Starbucks is widely credited for creating the concept of a “third place”: that in-between zone that’s neither home nor workplace but feels a bit like both. Add technology like smartphones and cloud computing to the mix and a new breed of global worker has been spawned – the digital nomad. The ripples are running through business and specifically, a growing workforce that demands flexibility.

In many of the talks and workshops I do, I ask a silly question: “Who in the room has answered an email on their phones, outside of office hours?”

It’s a rhetorical question because we all have, but my point is that we’re all, technically, remote workers.

For me, the 40-hour work week – one that starts at 9 and ends at 5 – is a quaint relic of the 20th century. Technology has blurred the lines between work and play. Even the quest for “work/life balance” is obsolete: “work/life flexibility” is the new mantra. A younger workforce no longer “looks for a job”, it rather “looks for a lifestyle”. An older workforce scoffs at this notion, but it’s the same generation who views work as “a job” versus a younger workforce who view work as something that is ideally more meaningful and in line with their value systems.

For the sticklers of the 9 to 5 template, I ask why we still have to endure rush hour traffic, twice a day, five days a week, when a bit of flexibility could turn those hours of lost time into something more productive. (If your one-way work commute takes an hour, that’s 40 hours of unproductive time wasted every month).

In 2012, one of the “new urban tribes” we identified at Flux were the techno hippies. These were the frontrunners of today’s digital nomads. They considered themselves “the new rich”: not rich in material wealth but rich in space and time – they could work whenever they want, wherever they want.

Today’s digital nomads are now being called “the new elite”. They have not only embraced the GIG Economy* but are also using the global village as their office. These nomads take advantage of multinational companies who render global services using cloud-based technologies. For example: A digital nomad could be working from Bali on a tourist visa, creating a website for an American company, to be used in France, but based on a server in Switzerland. This kind of lifestyle makes flexitime seem like an archaic employee benefit.

*GIG Economy: A labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.

But if the corporate world is still struggling with the idea of a nomadic workforce, businesses that cater to it are already racing ahead to capitalise on the trend.

WeWork, the company that pioneered co-working spaces for GIG workers and was founded in NYC in 2010 is now valued at $20 billion. (Still think the GIG economy is a passing fad?) Recently, established brands – which have now also seen the worth of the GIG Economy and the rise of digital nomads – have partnered with WeWork to provide additional services for this workforce. Samsung is offering pop-up “care centres” for device repair or maintenance while you work, Airbnb has stepped in to provide unusual, off-site meeting spaces, while Mastercard has supplied metered payment technology so that GIG workers can be charged on a project-to-project basis in the WeWork network.

Other technological disruptions in other industries seem to be dovetailing perfectly with a nomadic lifestyle. In the automotive industry, the concept of “digital mobility” rather than car ownership is not only openly discussed but the car manufacturers themselves are providing these services, and the business models are both varied and unique.

Don’t feel like being driven by Uber or the many other car-hailing services? Then you can drive yourself (without owning the car) using BMW’s Drive Now network. You simply find the closest, available car on your app, let yourself in using a pin code and drive off to your destination. Once there you just leave the car wherever you’ve parked it, for another driver in that area. This system is already in South Africa with a company called Locomute.

But the global network of digital nomads is growing, so it’s no longer just about GIG workers in a specific city or country. International residential clubs for nomads are starting to mushroom. Designed specifically for globetrotting nomads, these clubs charge a membership fee, which allows them access to a global network of residential clubs, so you no longer even have to find an Airbnb for the duration of your GIG.

One of the most recent additions to this accommodation category is Stayawhile. It caters specifically to a growing middle tier of multi-city GIG workers they have identified as “upscale nomads”, which indicates that the emerging digital nomad is not just a Millennial techno hippie, but that more and more professionals are adopting the lifestyle. Stayawhile leverages an interesting trend called Airspace: a harmonisation of decor and design aesthetic in whichever apartment you are in, across multiple cities, so that there is a uniformity of environment for these nomadic travellers. This is the kind of considered detail these businesses have delved into when tapping into this booming demographic.

However, if you are the sceptical executive who still believes that productivity is best achieved when your workforce is trapped in their corporate cubicles, then consider the 2018 Mercer Global Talent Trend Report. This report gathered input from 800 business executives, 1 800 HR professionals and 5 000+ employees from 21 industries and 44 countries around the world. The overarching message that came through loud and clear was that, no matter where in the world, flexibility was the most frequently admired perk of a job. James O’Reilly, co-founder of NeueHouse, an American-based company that specialises in collaborative workspace, maintains that in this day and age, “The more talented the individual, the more flexibility he or she can warrant.”

It is clear that perhaps with a Millennial workforce firmly entrenched in the workplace, and a much more challenging Gen Z workforce about to enter the workplace, the reward systems of the old corporate world need to be reassessed. Quickly.

It’s not always the money that lures. As the nomads say, “I don’t want a job, I want I want a lifestyle”.

work/life flexibility” is the new mantra

Once there you just leave the car wherever you’ve parked it, for another driver in that area.

BABY STEPS

If the thought of switching your workforce to a remote one proves to be too challenging or simply unrealistic, then there are ways and means to give workers incremental options that will provide flexibility without compromising productivity.

1.    Flextime: The most basic time management system that still falls within a 40-hour work week, but can make a huge difference to parents, specifically a growing female workforce that is embracing delayed parenting. These career-driven women who are becoming mothers later in life inevitably mean that when they embark on motherhood they are part of a more senior workforce, one that any business needs to retain.

2.    Compressed Work Week: standard work week is compressed into fewer than five days, with longer hours. The most common is one of four 10-hour days, providing the 5th day off.

3.    Soma, a company that makes sustainable water filtration systems, allows their staff to “work from anywhere” for one week every business quarter.

Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends.

For more trends as business strategy, visit www.fluxtrends.com

Some pros and cons of a nomadic workforce

PROs

1. IBM’s Smarter Workplace Institute found that remote workers tend to be happier, more productive, more engaged with their jobs and perceive their companies to be more innovative because of flexible work arrangements.

2. Remote workers are actually more focused. They are removed from office distractions, like meetings, ringing phones and office small talk. They also tend to remain in their jobs longer or are more loyal to the company, decreasing employee turnover. 

3. Allowing a portion of your staff remote options allows the company to utilise office space more efficiently, and also grow without adding expensive office space.

CONs

1. The notion of physically being together ensures there is constant, even if subliminal, communication throughout the day. A remote workforce would perhaps miss out on nuances of daily office exchanges.

2. How do you tax digital nomads, especially ones who work globally, without formal work permits, for multinational companies who provide services that are also global, or cloud-based? Labour laws for the new world of work will have to be overhauled.

3. A remote workforce requires a different style of management. The company culture will have to shift from a time-based, clock-watching culture to performance or output-based culture. When managers say they can’t trust whether or not their remote workforce will be productive if they are not on site, then I simply tell them that they’ve hired the wrong people.
 

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