Australian businesses must back the rise of the corporate nomad

PwC's director of Future of Work at PwC, Sonia Clarke, says flexible working makes sense for business and employee alike.

As Australian employees emerge from lockdown and organisations grapple with worsening talent shortages, we can finally look beyond the old office/home choice and see that the new norm will be genuine flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere. 

They’re digital nomads, and they’re not new – freelance creatives have been bouncing round South East Asia for years, but this corporate flavour certainly is. The new nomads are full-time employed, but travelling while they work for a single boss. There’s no robust Australian data yet, but new research out of the US found that the number of digital nomads increased by almost 50% in 2020. The number of corporate nomads rose by 96% in just 12 months, from 3.2 million in 2019 to 6.3 million in 2020. 

In an unusual turn of events, I spent more of this year than not working remotely. A series of advantageous mishaps (cancelled flights, closed borders, blind luck) have seen me work at airports and cafes, in hotels and AirBnBs, and – best of all – a dreamy co-working space on Magnetic Island in Far North Queensland.

In 2020, I spent the same period working in my apartment in Melbourne. Life took on a grim certainty of rinse and repeat centred around the metronomic press conference. This wasn’t all bad – I found the certainty about my routine quite soothing, and I was also acutely aware that I was in an extremely privileged position to be able to work at all.

Yet I was certainly not at my best, and I found myself limping into 2021 with limited enthusiasm. Like many others, I read Adam Grant’s New York Times article about languishing and felt a painful pang of recognition (or ‘seen’, as the kids would say). Grant calls languishing ‘the neglected middle child of mental health’, characterised by a lack of motivation and focus. I had just enough self-awareness to know something wasn’t right, but not enough to know how to tackle it. 

When Melbourne went back into lockdown in July, I extended my holiday in Queensland only to meet a lot of people who had done likewise after finding themselves accidentally stranded. Others had intentionally planned working trips around the country due to cancelled overseas holidays, or just a need for change. Some found a single space to work for several months; others took it week by week, setting themselves up somewhere new for Monday. I did a bit of both. 

So what’s it like, working from anywhere? Finding good wifi is key, as well as a spot to make video calls where you’re not going to drive the other patrons up the wall. I became much more intentional about managing my diary, and found that my productivity and energy seemed to at least double. When someone shared Adam Grant’s essay again recently, I was pleased (if surprised) to discover it no longer resonated. 

Hospitality businesses are starting to take note. A recent piece in Forbes highlighted the opportunity of catering for the new digital nomads, who all need places to stay, work and eat. Estonia, for instance, is marketing itself as a digital nomad destination and offering legal visas for remote workers. A wonderful side-effect of this overall trend is more cross-pollination between creative freelancers and the corporate types who used to spend their days in a dedicated office. Learning from each other can only be a positive thing for Australian innovation and corporate culture. 

Businesses that can support their employees to do what I did – to recharge and find new inspiration and creativity by being in different environments and combining work with travel – will have a significant advantage in staff retention. It’s easier said than done, as there are tax and legal implications, but the payoff in attracting and engaging the best talent will be huge. There are considerable opportunities to be had for entrepreneurial types that can capitalise on this trend by providing positive, welcoming places for people to work while on the road. If you’re planning to create some more co-working spaces in paradise, count me in as your first customer. 

Sonia Clarke is the director of Future of Work at PwC.


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