Life as a digital nomad has become more normalised after the pandemic obliged employees to work from home. Working from a beach in Spain or from a ski resort in Bulgaria is no longer fantasy, yet this dream existence doesn’t come carefree.
"In Belgium people often live to work, here I have learned that things can be done differently," investment analyst Steffen Willems told De Morgen. Willems left Belgium to telework in Bansko – a ski resort town in Bulgaria where teleworkers congregate – and hasn’t looked back since.
“Working eight hours a week can be enough to pay for all your expenses here. I work more hours, but I do that mainly because I want to build up an extra buffer," says the stock analyst.
For Willems, financial freedom was a major factor in choosing to work abroad and he pointed out that it’s possible to buy a home in Bulgaria for €40,000. Meanwhile, the average house price in Belgium is €281,700 according to market and consumer research company Statista.
Willems wasn’t the only teleworker to reach for different skies. The pandemic saw an explosion of long term workers after working from the office was no longer mandatory.
A popular bunch
The rental platform Airbnb has seen the demand for long-term stays soar since March 2020. Airbnb doubled long-term stays (at least 28 nights) from 14% of nights booked in 2019 to 24% of nights booked in the first quarter of 2021.
Several governments across Europe are trying to entice the digital nomads with tax breaks, flexible visa procedures and office spaces.
The digital nomads are often well educated, so governments expect their arrival to boost the economy. The Portuguese island of Madeira created a nomad village to help people with their businesses.
Yet this type of existence isn’t for everyone. Modern nomads tend to have worked autonomously before the pandemic, explained Hendrik Delagrange, a researcher at the Innovation & Labour Foundation, to De Morgen.
The gig economy is also a big factor, as companies hire self-employed workers for temporary jobs. Long stays can sometimes be costly and sacrifice some of the stability that comes with settling in one place. By EU law, nomads are obliged to change residency after 24 months. They also forego many of the social protections they would otherwise have if they stayed in Belgium.
Delagrange observed that it is difficult to work abroad and keep Belgian employee status; he thinks that working as a digital nomad is only accessible for a limited group of people with specific tasks.
Finally, the familiarity of working in an office isn't always the grind it is often portrayed as being. In fact, many people enjoy the community spirit – something that was highlighted by the imposed period of home working during the pandemic. "In studies, usually no more than 10% of those surveyed indicate that they want to work from home full-time,” Delagrange concluded.