When the office is at the beach
By Thomas Klein and Emery P. Dalesio
Some of the legions accustomed to working all day on their laptops are leaving Luxembourg to locations closer to cultures, kin or nature that call to them.
One of the wave of so-called digital nomads fanning out across the globe is Luxembourger Karim Youssef, one of the founders of the marketing agency Neon. Youssef alternates between Luxembourg and Lisbon as he runs the company that was established from the start to allow employees a degree of flexibility as long as they can connect via fast internet service.
"For most of the work in online marketing, it is not necessary to always be physically present," Youssef said. “We don't care when and where a colleague does his or her work. As long as the deadlines are met and the quality is right, that is none of our business."
Besides spending part of the year with his girlfriend in Lisbon, he's worked from the beach at Portugal's Algarve coast, Amsterdam and Berlin.
The experience of keeping businesses running through Covid-19 lockdowns has made working remotely more accepted and common, Youssef said.
“Before Covid, many didn't even know what Zoom or Teams was," he said. "Sometimes we had to justify ourselves a little when we weren't there for customer meetings. Everyone does it now."
Others are joining the trend.
Home-sharing platform Airbnb said its customers who rented apartments for four weeks or longer almost doubled between 2019 and early 2021. About one out of nine of these long-term tenants described having no permanent home, the company said.
The number of Americans who described themselves as untethered from the office increased by almost 50% compared to 2019, totalling nearly 11 million workers, a study by the consulting firm MBO Partners found. While freelancers and independent service providers have dominated up to now, the numbers of digital nomads from traditional professions nearly doubled, MBO said.
“A lot of people come to us from the field of marketing, graphic designers, programmers and journalists,” said Magdalena Hermann, who rents out co-working spaces in the Moroccan fishing village of Taghazout near Agadir. “But recently we have had completely new professional groups. For example, there are lawyers, archaeologists, government officials or even someone from the European Central Bank."
Hermann's customers pay between €25 and €38 per day for a single room, breakfast and use of the workplaces. Many stay for one to three months, she said. Around half of Hermann's guests work only remotely and some no longer have any permanent address, she said.
Though she was only able to fully reopen operations two months ago after lockdowns and travel restrictions, inquiries for vacant spaces have doubled and she expects the strong demand to continue.
Countries whose tourism income collapsed as a result of the pandemic have also caught on to the spending potential of digital nomads. Estonia last year became one of the first countries to introduce a visa specifically to attract them and there are now similar programs in Georgia, the Bahamas and Iceland. Greece promises tax breaks for digital migrants.
Specialised agencies have sprung up to support laptop labourers in managing challenges like taxes, health insurance and pension payments. In February, the regional government of the Portuguese island of Madeira even started a village dedicated to drawing digital nomads. Since then, 9,500 registrations have been received from 108 different countries, project manager Micaela Vieira said.
Maša Nobilo stayed in Madeira village for two months. A former translator for the European Parliament, Nobilo started her own business in Luxembourg a few years ago as a "sleep coach" who advises clients on how to sleep better. Since she works primarily online, she is testing the live-where-you-want life.
She accepts the criticism that the nomadic lifestyle can prevent personal relationships from ever growing deeper than the superficial contact of people who are coming and going. Villages where expatriates cluster also can isolate remote workers from their host countries, Nobilo said.
“It can become a bubble that is disconnected from the local culture. When people only stay for a few months, it is very difficult to learn the language or get involved in local community activities,” she said.