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Abstract

The enthusiasm around remote and independent working has rapidly gained momentum in the last few years. The digital nomad phenomenon has frequently been portrayed as an exemplar of this pattern and referred to by the media as a highly location-independent form of nomadic work. However, findings from this study highlight the centrality of various spaces in digital nomadic work and suggest finding and configuring these spaces allows digital nomads to accomplish productive work. Building on interviews with 23 digital nomads and analyzing pictures of workspaces from Twitter, this study examines the unique relationship among disparate workspaces, work practices, and technologies that shape nomadic work. Our findings refine the common argument that nomadic workers can work from "anywhere, anytime," by attending to the large roles that space may play in shaping work.
Journal of Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies (forthcoming)
Nomadic Work and Location Independence: The Role
of Space in Shaping the Work of Digital Nomads
Caleece Nash, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Will Sutherland, University of Washington, Seattle
Abstract
The enthusiasm around remote and independent working has rapidly gained momentum in the last
few years. The digital nomad phenomenon has frequently been portrayed as an exemplar of this
pattern and referred to by the media as a highly location-independent form of nomadic work.
However, findings from this study highlight the centrality of various spaces in digital nomadic work
and suggest finding and configuring these spaces allows digital nomads to accomplish productive
work. Building on interviews with 23 digital nomads and analyzing pictures of workspaces from
Twitter, this study examines the unique relationship among disparate workspaces, work practices,
and technologies that shape nomadic work. Our findings refine the common argument that nomadic
workers can work from “anywhere, anytime,” by attending to the large roles that space may play in
shaping work.
Keywords: Location-independent work, nomadic work, remote work, digital nomads, digital
work, coworking spaces, mobile work, spatial materiality, technology management, mobile
workspaces
Introduction
In recent years, media outlets and public press have promulgated the idea that location-
independent, nomadic work implies that many independent digital workers now have the ability to
“work from anywhere” (Adams, 2017; Chayka, 2018; Clark, 2017). This viewpoint offers a simplified
portrayal of nomadic, remote workers, particularly in regard to the spatial dynamics of their
work. While advancements in technology are increasingly allowing nomadic workers to travel more
“off the grid,” their dependence on certain workspaces that facilitate their technologies and work
practices does not vanish. For nomadic workers, managing their work spaces remains an essential
part of working productively (Brown & O’Hara, 2003; Nelson et al., 2017).
Pervasive assumptions of location-independence implicitly present nomadic work as a monolithic
activity that can be uniformly accomplished across any spaces, what Hislop and Axtell (2009) call
‘the anytime, anyplace’ rhetoric. For example, Davis (2002, p. 1) asserts that “knowledge workers
can work with full access to communication, data, and computing from any location at any time.'' In
addition to Davis, media outlets also have misrepresented the reality of nomadic workers by stating
that they are able to have “no boundaries or borders to abide to, while being able to live and work
from anywhere in the world” (Adams, 2017). In this paper, we go beyond such blanket statements
and rigid formulations of location-independent knowledge work. While nomadic workers are not
bound to a traditional office space, there is a pattern of distinguishable spatial needs that they must
seek out in order to facilitate practices that are imperative to their lifestyle (Bardram & Bossen, 2005;
Kakihara & Sørensen, 2002; Richards, 2015). Due to their dependence upon digital technologies
and specialized environment ecologies needed for their work, nomadic workers, or what some
researchers call mobile or multi-location workers, are in fact dependent on particular spaces for
conducting various types of work (Liegl, 2014; Rossitto & Eklundh, 2007; Spinuzzi, 2012). Thus,
while this professional lifestyle has been popularized for the ability to work unrestricted to any
location, such assertations can oversimplify nomadic work, even in one of the most extreme
manifestations of it (i.e., digital nomadism) (Vanderkam, 2014).
To highlight this, we seek to draw attention to varied work practices common to digital nomads in
order to examine the relationship between nomadic work and the concept of space. In doing so, we
focus on digital nomads as they are considered one of the most extreme forms of nomadic workers
with spatial, organizational and technological mobility ( Müller, 2016; Schlagwein & Jarrahi, 2020;
Wang et al., 2018). These workers have become recognized for their ability to continuously and
purposefully travel to and temporarily live in far-flung locations around the world, with no home
bases in most cases (Aroles et al., 2020; Reichenberger, 2018). This work context can be
understood as a fertile ground in which the phenomenon of interest (here mobility of work and its
relationship with space) is “transparently observable” (Pettigrew, 1990).
