Approaches to digital nomadism
A few studies present conceptual approaches to digital nomadism. These conceptual perspectives, however, tend to fragment the phenomenon, locating it either as a leisure activity or employment. Putra and Agirachman (2016) approached digital nomadism as a form of creative tourism and Reichenberger (2018) as a leisure activity, while Orel (2019) positioned digital nomads as a location independent workforce and an alternative to traditional employment. Similarly, Wang et al. (2018) proposed to look at digital nomadism as a new form of working and organizing life. Other perspectives include digital nomads as a cultural phenomenon and a new form of economic activity (Wang et al. 2018).
Putra and Agirachman (2016) define digital nomadism as a touristic activity based on novelty as a major motivation in digital nomadism. Novelty is a core motivation in tourism and travel. Indeed, digital nomads as ongoing travelers visit new destinations and create novel experiences. However, digital nomads are not tourists as “they seek out resources, which allow them to accomplish nomadic work” (Nash et al. 2018, 214). While recreation is a significant a part of their travels, it is questionable whether it is an underlying purpose of such travels (Mauratidis 2018; Orel 2019). On the other hand, unlike digital nomads, tourists and other groups of travelers, such as backpackers, also travel, but do not work. Reichenberger (2018) looks at leisure as an integral component of digital nomadism. She argues that digital nomads transfer leisure components, such as enjoyment and self-control, to their working environments and even perceive employment-related work as leisure.
The categorization of digital nomadism as an alternative and/or independent work reflects the work studies approach towards the phenomenon (Liegl 2014; Müller 2016; Wang et al. 2018). It has categorized digital nomads as a new type of independent workers and co-working space users. On the one hand, studies on co-working emphasize the significance of a sense of togetherness and community (Jackson 2017; Mouratidis 2018; Orel 2019). This perspective is important to understanding digital nomadism also as a lifestyle, in which community replace other attachments, such as place of residence, permanent office space and nationality. On the other hand, studies on co-working and telecommuting do not look into the wider mobility trajectories of individuals, including the international scale of travel and de-territorialization of work and home, which are performed by digital nomads. Digital nomads, as a modern type of mobile professionals, have been placed between digital, nomadic, gig workers and global adventure travelers, as they incorporate features of these phenomena (Nash et al. 2018; see also Fig. 1). Studies of work explicate the effects of precariousness of employment on changing working cultures (Premji 2017), which is an important aspect in understanding the production of digital nomadism. In relation to mobility, contemporary studies of work focus on two perspectives: employment related geographical mobility and the digitalization of movement though platform work and telecommuting (Bissell 2018; Cresswell et al. 2016; Golden and Gajendran 2019). These perspectives look at mobility between the fixed locations of home and work(place) with the emphasis on geographical relocation as a necessity. Thus, digital nomads are left out of the scope of research on labor mobilities as they perform “non-location based employment” (Thompson 2018, 17). At the same time work, as a part of digital nomadic lifestyle, has not been fully conceptualized in contemporary studies on digital nomads. This shows the need for further conceptual developments on work in digital nomadic mobilities.
Wang et al. (2018) suggest a theoretical framing of digital nomadism as a new economic model and a cultural phenomenon. They base this perspective on the new forms of production and consumption performed by digital nomads, such as digital work, digital platforms, and the digitalization of consumed environments. Digital nomads have been developing into a particular subculture of “journeymen” (Wang et al. 2018). They have become a specific customer segment and facilitated development of new services and products. It is important to note that destinations around the world have quickly responded to the new phenomenon and started to market themselves as digital nomad friendly—projecting themselves as ideal locales for this lifestyle segment to live and work (such as the ranking of world cities at nomadlist.com). A number of countries have established attractive taxation, visa-free stays, e-residency, and digital nomad visa schemes to welcome more temporary residents and digital nomads (such as smart visa in Thailand and digital nomad visa in Estonia). The number of emerging businesses serving the needs of this new lifestyle include (co-)living and (co-)working spaces, digital nomad house rentals (digitalnomadhouse.net), leisure programs, conferences, banking, healthcare insurance, magazines (nomadsmagazine.com) and even a nomad nation project (Digital Nomads Nation 2019). These perspectives can be further developed from economic and cultural perspectives based on the growing services, social and cultural activities targeting digital nomads. Taking into account the presented approaches to digital nomadism, I further propose a conceptualization of digital nomadism within lifestyle mobilities that embraces and addresses both travel and work components of this lifestyle trend.
