Working from the beach, holidaying while we work: are we getting the worst of both worlds? | Working from home


These are paradoxical times for digital nomads. After tripping around the world for years with laptops, carry-on luggage and memberships to co-working spaces, they’ve been grounded by the pandemic. Covid has put the “no” in nomad – closing borders, making movement harder, and grounding flights.

But while this class of restless workers stays put, more and more of us have adopted a sort of digital nomad-lite model.

Since Covid shutdowns, almost half of all Australians are working remotely.

The results, for some, are holidays that look like work and work that looks like a holiday.

Away last week in Byron Bay with friends, it was hard to tell which pal was on holiday and who was working. Most of the group were doing a bit of both from cafes and their Airbnbs.

Rather than going for a walk after catching up for breakfast, they had to be online for a 10am Zoom meeting, but could meet at the beach during their lunch break – as long as they were able to dial into another meeting at 2pm. This lurching from leisure to work and back again can be discombobulating. While you’re walking along the beach with them, feet in the shallows, suddenly they’re trailing behind, in a meeting, using a work-voice you haven’t heard before, telling a room full of colleagues about ROEs in the second quarter. They’re sort of on holidays, sort of at work, and you’re sort of in the meeting with them.

One friend was particularly pleased with her Airbnb’s blank wall. It looked just like the wall in her house which was the backdrop to her WFH meetings.

She was able to go attend Zoom meetings from Byron Bay while maintaining the illusion she was in Sydney.

Does it matter where she was? She thought not – her work got done.

But there was a touch of subterfuge to her time in Byron. She didn’t want her boss to know she was out of Sydney, because she thought he might not approve.

The lines between work and life (already fading since the advent of the smart phone) are blurry in a way that they weren’t before. Does working from home have to mean we are actually at our homes, or is OK if we just work remotely? And if we do work remotely can we crunch our meetings into a block of time so that it becomes a quasi-holiday? Do we need to tell our employer where we are? Does it really matter?

The results of this social experiment are, in the words of the New Yorker, that “work time becomes more scattered, and leisure time less pure.”

The blurred lines are everywhere in this new environment – pets and children pop up on Zoom meetings, business attire is one step up from pyjamas, and technology makes location redundant.

This is the digital nomad model spruiked by the likes of Tim Ferriss in his 2007 aspirational blockbuster The 4-hour Work Week (subtitle: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich). When all you need is a laptop and internet connection, does it matter where you are? For digital nomads, it’s preferable to work from the beach or the cafe – so better to maximise leisure opportunities when you log off.

The work from home revolution is a micro-manager’s worst nightmare. They don’t know where their employees are, and have lost the sort of command and control style management they once had in an open plan office. Performance as measured by micro-managers is about not just what you produce, but what you are seen to produce.

On the face of it, this new way of working is liberating for some employees. But by trying to have a bet both ways – working while we are on holiday, and holidaying while we work – are we getting the worst of both worlds?

The digital nomad model seems to work best when work is truly a 4-hour week proposition (the Ferriss model was about creating a product that required minimum intervention and was set up in automated systems that just needed quick check-ins between scuba diving and boarding the next flight.) The hard slog of managing people, working in teams or attending back-to-back meetings doesn’t overlay neatly with the digital nomad model.

Remote work in a full-time, desk-based role is hard. I did two and a half days of work Zoom meetings on my “holidays” and emerged, staggering into the bright sunlight, as if punch drunk. It’s been said before, but there’s something depleting about being on Zoom for an entire day, even if you are in paradise.

Other friends show me their calendars where they regularly get scheduled into two Zoom meetings at once and have to attend both – with a bud in each ear.

Some are looking forward to getting back to the office – which really means a return to inhabiting work in a more physical sense. Yes, you may not be able to work from the beach, but you’re guaranteed to be only scheduled for one meeting at a time.

So where should we land, when things go back to whatever becomes normal?

This week Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said 25% of workers should start returning to their offices.

In the UK, Boris Johnson said workers should return by April.

But a recent study found that most Australian workers now want to work at home two weekdays out of every five.

A switch to a full digital nomad model is not sustainable or practical. Many jobs require workers to be based somewhere – and to be physically available when needed.

But maybe what bosses could take from this time is the desire for – and taste of – autonomy that some workers (particularly white collar) experienced during the pandemic.



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