In addition, we explore the role of digital technologies and infrastructures in shaping the relationship
between nomadic worker practices and space. Past work has made it clear that the ability to enjoy
flexible, mobile work arrangements and enact a ‘mobile office’ hinges upon the use of a diverse set
of information resources and technologies (Dal Fiore et al., 2014; Kietzmann, 2008). Our findings
point to the fact that locating spaces to work can be a difficult undertaking due to the significant
influence that characteristics such as people, technology, and meanings can have on a particular
physical environment; these factors can be highly restraining to nomadic workers when attempting to
utilize a space for work-related purposes (Cook, 2020).
In what follows, we provide a brief review of relevant literature and a description of the method we
used. Then we focus on the findings from this work, which revolve around the relationships between
space and key work practices performed by a typical digital nomad. Finally, we suggest some
broader implications of this work based on the interplay among work, space, and digital technology.
Literature Review
Rise of Nomadic Workers
Previous literature acknowledges that mobility, nomadic work practices, and digital technologies
are highly dependent upon each other (Ens et al., 2018; Nelson et al., 2017). Nomadic workers
have previously been defined in the literature as workers who travel to meet clients or other
business associates (Mark & Su, 2010). However, more recent research has begun to highlight
the evolution of nomadic workers who are straying from the traditional definition by traveling for
adventure or other purposes as well as traveling for various lengths of time (Aguilera, 2008;
Nash et al., 2018; Richards, 2015). While definitions of mobile work are varying, nomadic
workers are normally distinguished from other forms of mobile workers by their desire and ability
to move their workplace across different locations (de Carvalho, 2011). It is clear that nomadic
workers must not only be able to maintain mobile lifestyles but also mobile social interactions
(BenMoussa, 2003; Humphry, 2014). Mobile technologies enable these to work in various
environments while maintaining these social interactions (Hemsley et al., 2020; Karanasios &
Allen, 2014).
Nomadic workers spend a lot of time finding and researching spaces that can accommodate
their necessary work practices and are sometimes willing to pay to access them (Halford, 2005;
Rossitto & Eklundh, 2007). Regardless of differences between nomadic workers, all of them
have several issues in common, including the most prominent being the “burden of mobility” or
the struggle to continuously find suitable environments for both working and living ( Cass et al.,
2005; Jarrahi & Thomson, 2017). However, through their ability to creatively solve problems and
consult others through knowledge sharing forums online, nomadic workers can learn how to
prepare for any potential issues and ask questions through information and communication
technologies (ICTs) before traveling to a certain area (Büscher, 2014; Jarrahi et al., 2018;
Messenger & Gschwind, 2016).
Space and Nomadic Work
For nomadic workers, there are two spaces in which they are considered to be inhabiting
regularly: the physical space or location they are in and the virtual space of the technologies
they use for their conversations (Lowry & Moskos, 2005). While it has been suggested that for
nomadic workers there is a decorporealization in spaces due to the prominent role that
technology plays in their lives, this does not in fact reflect the reality of nomadic work, since
space remains a practical concern that requires nomadic workers to make decisions regarding
where to work and what environment is most suitable for their designated tasks (Brown &
O’Hara, 2003; Cook, 2020; de Carvalho et al., 2011). Bardram et al. (2005, p. 137) states that
the “challenge of mobility work arises from the fact that in practice a place is not just an abstract
space, but must have a set of required characteristics in order to be appropriate for a line of
action”.