Defining digital nomadism as a lifestyle mobility
Digital nomads are both a product and an example of the ubiquity of mobilities in everyday lives. As our society rapidly transforms itself into a mobile society, in which interactions are also mobilized, the “traditional segmentation of context dissolves, so private life can interrupt working life and vice versa” (Sørensen 2002, 1). Previously “discretionary” mobilities, such as tourism and recreational travel, were categorized as separate from the everyday: “travel undertaken voluntarily with the disposable income left after basic necessities of life have been covered” (Cohen and Cohen 2015, 157–158). Researchers note that nowadays travel has become an inseparable part of life, rather than a break from it (Cohen 2010). The new emerging lifestyle of digital nomads is an example of this trend, as it merges work and travel (Makimoto and Manners 1997; Nash et al. 2018).
The term “lifestyle traveller” describes individuals that engage in long-term travel as a lifestyle (Cohen 2010, 64). Cohen et al. (2015, 155) state that lifestyle-led mobility patterns break the boundaries between leisure, migration and travel as well as “conventional binary divides between work and leisure”, they also destabilize the concepts of ‘home’ and ‘away’. The lifestyle mobility framework is useful in locating various modes of travel that exist between permanent migration and temporary mobilities, such as various forms of contemporary nomadic mobilities. Lifestyle mobility is defined as “ongoing movements of varying durations”, which has “multiple moorings and has no immediate plans to return ‘home’” (Cohen et al. 2015, 162).Footnote 4 The phenomenon of digital nomadism inductively indicates its conceptual fit into this approach, as digital nomads are distinct through their “length of travel and decision not to have a home base” (Nash et al. 2018, 212).
The definition of lifestyle mobility shows that there is no intention to return (home): “lifestyle mobility pre-supposes the intention to move on, rather than move back” (Cohen et al. 2015, 159). Yet, lifestyle mobility acknowledges the existence of several ‘homes’ that are visited in a preferred manner. Thus, we must question how return is defined, apart from its differentiating condition between lifestyle mobility and other mobility types, such as lifestyle migration. By diminishing the importance of ‘one’ home lifestyle mobility overlooks the possibility of occasional visitations, such as passing through destinations or visiting friends and relatives, and other obligatory visits. ‘No return’ is indeed a rather restrictive category for defining and framing mobilities under the concept of lifestyle mobility. Empirically there are no limits of individual transition between various mobility states and concepts (between permanent, semi-permanent mobility or immobility; return or no return). If a digital nomad settles, does it mean a return home? Or could it be a transition to another research category, such as a lifestyle migrant, or a spiritual transition into a global nomad or something else? These questions require a certain degree of flexibility in the conceptual framework. Thus, considering evolving lifestyle-led mobilities, I propose to look at a possible return from the perspective of the life course rather than through seasonality or circulation between lifestyle and ‘home’ locations.
Cohen et al. (2015) propose an ideal(istic) perspective on lifestyle mobility as a freedom of travel opportunities. In fact, instead of just going anywhere, individuals move within institutionally arranged frameworks that limit their ability to choose. In this regard the issues of power geometries, inequalities of mobility and mobility regimes come to the surface and are vividly reflected in the production of digital nomadism. This perspective has long been overlooked in studies on lifestyle travelers (Cohen 2004). As discussed earlier in the paper, when engaging themselves in a state of perpetual travel, digital nomads do not and cannot completely detach themselves from home(state). The proposed freedom of mobility is often conditioned by entry and exit mobility regimes, the validity of visas and passports that define under which conditions and time periods one can visit a destination as well as exit a home country (Cohen 2004; Hannonen 2016). The latter is often tied to social security, taxation, health benefits and other national obligations. This demonstrates that while the concept of lifestyle mobilities emphasizes the freedom of mobility as one’s individual choice, it pays less attention to the significance of structures and mobility regimes (Hannonen 2016; Korpela 2019). Another largely overlooked constraint is inward confinements. A mobile lifestyle requires “competence, resourcefulness, endurance and fortitude, as well as an ability to plan one’s moves” (Cohen 2004, 45). These show that the conceptualization of lifestyle mobility still lacks a sufficient empirical base, as lifestyle-led mobilities in general, and digital nomadism in particular, have been the subject of limited academic attention (Cohen et al. 2015; Thompson 2018).
