Why Work From Home When You Can Work From Anywhere?
SPRINGVILLE, Utah – While many of us have gotten used to working from home over the last four months, imagine what it would be like to work from anywhere: A tropical island, a European capital, or up in the Tetons.
With an internet connection and online tools, more and more digital nomads are turning those dreams into reality.
Taking The Job On The Road
On the day we met Tracey Ratcliff at a campground inside the Uinta National Forest, she was taking calls for the New York State Department of Labor. Tracey helped New York callers with their unemployment claims from inside her RV, parked 2,000 miles away in central Utah.
Ratcliff and her husband, Chris, are digital nomads. They crisscross the country in their motorhome, working anywhere they can get a strong cellular signal. But don’t call it a 24/7 vacation.
“No, it’s not a vacation. That’s the hardest part for people to understand is we’re not homeless. We’re not trying to be unemployed and just live off the land. We’re truly just working full-time and sightseeing at the same time,” said Tracy. “Rather than mowing grass on the weekends, we get to go out and explore, hike and Jeep around and see things.”
The Ratcliffs are just two of many thousands who’ve hit the road in their coach full-time. The RV Industry Association estimates over a million Americans travel, work and live in a vehicle. For the Ratcliffs, this was not a choice made in response to a financial situation.
“It’s not only about being out in places like this and experiencing things,” explained Chris Ratcliff. “It’s about simplification. Yes, the transition of getting rid of 30 years of stuff was hard, but it’s also freeing.”
The Challenges of Working On The Road
Freedom has its downsides, too. There are the occasional breakdowns, and then having to hunt a good data signal.
“We’re able to use different applications to see, ‘Does this area have a good cell signal? Yes, we can go there. No, we can’t go there,’” said Tracey Ratcliff.
“We have both services (Verizon and AT&T), so when we go certain places, one’s going to be weaker than the other and we can go bounce back and forth as needed,” her husband added.
Another downside is the isolation from family and even coworkers.
“The lack of connection and the lack of being in the office and talking to people is a challenge,” said Chris Ratcliff. “It’s definitely a negative, but you work with it.”
Meeting other digital nomads and RV’ers has helped the Ratcliffs counter some of that isolation. And the appeal of working wherever they want is just too irresistible.
“Spontaneity is great – the adventure,” Ratcliff said.
The Rise Of Coworking Spaces
The drive to work anywhere has spawned a massive and rapidly growing industry catering to digital nomads.
The Work Hive in downtown Salt Lake is a coworking space, offering an office away from the office.
Engineering instructor Kate Youmans, whose job is based in Logan, enjoys using it to work closer to home.
“That’s about an hour-and-40-minute commute on a daily basis,” said Youmans. “Not something I was interested in relocating for.”
Sure, Youmans could work from home. But for her, that often gets in the way of work.
“Home is always distracting. Anytime that I’m home there are things to do like the dishwasher, letting the dog out or the Amazon guy shows up,” she said. “This provides a really great break that when I’m here, it’s working time. There’s a clear distinction which is really helpful.”
“We’ve seen a lot more people who are more interested in, ‘How can I get out of the house,’” commented Mark Morris, Work Hive’s owner.
Morris started Work Hive in 2012 with a mere 300 square feet of space. Now, it boasts 40 workstations along with private offices, conference rooms, high-speed internet, a kitchen and several amenities helpful for remote workers – like working printers.
“My printer at home is just always a headache, rarely ever works,” said Youmans.
“I think people feel when they’re in space like this, they feel like they’re on task and they’re productive,” said Morris. “And they’re at least getting something done.”
Even before the pandemic, coworking spaces like Work Hive were the fastest-growing type of office space in the United States, according to commercial real estate firm JLL. While they made up less than 5% of the market in 2017, analysts expect co-working spaces will take up 30%, by 2030.
And coworking desks aren’t just being used by locals like Youmans. Morris said he’s had nomads from just about anywhere who come to Salt Lake to work and ski, and then they’re gone until next season.
“Oh, you name it. I’ve had people from New Zealand, people from Australia, people from Europe,” he said.
“I don’t like cold, so I’m going to find a beach as soon as it starts to get cold here,” said Brian Kelly.
Kelly is about as nomadic as a digital nomad gets. On the day we spoke to him, he was running his IT automation company at the Work Hive. But that’s just the latest of scores of places he’s worked from.
“Cambodia, Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, hopped over to Australia for a little bit. Spent plenty of time in Europe, several countries there,” Kelly listed.
A 2019 report by workplace technology firm MBO Partners found 7.3 million Americans like Kelly consider themselves digital nomads. Another 16.1 million want to be one.
Kelly agreed that once COVID-19 finally goes away, we’ll see many more nomads in coworking spaces, on the road and many other places with a strong data signal.
“What has just happened with the pandemic is that a lot of companies have kind of shown their hand that yes, your job can be done remotely,” Kelly said.
Luring In Digital Nomads
The digital nomad lifestyle is catching on overseas, too.
To help bring in money lost to coronavirus travel restrictions, several countries have launched efforts to bring in digital nomads and their paychecks.
In the Caribbean, Barbados now allows remote workers up to a one-year stay. Just this month, the Baltic-country of Estonia launched its new digital nomad visa, and Bermuda is also opening its doors to remote works.
“What it (being a digital nomad) means for me is just this freedom to be geographically independent. I can just be where I choose to be,” said Kelly. “And, I like that.”
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