Nomadic workers are competent at using many of the corporeal implications that a particular
space can have to offer (Kusenbach, 2017). In order to use spaces that accommodate their
tools and have the necessary corporeal implications, nomadic workers often turn to coworking
spaces to provide these elements (Wang et al., 2019). These coworking spaces serve “as a
place where often ‘hip’ freelance creative workers gather and share knowledge” (DeGuzman &
Tang, 2011; Ross et al., 2015; Schuermann, 2014). Coworking spaces can provide
characteristics such as “collaboration, openness, community, accessibility, and sustainability”
(Capdevila, 2015, p. 2). Nomadic workers value having control over these types of
characteristics when finding places to work (Ivaldi et al., 2018). These environments often have
to be created and monitored with the nomadic workers’ needs in mind (Ivaldi et al., 2018; Lee et
al., 2019). Hence, nomadic workers will pay money to occupy these spaces in order to facilitate
both social and work interactions as well as enable their mobile technologies to work properly
(Orel, 2019). This successively enables the nomadic worker to accomplish their tasks
productively (Cook, 2020; Ens et al., 2018; Lee et al., 2019). Coworking spaces also provide
workers the opportunity to “bump” into other professionals to network and brainstorm ideas (Lee
et al., 2019; Urry, 2013).
Nomadic workers tend to seek out environments that provide necessary resources, such as
workspaces that allow them to feel like a member of a community or coworking offices that have
security and maintenance included (Spreitzer et al., 2017). In addition, many nomadic workers
value the ability to network and share tacit knowledge which can lead to innovations and thus
will choose to work somewhere which facilitates socializing (Brown & O’Hara, 2003; Ciolfi & de
Carvalho, 2014; Perry et al., 2001). This unique ability to engage in socialization work outside of
a traditional office has created an innovative appeal to coworking spaces. Previous literature
has already tied coworking spaces to mobile socialization work because of its specialized
communal infrastructure (Gerdenitsch et al., 2016).
Technology and Nomadic Work
Nomadic workers rely heavily on technology in order to facilitate their regular business practices
and work. Since knowledge workers are able to conduct work outside of one particular business
location, nomadic workers are generally considered knowledge workers as well (Davis, 2002);
(Fabbri & Charue-Duboc, 2013; Pittinsky & Shih, 2004). While nomadic workers may not be tied
to a particular spot, they are restricted to working in areas in which their technologies can
operate properly. Their ability to learn and share their knowledge relies heavily on their access
to ICTs (Lyu et al., 2019). The technologies and tools which serve as mediums for networking
and finding gigs, sharing their work, as well as receiving payment are crucial to their work
practices (Jarrahi et al., 2018). Tools such as strong Wi-Fi connections and outlets for chargers
are not found in every space and often nomads must seek out locations in which these tools are
accessible (Hemsley et al., 2020). These tools include both physical devices and software
applications.
For nomadic workers, the space they choose to work in must not only facilitate productive work,
but also facilitate their technologies needed to work and share their knowledge. While these
technologies are portable and mobile, they still do not overcome all the challenges nomadic
workers face in order to be able to work in any space throughout the world (McCarthy & Wright,
2005; Rossitto & Eklundh, 2007). Thus, while these technologies have created many
affordances for nomadic workers, they have also simultaneously created obstacles and
limitations for nomadic workers when selecting spaces.
Digital Nomads
From the rise of flexible working opportunities and advancements in portable technology,
various forms of nomadic work have become more prevalent and achievable. One of the
distinctive forms of nomadic work, digital nomadism, has become glamorized due to the media’s
portrayal as the ability to travel and work in exotic, remote locations (Nash et al., 2018). This
form of nomadic work is unique, since digital nomads are not required to travel, but instead elect
to travel nonstop for their own enjoyment (Richards, 2015; Thompson, 2019). Digital nomads
use various online platforms to connect with other digital nomads and find spaces to accomplish
productive work while visiting new locations (Prester et al., 2019). Digital nomads rely heavily on
the gig economy to find work that allows for “freedom and flexibility” (Thompson, 2018). Their
use of online platforms and communities to find skilled, digital gig work positions to fit their time
zones and travel schedules is imperative to their lifestyle (De Groen et al., 2016; Sutherland &
Jarrahi, 2017). Digital nomads frequently cite the challenges of working productively despite
spatial constraints and distractions as one of the most difficult, yet frequent issues (Cook, 2020).
However, through using spaces and technologies available, digital nomads are able to create a
larger barrier between their work and personal life (Hart, 2015). For digital nomads, leveraging
different resources to establish their workspace in different locations is a central concern, and in
this sense digital nomadism serves as an opposite site for refining understandings of
nomadicity.
