The rise of the digital nomad

Entrepreneurs, workers drawn to fully mobile lifestyle that modern technology can afford

  • Heather Van De Mark, 26, works for Groove Commerce in Baltimore. She's currently staying at a home in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she is home- and dog-sitting for the owners for several weeks.
Heather Van De Mark, 26, works for Groove Commerce in Baltimore.… (Handout photo )
April 22, 2011|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

The only permanent home for Jen Harvey and Steven Hugg at the moment is their Web address.

After years of working information technology jobs in the Washington area, the couple chose last year to ditch their permanent home and hit the road while building their startup business. They use laptops, cellphones and cheap Web services to handle millions of users of their HeyTell application, a popular messaging app that turns smartphones into virtual walkie-talkies, which has become their full-time job.

Instead of office jobs, a pricey rental in Bethesda and a Beltway commute, they now stay in short-term vacation home rentals on sunny beaches and visit friends and family whenever they wish. Over the past year, they've traveled the country from Austin, Texas, to Seattle, with a stop in Fells Point mixed in. They're now calling a beachside rental in San Diego home, for the time being.

Traveling "keeps us motivated," said Hugg. "When we have to travel, it shakes us up a little bit. It makes us more productive."

Hugg and Harvey, who are in their late 30s, are members of a growing community of workers who are taking advantage of technology — the latest gadgets, plus widespread Internet connectivity — to combine work, play and travel, all full time.

These digital nomads are at one extreme of a broadening range of options for workers in the growing knowledge economy. Millions of workers are beginning to benefit from a confluence of factors — from advances in mobile communications to a stagnant real estate market — that are untethering some from an office.

"I think that as the physical location of where you work becomes less critical, the place you live becomes more important," said Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class." "I think many of them are out there looking for a place that suits them."

Florida, a professor of business and creativity at the University of Toronto, sees the rise of digital nomadism rooted in capitalism. Individuals and businesses can save money by cutting the costs of offices and transportation to and from work.

"I think this is capitalism becoming more efficient, with new ways of working for knowledge workers," Florida said.

While digital nomads have been around practically since the dawn of the Internet, the phenomenon has grown in recent years. According to WorldatWork, a worldwide nonprofit human resources organization that tracks worker demographics, the number of employees allowed to work from outside the office at least once a month nearly doubled nationally from 2005 to 2008, to 17.2 million. Another estimate from the Telework Research Network puts the number of mobile workers who regularly work while on the road at around 15 million to 20 million.

A survey this month of 1,000 business professionals by Skype, the online video chat and phone service, found that companies are shifting toward a "living workplace" model, where workers can work from home, a client's office, a coffee shop or wherever they choose to be. The survey showed that 62 percent of U.S. firms have remote workers, who work either full- or part-time outside the office. On average, these workers spend 40 percent of their time working from outside the office.

Today, mobile phones and smartphones are ubiquitous and allow people to connect instantaneously with people personally and professionally. Social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, bring people closer together online despite physical distance. And online video chatting is inexpensive — or even free — allowing workers to tie in with their colleagues wherever they all are.

"We're seeing more and more companies — even very large, nationally recognized organizations with lots of U.S.-based staff — move to a virtualized office environment," said Amy Webb, chief executive of Webbmedia Group, an international digital strategy firm based in Baltimore. "It provides an incredible cost savings for small businesses, especially. Most do not really need to rent traditional office space."

Digital nomads take their independence many steps further than telecommuters, who may only telecommute a couple of times a month.

Some other terms for them include "technomads" or "location-independent" people. Their numbers are hard to quantify, but there are many websites and blogs that offer online communities for people who are both working and traveling worldwide.

One website, Technomadia.com, is a chronicle of work and travel by Chris Dunphy, 37, and Cherie Ve Ard, 38, who work as software developers while traveling full time across the United States. They spent this past winter in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and are now traveling in Florida.

Last month, they traveled to the South by Southwest interactive festival in Austin, Texas, where they gave a presentation to more than 40 people interested in full-time work and travel. Hugg and Harvey, the HeyTell app developers, were at their talk.

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