isn’t vacation, this is their life. But they act exactly like tourists.”

Over the past few years, a number of new hospitality companies have started offering semistandardized housing for digital nomads and other workers who want a mobile lifestyle. The company Outsite, for instance, offers co-living communities and lodging across the world for “remote workers and creatives.” Rebecca Males, head of content for Outsite, said in an email that the company now sees a huge new potential market for its services – particularly for long-term stays.  

“Physical spaces will always be important for humans looking for a sense of home, this is why all Outsite Spaces have a similar ‘look and feel,’” she wrote. “It creates a sense of home for the user. We also believe people find home through the people they surround themselves with, their rituals and routines – and these can be taken anywhere.”

Yet according to Dr. Thompson’s research, digital nomads express high levels of loneliness – despite the Instagram photos that would suggest otherwise. That’s something researchers are starting to find among pandemic remote workers, as well, particularly younger workers who do not have spouses or children.

The isolation of modern remote work is what motivated Taige Zhang to create Fairytrail, a dating app geared toward remote workers. A millennial who has lived in multiple countries himself, Mr. Zhang says that finding ways to authentically connect with others within the context of a mobile lifestyle is key. 

“I’m very passionate about solving loneliness for people,” he says. “Even before coronavirus, remote workers have reported loneliness as one of their top problems. ... Now with the lockdown it’s so much worse.” 

Courtesy of Taige Zhang
“Even before coronavirus, remote workers have reported loneliness as one of their top problems. ... Now with the lockdown it’s so much worse.” – Taige Zhang, creator of a dating app aimed at remote workers, standing by Dyce Head Lighthouse near Castine, Maine

Mr. Zhang designed Fairytrail to work differently from typical dating apps. Rather than a subscription model, which critics say motivates companies to tempt users with endless potential matches to keep them on the app, Fairytrail charges one entrance fee. Mr. Zhang says his goal is to make it possible for a worker in any city to find real connection with a potential partner anywhere in the world. 

As for himself, he left his San Francisco apartment when his lease ended in June. He moved temporarily outside Philadelphia to join his girlfriend, who also works remotely. They don’t know where they will go next. It’s still open, he says.

***

Those who study the American workforce suspect that this ability to “take work anywhere” will continue – at least for a certain slice of the population. 

“This isn’t a blip where we are going to revert back to where we were before,” says Brian Kropp, chief of research for the human resources practice at Gartner, an information technology consulting firm. “This pandemic ... has created some really fundamental changes in where people do work, and how.”

His group estimates that 20% of jobs that can be done remotely will stay completely remote, while another substantial group will do their job remote part time. He also sees a shift in the nature of labor markets, where companies are more likely to hire contractors and other remote independents.

“The digital nomad labeling is certainly something that is catching on,” says Miles Everson, CEO of MBO Partners, the business services group focused on high-income independent workers. “But it is a subset of bigger trends.” 

Remote work, he says, is the result of a workforce that is moving toward a more project-based existence, with a growing number of higher-level white-collar professionals working for themselves. He calls this the “portfolio-ization of career” – the idea that workers will no longer stay at a single company, but will instead develop personalized skill sets that can match the needs of many customers. It is also connected to forces similar to those that shaped the hospitality industry, which moved from big hotel companies to individuals independently renting their houses on Airbnb. 

“With the digital nomad, we are fractionalizing the human career and the workday,” he says. 

But that’s something that worries Dr. Thompson. In her research, she saw gig-work digital nomads using the culture of freedom and exploration to mask increased financial insecurity. This came through clearly during the pandemic, she says, when many American digital nomads traveling in low-cost countries realized they couldn’t afford to come home.

“This isn’t some fancy lifestyle,” says Dr. Thompson. “These are broke young people.”

The new wave of domestic nomads, though, is more likely to have traditional full-time employment – at least for now. But that still brings its own set of challenges. For this group, the new merger of work and home has brought up a slew of new questions, from whether it’s OK to show co-workers the inside of one’s bedroom on Zoom, to how to transition from private to work life without a commute. Perhaps most important, it highlights the difficulty of managing both work and children learning at home.  

Those who thrive, says Dr. Janning of Whitman College, are people who have the control to determine where and how they are living and working. Those with the ability to shut a home-office door are in better shape than those trying to work in the kitchen next to remote-schooling children. Those evaluated on the quality of their work have a different remote work experience – and thus home experience – than those workers subject to a new host of workplace surveillance measures, such as keystroke tracking or constant monitoring by Zoom camera. 

“More people are being digital nomads now,” Dr. Janning says. “But what’s hidden in that is how this is exacerbating the differences between people. And connected to that is how much control you have, how much status you have in your employment.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Elise Willer and her husband, Justin Will, holding their 8-week-old daughter, Isabelle, walk down the road in front of their home in rural Vermont in late October.

***

Which is perhaps why, for some newly remote workers, there is a pull not toward an increasingly mobile world, but to a more traditional sense of community and home.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Vermont and other rural states have seen an influx of new residents. Some newcomers are moving into second homes, hoping to wait out the pandemic away from denser areas considered more dangerous. Others are taking the opportunity to experience a beautiful landscape and more pastoral lifestyle.

But Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont, sees another reason for the migration.

“There’s a sense of community here, and they’re looking for community,” he says.  

Dr. Watts has been studying Vermont’s new telecommuting residents, asking both what drew them to the state initially and what might make them stay. Vermont’s level of community engagement, with its town meetings and high levels of local volunteerism, regularly turned up as an attraction. 

“They said they could be anywhere, but they wanted to have a place that’s home,” Dr. Watts says.

This was certainly true for Justin Will and his wife, Elise Willer. Before the pandemic, the two considered themselves digital nomads. Mr. Will is an entrepreneur who runs his own company, Inspired Coffee Merchants, and Ms. Willer is a mediator and conflict management consultant. They had purchased a house in Vershire, Vermont (population 743), early last year with the intention of renting it as an Airbnb property. While they knew they could always spend time in Vershire if they wanted, they had no intention of settling down there.

Then, in March, with Mr. Will in Ethiopia and Ms. Willer in Ghana for work, the two decided it would be best to return to the U.S. And they chose to make the Vershire house their home.

“We had joked about it being our zombie apocalypse house,” Mr. Will says. “It became our pandemic house.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Justin Will works at the dining room table while his wife, Elise Willer, comforts their baby girl, Isabelle. Mr. Will runs Inspired Coffee Merchants. Ms. Willer works as a conflict mediation consultant.

They were struck immediately by the friendly, local nature of their new community. They received a personal call from a representative of the state’s health department when they moved in – just to check in on them. They have signed up to get food from a community-supported agricultural group. They have had a baby daughter, Isabelle, who is getting used to a hiking backpack.   

“When you move around a lot – so really, anyone with a nomadic lifestyle – you don’t really become part of a community,” Mr. Will says. 

That doesn’t mean that his family is ready to commit to Vershire forever. They appreciate the slower, deeper nature of this way of living, but see it as something they could replicate – if they wanted.

“Home is always going to be an abstract concept for a nomad,” Mr. Will says. “But it feels more home than the places we’ve gone for a couple weeks or a couple months.”

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