Previous work on nomadic work exploring the interplay between space and work practices
(Brown & O’Hara, 2003; Hislop & Axtell, 2009) serves as an inspiration for this research. These
studies have focused on more traditional forms of nomadic workers in the context of larger
organizations. For example, Hislop and Axtell (2009) highlight the particular task/location
relationships in the context of the consultants working for management consultancies. However,
our research here focuses on digital nomads as independent digital workers with extreme forms
of spatial mobility and non-existent or loose organizational affiliations. We re-examine some of
Hislop and Axtell’s findings, which were couched in specific task requirements of consultants,
with a focus on specific geographic mobility patterns (e.g., focused on spatial patterns of work in
transit, clients’ offices, employers' offices, and home).
Methods
The “location-independent” digital nomad lifestyle implies the ability to travel anywhere in the
world (Mohn, 2017). Inspired and motivated by the freedom that coincides with this lifestyle,
digital nomads seek to escape a life of traditional work arrangements. However, by avoiding
these traditional arrangements, digital nomads are forced to create inventive practices that
accommodate their mobility. These innovative practices highlight in particular their unique
relationships with various spaces and their technologies. Thus, in order to understand these
spatial patterns and technology needs, interviews with digital nomads and a review of pictures
from Twitter were conducted to provide data for empirical analysis.
Interviews
Approximately hour-long interviews were conducted with 23 self-identifying, active digital
nomads. Interview participants were intentionally selected from a variety of professional
backgrounds and differing nomadic experiences. Some had been travelling for a little over a
year, while others had more than five years of experience. Participants were selected from three
online forums where large communities of digital nomads have developed: /r/digitalnomad, a
subforum of the forum site Reddit.com; Digital Nomads Around the World, a group for digital
nomads on facebook.com; and nomadlist.com, a website built by a digital nomad expressly for
the purpose of supporting digital nomadic work; and Twitter. Additionally, some participants
were contacted because they had written articles or blog posts about being a digital nomad, or
were prominent members of an online digital nomad community. Participants were asked a
variety of questions about their mobility and daily use of technology in a semi-structured format.
The interviews took place over video conferencing applications and were transcribed verbatim
afterwards. This enabled the participants to answer any immediate follow up questions and
allowed for a free-flowing conversation.
Interview transcripts were uploaded into a data management and analytics software to
understand common themes and identify patterns pertaining to the spatial dimension of a digital
nomads’ lifestyle. Specific statements were coded by types of nomadic work and generalized
spaces that digital nomads have regularly utilized. Two categories were also created for
“general work” and “general rental living place” for comments that were relevant to this study,
but the participant did not clarify the specific type of work or space.
Twitter Analysis
To visualize Digital Nomads’ differing workspaces and understand how they use their
technologies to “make spaces”, pictures from Twitter were downloaded into a data management
and analytics software chronologically. Pictures downloaded were dated from June 2017 to
January 2019 and were listed with the hashtags #digitalnomad or #digitalnomads in the caption.
All pictures downloaded from Twitter were from publicly accessible accounts that are available
online for anyone to view. Pictures which included advertisements or did not have any mobile
devices, desks, or indications of a designated workspace were not analyzed due to a lack of
relevance for understanding the spatial affordances of nomadic workers’ spaces. This reduced
the Twitter photographs eligible for review and analysis to 112 photos. Pictures were coded with
the same categories as the interviews. Through these thematic codes, we were able to analyze
trends and patterns within digital nomads’ spaces. The categories of “general work” and
“general rental living space” were also used again for any pictures in which the exact nature
could not be discerned from the picture or caption.
Figure 1. Example of a Digital Nomad’s workspace image from Twitter
Findings
Interview participants did reflect the media’s claim that the digital nomad lifestyle allows for the
ability to work across different places. Many participants discussed how there were few
restrictions when selecting the physical locations to conduct work, including Participant 15 who
claimed to “have the flexibility to work from anywhere in the world”. Interview participants used
the term “location-independent” frequently to describe their lifestyle and many believe their
technologies enable them to be what they consider location-independent and unrestrained from
any physical location while working. Their passion for adventure and travel generally
supersedes the frustrations that arise from the burdens of extreme mobility. However, these
statements about being “location-independent” should be put in context as participants also
provided details about spatial patterns, constraints, and needs for accomplishing work
productively.
