Rolling stones

Deciding to break out of the office may not seem the most obvious way of boosting your productivity but an increasing number of individuals are discovering the benefits of the wandering life

Rolling stones

As modern phenomena go, remote working is a thoroughly dissected trend. It’s far from news that technology is allowing us to work from wherever we are and the reciprocal increase in flexible working arrangements we have seen as a result isn’t a significant surprise. However, recent research from oDesk, the international freelance marketplace, is showing this trend goes far deeper than we perhaps previously realised, with 74% of the professionals spoken to reducing their ties to a fixed, physical workplace and almost half giving up a fixed 57 premises altogether. There is a new type of professional on the scene: the digital nomad.

Ten years ago completely cutting the ties to a physical workplace may have seemed impractical but there’s no doubting that we’re now living in a very different world. Unsurprisingly, the internet is allowing people to find ways of working that are more appropriate for their lifestyles. “The digital nomad concept is still in the early adopter and innovator phase, to use the business analogy,” comments Matt Cooper, VP of international at oDesk. “But they are testing the limits of what’s possible and how these things can be more flexible and effective.”

Part of the growing trend is frustration with the expected professional lifestyle. “If you look at the UK – particularly around London – you’ve got 10% of UK workers that spend three hours or more commuting,” says Cooper. When one compares this to the high-profile case of entrepreneur Sean Ogle quitting his job and building a successful enterprise whilst travelling the world, it can’t help but give a businessperson pause.

Certainly it seems nomads are more contented than their desk-bound brethren. An incredible 92% of those polled by oDesk said they were happier once they cut the ties to the traditional office environment. And, given the circumstances, this is hardly surprising. “They’re working on interesting projects and they’re living how they want to live,” Cooper says. “We’ve started to hear all of these really fantastic anecdotes around how people are embracing this lifestyle.”

But should one place rank happiness higher than success? Fortunately, no trade off is needed. One of the most notable findings of the oDesk research is the fact that of those that are shifting to this manner of work, 59% saw a direct increase in their income. Not only was this about saving on commuting or real estate costs – the usual economic arguments made in favour of more flexible working arrangements – but there is a degree of ownership in being able to work from no fixed location that can empower individuals to be far more effective.

“It’s a more entrepreneurial mindset,” Cooper comments. “When they are no longer constrained by some of the traditional employment models, ultimately they’re going to be happier and they’re going to be much more productive.”

Inevitably, there is a fair degree of crossover between this way of working and the factors that drive someone to form a start-up. Often digital nomads aren’t necessarily looking for the safe option. “When you ask them for what they want, they don’t say security, they don’t say consistency, they don’t say predictability,” explains Cooper. “They say freedom, control and flexibility.”

It definitely seems this is more than just a passing trend, with over four-fifths of nomads saying they’ll never allow themselves to be chained to a desk again, something to which most Elite Business readers can probably relate. “It’s a running joke in Silicon Valley that once you’ve been an entrepreneur, you’re basically unemployable,” Cooper comments. “Your expectations make it really hard to go back into a traditional job.”

In much the same way, Cooper feels that people who’ve had a taste of this lifestyle are unlikely ever to go back. He makes reference to one oDesk user, Bernard Lucas, who’s making $100 a day from the luxury of a Philippine island. “I can’t imagine someone like that will all of a sudden go back to their office in Manhattan and spend an hour a day on the train,” he laughs. “That’s a tough sell.” 


Chris Ward, founder of Blue Dot Agency, the brand communication specialist, is no stranger to digital nomadism. Having earned himself the moniker ‘the boss who works from coffee shops’ and authored Out of Office, a book advocating the benefits of working on the go, there are few better placed to comment on the value of breaking away from the workplace.

For Ward, eschewing the office was driven by necessity, rather than any lofty ideas. “I was the boss of a company with 100 staff,” he says. This meant that he was often subject to interruptions that prevented him from really being able to focus on the task at hand. “I started to go to coffee shops to actually do my work,” he explains. “I found I was being really productive.”

Part of the bonus of working to your own patterns is your work fits around the the times you are most effective. “I’m a big advocate of flow systems,” says Ward. By this, he means that you work when you’re in a state of natural productivity rather than trying to artificially force yourself to be productive at the wrong times.

Unfortunately, the nature of office working means you are bound to be at a desk, regardless of whether you’re actually in a position to be productive. “When you’re out of the flow in the office, you still have to sit there,” he says. “Whereas I’ll go out and do a six-hour training ride or go to the cinema with my kids.”

And being able to work in the way that suits him has allowed Ward to do more than most people dream of. “I’m a born entrepreneur,” he says. “I always want to do different and new things.” Not only does he have a much more natural work-life balance but he has been able to take on a range of projects, from furthering his love of cycling and biking the 100th Tour de France route for charity, to acting as creative director of Comic Relief and working with the BBC and The Nelson Mandela Foundation to engage the public with worthy causes. “The sheer breadth of stuff that I can do is purely because of this lifestyle.” 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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