Ideas

The seasonal nomads

A growing tribe of co-workers don’t just hot-desk around a city, they skip from country to country. We asked them why...

Words: Oliver Bennett
Photography: Getty

The seasonal nomads

There’s a type of person in the US known as the “snowbird”. This individual, normally retired, migrates from the chill of the North American winter to the sunnier climes of Florida and Arizona, trundling year after year in a recreational vehicle à la Breaking Bad.

Not a bad life, as long as you like the open road. So do we have our own snowbirds? Not exactly, unless you count those Cockneys who flee for the Costas when the nights draw in. But the ability to up sticks and work where you like, providing they have decent wi-fi speeds, is driving a new breed of seasonal migrant, with a more exciting range of reasons to flee than just sun-seeking. These might include cost of living, romance, culture, freedom, or a thirst for new experiences. And it may, of course, as with those snowbirds in the States, include the need for a favourable climate that warms the feathers.

Take Chris Connors, who works across Europe, including Ibiza and London, running his business from TOG spaces. “I go to Ibiza from the end of September to June,” says Connors, who develops leadership coaching programmes for high-profile companies. “It seems like the opposite way round, but the winter is really beautiful then. The climate is great, there’s good hiking, beautiful light and vitamin D.” Then, in early summer, when Ibiza gets hot and full of annoying revellers, he leaves for a city to pick up the urban buzz. “This year it’s Berlin. Last year it was Copenhagen.”

Indeed, the roster of cities that are opening up for digital nomads is ever-growing, and part of an oscillating hit-parade. Currently riding high are Chiang Mai in Thailand and Siem Reap in Cambodia. In Europe, Barcelona is a perennial favourite while Budapest offers good value and excellent connectivity in the heart of the continent.

Jack Sheldon currently lives in Kiev, Ukraine, where he’s building up Jack’s Flight Club, a company that monitors airfares to find the lowest for its 240,000-strong subscriber base. Based in the UK, the business employs six full-time staff and several part-timers.

TOG

So why is Sheldon, 29, on the edge of Europe rather than sweating it out in London’s Silicon Roundabout? “It’s partly that we have Ukrainian developers,” he says. “But it’s not just that. Kiev is good value and fun. And I have friends here.” Plus he saves on London’s vast overheads. His accommodation costs $300 a month, it’s about $3-$5 for an Uber, and he loves Kiev’s food: huge wintry portions of meat and potatoes. As for the various accoutrements of office life: Sheldon runs Jack’s Flight Club from a Dell laptop. There’s less unity with colleagues, he concedes, but no office management. And because he’s far from home, he’s able to bring his business to new and growing markets, and enjoy the sense of freedom that a new destination brings: a feeling that many of us only experience on holiday.

As well as obvious benefits like cheaper rents, there are more intangible upsides to working abroad, like a sense of optimism – sometimes sorely lacking in the UK

Morwenna Kearns, an editor and copywriter, is currently in the UK to sell a house in Birmingham. But for a couple of years she has lived and worked in New York, Vancouver and (most notably) Tokyo. “I originally went to Japan because of a relationship,” she says. “But I found that it was a great place to work. I love it. I have good friends, favourite running routes and a work routine.”

The only constraint was that Kearns had to leave Japan every three months because of the 90-day visa requirements. But this didn’t hamper her ability to keep her work in the air, including her editorship of the ecologically minded clearlymagazine.com – bar a few relatively minor teething issues. “I found the time difference a bit problematic and did Skype interviews late at night,” she says. “This was difficult in one place I lived because Japanese walls are very thin.” For such reasons, some seasonal nomads choose their destinations according to time zones. Cape Town is good for people working closely with the UK market while Medellín in Colombia – a city undergoing huge regeneration – is well-located for the US market.

As well as obvious benefits like cheaper rents, there are more intangible upsides to working abroad, such as a sense of optimism – sometimes sorely lacking in the UK but cited by several nomads we spoke to as part of the allure in places such as Melbourne and Montreal. Then there’s the freedom to be yourself, unencumbered by presumptions about your accent/family/school/whatever, which may make it easier for nomads to find business opportunities abroad than in their home countries. And because of the phenomenon, there’s a huge growth of co-working spaces in most world cities to cater for the new peripatetic workforce. [Indeed TOG has reciprocal agreements with a number of other co-working companies around the world, such as Egg in Japan, theHUB in Ibiza and Camp David in Brooklyn, NYC]

Perhaps these seasonal nomads are the “belong-nowheres”, who became something of a political hot potato last year. They pick and choose where they live, supported by a growing panoply of apps from communication tools like WhatsApp and Skype to digi-nomad apps like Workfrom, ShareDesk and Work Hard Anywhere, which aggregates useful data such as “laptop-friendly spaces” across the world.

Sharing-economy apps like Airbnb have also helped. Kearns has moved around the world with trustedhousesitters.com pet-sitting in Portland, Edinburgh and Ghent, and couch-surfed in New York and Vancouver. “It’s a great way to get around, stay cheaply, help people out and work in a new place.”

It’s a vindication of workplace visionary Tsugio Makimoto’s book Digital Nomad, written two decades ago, which predicted that the link between job and place would be severed. One issue of the early digital age was that you still needed proximity to clients, but Kearns doesn’t think this matters any longer. “Clients are used to it, particularly tech companies,” she says. “That’s how they work these days. There’s far less of that whole ‘We need an expert in Bristol tomorrow morning’ factor.” Nor has Sheldon found it too much on an issue. “Except for public relations, perhaps,” he says. “For example, I was invited onto a morning television show in Manchester at short notice and just couldn’t make it from Kiev, which was a bit of a blow.”

TOG

What about the disruption to ordinary life, all the constant chopping and changing? Sheldon believes the advantage of remote working is that your life doesn’t get clogged up with humdrum tasks. And the growing number of co-working spaces around the globe are a boon, as maintaining
a routine is always advisable. He tries to work 10am-6pm each day.

Of course, seasonal nomadism suits those in some industries more than others. It would be tough to be in a relationship with a non-nomad like a schoolteacher. But Connors is in a relationship, and knows several seasonal nomad families in Ibiza, insisting that their “kids thrive here”. Nor is it just for the young, or the early retired. It just requires an adventurous spirit.

So is there anything nomads lack? “I miss my family back in the US,” says Sheldon, “and there’s no classic English pint with colleagues on a Friday. But on the plus side, you don’t get distracted by birthdays.” And for sure, being a seasonal nomad is a corrective against the linear career, the scrimped-for house, the dutiful, heads-down lifestyle. As Connors says: “I want to live more lightly.”

Most importantly, it lets you change circumstances at short notice. For example, in Kiev the winters are tough, which is why as you read this, Sheldon – who is originally from Las Vegas – is likely to be in either Spain or South Africa. “The weather does matter to me,” he says. “I get depressed if it’s too cold.” So as the winter draws in, he can simply decamp to Valencia.

Meanwhile, Kearns is planning to head for New Zealand and Australia. “I hate the British winter and I want to work in a beautiful place surrounded by nature,” she says. But for many seasonal nomads, the idea of a mobile life is romantic as well as efficient. As Sheldon says, “Being a seasonal nomad is to indulge in a world without boundaries.” It’s the way the world is going.