Consistently when digital nomads defined their office, they listed technologies they used on a
regular basis to conduct work. As demonstrated in Figure 1, digital nomads highlight their
technologies and tools used to accomplish productive work. Participant 8 commented that in
terms of her office, “it’s definitely not physical, when I think about my office it’s definitely not a
physical space. I guess it’s my laptop and my mobile phone; that’s my office”. Through these
portable technologies, digital nomads are able to create a mobile office (Nash et al., 2018).
However, Participant 7 noted that not only did she need her technologies to create their mobile
office space, but also needed to go “anywhere I can get a good phone connection.” Thus, digital
nomads must seek environments that can facilitate their portable technologies’ functions in
order to accomplish work.
Many digital nomads noted that in order to facilitate the type of work they intend to accomplish,
finding a physical environment that supports their tasks and productivity is crucial. Participant 4
commented that when searching for a space to conduct work, it is important to “match my
surroundings with the work that I’m doing.” Throughout the interviews, digital nomads discussed
their distinct, personalized spaces for different types of work, which often varied from each
other. Participant 2 stated that her selection of spaces was dependent upon the “different type
of kind of concentration, feasibility, and different types of environment which is best for certain
things.” While over 25% of the photographs of workspaces from digital nomads on Twitter were
taken on a beach or other outdoor space, interview participants were clear that this is not
representative of what their workspace is during the majority of their travels. The pictures
represent the idealized workspaces for digital nomads but are not necessarily the workspaces a
digital nomad utilizes on a daily basis in order to accomplish constructive work. This glamorous
but inaccurate portrayal on social media is likely part of the reason digital nomads are being
mislabeled as “location-independent” workers by the media.
Digital nomads often have the intent to accomplish a particular item or a few tasks in a certain
space which are decided upon prior to arrival. There are evident associations between the type
of spaces they select and form of work they prefer to accomplish in those spaces. There are
four types of work digital nomads regularly engaged in in order to navigate the unique spatial
arrangements they regularly encounter: 1) collaboration work, 2) socialization work, 3)
collaboration work, and 4) articulation work. These differing forms of work activities require even
the most extreme mobile workers to be dependent upon finding locations that have spatial
characteristics which allow for productive work.
Figure 2 demonstrates a general overview of the relationship between spaces digital nomads
frequent and different forms of work. Each space has its own unique facets, and therefore
enabling and constraining certain work practices (Kusenbach, 2017; Raulet-Croset, 2013).
However, by engaging in articulation workdigital nomads find and configure the relationship
between spaces and other forms of work activities.
Figure 2. The relationships between space and nomadic forms of work
1) Collaboration Work
In order to communicate with the necessary professional associates, digital nomads need an
environment in which they can collaborate and communicate with like-minded workers. When
digital nomads meet with other collaborators or clients, they also must have an internet or
cellular connection that is stable enough to maintain the connection throughout the duration of
the collaboration work session. These requirements are not only fundamental to carrying out
their collaboration work, but also imperative for creating a professional appearance. Participant
20 commented on how in the wrong environment, collaborators mention that it is “distracting
when we’re talking with them, they’ll be like where are you right now, why are there so many
trucks going by.”
Since digital nomads do not want their lifestyle to appear as unprofessional to collaborators,
they do not want to give off any impression that the collaboration work is inconvenient.
Participant 7 touched on the idea of ensuring the client does not have any reason to doubt that
the digital nomad is not in a professional workspace and admits that “I don’t always tell them
where I am because sometimes they get upset to think I’m far away” in order to avoid when
“clients get really bent out of shape.” Thus, physical spaces that allow for the digital nomad to
control the noise level and maintain a reliable online connection are the most ideal when
performing collaborative work.
