Will Digital Nomadism Go Mainstream in 2021?

6 min read • Dec 09, 2020 • Kayla Voigt

Picture this: it’s a typical workday as a small business owner: you’re sending emails, taking phone calls, looking over sales dashboards, and coordinating staff. But you’re wearing a swimsuit and have a margarita in your hand, your toes in the sand.

That’s the dream for many an aspiring digital nomad, or location-independent worker. Often entrepreneurs, digital nomads hop from location to location, seeking out sunshine and a WiFi connection to work remotely from anywhere. Popular startups like Remote Year and Outsite promise stress-free digital nomad communities, creating cohorts of remote workers that live and work together, rotating between 12 chosen cities each year. 

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced nearly every company to go remote overnight, it looks like remote work is here to stay. 57% of Americans are now working remotely in some capacity, according to a recent Gallup poll

Graph showing Americans working remotely

Source: Gallup

For those with the flexibility, many workers have taken advantage of remote work location options—whether that’s epic scenery or just proximity to the beach.

Bustling ‘Zoom Towns’ Across the US

While most international destinations are closed to Americans, typical beach towns like the Hamptons and Cape Cod and mountain towns like Truckee and Aspen saw an influx of long-term renters this summer. Looking to flee population centers like New York City or San Francisco in the wake of the coronavirus, wealthy Americans settled into second homes, rentals, or Airbnbs. 

Now, they’re looking to stay: so-called “Zoom towns” drove a 23% surge in housing prices in 2020. The home-buying app Zillow found that, if given the option to continue working from home at least occasionally, 66% of renters would consider moving.

“Many Americans—especially 30-somethings who remain employed—are ditching their tiny rental apartments in hip districts of expensive cities and moving to buy houses in more affordable cities or the ’burbs,” writes Greg Rosalsky for NPR’s Planet Money. “With remote work freeing many people from daily commutes, people are increasingly deciding that it’s OK to live farther away from what used to be the office.”

Historically trapped by coastal housing markets and student loan debt, more millennials can now afford their first homes with remote work on the table. “If remote work becomes a bona fide long-term option, especially with the pandemic, that could reshape the US housing market by opening up homeownership to people renting in expensive parts of the country,” said Zillow economist Jeff Tucker in a press release. “The rise of remote work has the potential to unlock the American Dream of homeownership for nearly 2 million renter households.”

What about Americans who aren’t picturing a white picket fence?

Tourist Destinations Pitch Remote Work 

With the pandemic shutting down global travel, some countries are marketing new “remote worker”-friendly policies designed to entice digital American nomads. This includes fast-tracking visas, offering to pay for health insurance or COVID-19-related costs, and getting around COVID-19 travel restrictions.

You can live out your digital nomad dreams, even during COVID-19, on the sunny beaches of Bermuda or Barbados or in charming Eastern European countries like Estonia and Georgia. 

“The trend toward remote working has been accelerated by COVID-19,” Jason Hayword, Bermuda’s Minister of Labor, told Forbes. “These visitors can reside in Bermuda without seeking employment on the island and will promote economic activity for our country without displacing Bermudians in the workforce.”

Typically, a digital nomad flies under the radar, getting a tourist visa or simply moving from place to place before needing to go through any kind of legal processing. A short-term stay, such as a year or less, is a relatively new visa idea.

“We saw that there was kind of a lack of opportunities for [digital nomads], so we wanted Estonia to solve the problem,” Ott Vatter, who manages Estonia’s e-residency program, told the Washington Post. “Estonia aims to be the hub for these kinds of new entrepreneurs that we see trending globally.”

These programs are mainly an effort from countries whose primary income comes from tourism—they must make up for lost ground due to border shutdowns and quarantine regulations. The IMF reported that Thailand, Greece, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, and Costa Rica all risk losing over 2% of their GDP from lack of tourism. So it’s no wonder that some, like Turkey, are opening their borders, and others, like Portugal, have gone with a digital nomad visa option.

The question remains: will remote workers pack their bags and head to these destinations once they’re tired of hunkering down in their homes? 

If You’re Working Remotely, Think Bigger

So far, digital nomadism remains relatively niche. But if you or your employees catch the travel bug, staying longer can mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 on the communities visited—and lead to more enriching experiences. If you’re going to have to work remotely, you might as well take advantage of it.

Companies like Outsite, which hosts groups of remote workers around the globe, now attract a wider range of people joining their programs. “Before the pandemic, we were fitting a niche of people…nomads, freelancers, tech workers. Because they can work remotely, they choose to live a different lifestyle,” Emmanuel Guisset, founder and CEO of Outsite, told CNBC. “Travelling now is much more difficult, so people want to stay longer to make it worthwhile.”

Employees want their remote work options to stay. If you’re one of the many organizations contemplating what reopening an office could look like or what remote work options will exist in the future, consider this your permission to get creative about location. Whether it’s finding a cozy ski cabin in Colorado or skipping winter altogether in Barbados, you have more options than you think.

Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.