The lifestyle mobility approach originally departed from the importance of geographical relocation or corporal travel for various lifestyle choices. The mobility of digital nomads is a complex interrelation of physical relocation, the mobility of capital, objects, information, knowledge, ideas and cultural practices and also interactions, including connections at a distance and telecommuting. Various aspects and entanglements of the virtual mobilities and connections of digital nomads as well as digital and mobile work should be further conceptualized within lifestyle mobilities.
Work as a part of a location independent lifestyle is underrepresented in lifestyle mobility. Digital nomadism extends employment related geographical mobility as it combines digital and physical relocation, with the latter being a personal choice rather than an employment requirement. Cresswell et al. (2016) argue that studies of work have engaged with the growing body of mobility theory in limited ways, while mobilities studies have taken a narrow perspective towards work and employment. Cohen et al. (2015, 162) note that “whilst lifestyle mobility can include work and career, we see the dominant purpose of its associated movements as lifestyle-led rather than driven by economic gain or a logic of production. As such, a career is not a defining feature of lifestyle mobility”. On the contrary, in most cases, the time commitment of lifestyle travel entails a move away from a career-dominated way of life (Cohen 2010). The interrelationship between work and lifestyle in digital nomadism follows the proposed logic of lifestyle mobilities. While the value of labor productivity is an important feature in the lifestyle of digital nomads (Müller 2016), they do not engage in travel because of work. As shown in the downshifting discussion, career advancement is not the purpose of such mobility (Thompson 2018). Scientific discussions, however, should further engage in defining mobile work as an inseparable part of some lifestyle mobilities, such as digital nomadism.
In addition to the perspective on nomadism as a geographical relocation due to lifestyle reasons, nomadicity is also a working condition (Ciolfi and Pinatti de Carvalho 2014; Humphry 2014; Nash et al. 2018; Rossitto et al. 2014). Nomadicity in work reveals a contemporary trend of postindustrial redistribution of the material conditions that support work, which are increasingly shifted from employers to individual workers (Humphry 2014). Ciolfi and Pinatti de Carvalho 2014 define at least four perspectives on nomadicity in work settings. They include the absence of a stable location in which work is accomplished, access to information and technological resources to accomplish location and time independent work, the mobilization of resources to locations in which temporary workplaces are established and the blurring of work-life boundaries in the lives of people who engage with it (Ciolfi and Pinatti de Carvalho 2014, 129). Nomadicity as a working condition of digital nomads also includes the movement from workplace to workplace (Nash et al. 2018). This indicates the precariousness of employment and freelancing as a part of digital nomadism that have been discussed in the paper. Authors argue that the increases in technology-enabled nomadic work gives rise to other supportive environments, physical and digital forms of commons and sociability, such as co-working spaces and technology platforms. Co-working spaces are defined as shared collaborative workspaces that offer a workstation, but also cafes, events and networking opportunities (Jackson 2017; Orel 2019). Digital platforms, applications and programs are instruments and tools to find and conduct digital work and to produce digital products, while online social platforms are places for personal connections (Kong et al. 2019; Nash et al. 2018).
A theoretical discussion of digital nomadism within lifestyle mobilities enhances further understanding and framing of this lifestyle as a mobility phenomenon. While lifestyle mobilities focus on lifestyle as the main driving component of such mobilities, digital nomadism brings new facets to such discussions through its essential work-component. This raises the need for future conceptual engagements between digital nomadism and lifestyle mobilities with the support of empirical data.