Many digital nomads will create makeshift video or teleconferencing environments in their
Airbnb or housing since they are familiar with that particular space and can determine in
advance if it meets the necessary requirements to perform collaboration work. Figure 3 was
taken from a popular, public digital nomad online forum and demonstrates their ability to turn a
casual living space into an environment that is professional for video conferencing by using
boxes and sheets to transform the space. However, if the housing situation does not fulfill
expectations or cannot be adapted to fit their needs, then often digital nomads are willing to pay
for coworking spaces in order to be guaranteed their spatial requirements will be met. For
instance, Participant 10 stated that “we were having a lot of problems so I did like I guess about
six weeks at a co-working space where I had a private room where I could do some of my calls
and stuff because I couldn’t rely on the internet at home.” These environments for collaboration
work generally mirror a traditional office space as closely as possible. However, due to the
variations in coworking spaces, some encourage socialization, which can be distracting when
conducting collaboration work.
Figure 3. A collaborative, homework environment of a digital nomad
2) Socialization Work
Casual, workplace conversation, otherwise known as the “water-cooler” effect, often requires
intentional effort when seeking this convention outside of a traditional office space (Ross et al.,
2015). However, these opportunities are often missing in the remote lifestyle of nomadic
workers. One of the most notable spaces nomadic workers have popularized as a solution to
contrive these conversations are coworking spaces. Coworking spaces are built with the
intention of providing a space that offers the same conveniences and social affordances of a
traditional, stationary office (Garrett et al., 2014; Spinuzzi, 2012). Often, coworking spaces have
designated rooms or areas to help facilitate socialization work, which is often the most difficult
for digital nomads to partake in due to the moving nature of their office. Notably, coworking
spaces have helped to fill this void creating environments to encourage and facilitate networking
and creative problem solving with surrounding professionals.
Coworking spaces also help nomadic workers to separate their workplace and home while
avoiding complete isolation and an enervating sense of loneliness (Lee et al., 2019). Participant
5 commented how working outside of private areas is “so important I think for my mental health
and my emotional health as well as just for my state of mind, just a general state of mind, and
like being around people.” Figure 4, taken from Twitter, demonstrates the value coworking
spaces provide for casual conversations and discussions to learn and share new ideas. While
coworking spaces vary in environments and aura, Participant 2 noted that some coworking
spaces can be very difficult to accomplish other forms of work since “there’s lots of distraction in
co-working spaces unless you have a dedicated desk there.” Thus often coworking space
managers play a large role in shaping the environment to fit the needs of the occupants (Ivaldi
et al., 2018).
Beyond coworking spaces, digital nomads often seek out conferences and events with fellow
mobile, remote workers. There are many programs such as Nomad Cruise, which provides
group mobile accommodations and resources geared specifically towards digital nomads.
Participant 5 cited how these conferences and events can be “actually like a feeling of like
community and connection that there was maybe a broader social context of the work that we
were trying to do, and that wasn’t necessarily a motivation to keep doing it, but I think it was
reaffirming to know that other people were in a similar place as me.” This participant frequently
hosted conferences which gave him the opportunity to share his experiences and expertise in
creative writing and yoga. He held conferences in a range of places during his travels from
Germany to his home base in Rhode Island, United States. However, for digital nomads who
are not able to budget money on coworking spaces or conferences will spend time in social
public venues to network and meet with others. Participant 2 stated that “when I’m at coffee
shops obviously it’s a good place to meet people just because it’s more social.”
Figure 4. A group works together at a conference hosted at PuzlCowOrKing space
3) Focus Work
For digital nomads, focus work can be the most tedious and crucial to maintain a balance
between highly mobile lifestyle and productive work. In order to perform this work productively
and exemplary manner, finding an environment that is quiet and enables the digital nomad to
focus is vital. Participant 10 stated how “being in a café is often not very conducive to doing that
kind of focused work, I need quiet, you know, no distractions.” Generally, many digital nomads
concurred that public environments are not adequate when attempting to complete focus work.
However, some digital nomads considered public environments that had minimal to no noise
levels were also acceptable for completing focus work. Participant 4 discussed that when
“working on something that I really need to lose myself in and I need to be completely absorbed
by it, being in the library is one of the best places.” Participants frequently referenced this
important ability to be engulfed by their focus work when necessary. Generally, many
participants needed a silent area in order to shift into that mindset that would be free from
distractions. Photos that displayed focus work were generally taken in private areas in which the
digital nomad was the only person that had access or was inhabiting that particular space.
Digital nomads frequently referenced their housing area as a good environment to achieve
focus work due to its generally silent nature and predictability. Participant 10 decided to rent a
private room at a coworking space since she needed to make regular calls that required internet
connection but could not work at her house due to the intermittent internet connection at that
location. Other participants also discussed the benefits of being able to access more physical
space which enables them to spread out their devices. Participant 8 noted: “I work best at home
when I’m working on client stuff because at home, I actually have dual monitors and that’s really
helpful for me. Like if I’m looking at something on one screen and working in another, like if I’m
helping a client set up a system or work on a website it’s easier to have both monitors.” This
ability to access all of their technologies in a comfortable environment can allow digital nomads
to focus even more on their necessary tasks. Figure 5 is an example that Participant 15 shared
during the interview process that demonstrates a typical space that some digital nomads would
envision as an ideal place for conducting focus work. This photograph was from her living space
on a Nomad Cruise excursion that was sailing in the Arctic Ocean. Her living space was suitable
for creating a simple, yet sufficient environment to conduct focus work.
Figure 5. A digital nomad’s focus space
4) Articulation Work
Articulation work differs from the other forms of work practices discussed in this paper and is
arguably the most important to sustaining a nomadic lifestyle, particularly in regard to their
spatial needs. Generally, this practice consists of coordinating the arrangements and planning
the logistics for how work can be accomplished (Corbin & Strauss, 1993; Strauss, 1985).
Articulation work is a “supra-type” of work, the planning, scheduling, organizing, and meshing of
other tasks that are actually being paid for by the client or corporation. For nomadic workers, it
is crucial to dedicate a significant amount of articulation work to finding places and configuring
resources to do their work.
During articulation work, digital nomads must decide and plan what type of spaces to seek out
and how to alter the spatial affordances of that place with their technologies. Many digital
nomads felt articulation work was an appropriate use of time as necessary or at locations that
were not ideal for any of the other forms of work. Participant 3 stressed the importance for
digital nomads of having “no free time or no dead time” and as long as she could access her
technologies, she felt responsible “using that time to be efficient and productive”. However, in an
environment that can be loud and often distracting, such as an airport lobby or in transit,
Participant 10 achieved tasks that were meaningful “for my business and less about client
work”. Places related to transportation continuously surfaced in interviews with digital nomads
for achieving articulation work. However, despite being labeled as work for “dead-time”,
Participant 8 demonstrated her range of tasks involved with articulation work including
“marketing, set up social media posts, plan my events, check email, so just kind of like the quick
tasks or like writing projects”.
Many participants commented on the importance of researching and finding places that
facilitated their other forms of work once out of the “dead-time”. Digital nomads have been
known to be skilled at networking with each other online for information gathering and sharing,
particularly in regards to finding recommendations or solutions (Jarrahi et al., 2018). For digital
nomads traveling to foreign locations, planning and ensuring that they can find access to spaces
that can facilitate their work is crucial to their lifestyle. Participant 3 commented how when she
thinks that she has found a potential space to conduct work she would make sure “it’s safe and
just stop in and be like oh do you have WiFi we can use?”. Once digital nomads find a space,
they can then begin to adjust and personalize the space by altering the spatial characteristics to
fit their needs (Brown & O’Hara, 2003).
Digital nomads’ creativity with their spaces and technologies is readily apparent when setting up
their mobile office. For digital nomads, this is particularly evident throughout the process of
configuration work, a form of articulation work in which the surrounding environment and tools
are configured to fit the appropriate context of the environment, form of work, and types of
technologies used (Jarrahi & Nelson, 2018). Figure 6 shows a digital nomad’s office which has
features to supplement their technologies, such as the adjustable height laptop stand, but also
innovative technologies, like the vertical ergonomic mice for both the left and right hand. All
these portable tools and technologies can be configured to help make the mobile office more
spatially adequate for the digital nomad to complete work.
Figure 6. A digital nomad’s creatively engineered space
Discussion
While recognizing the advancement in technologies that allow digital nomads to work outside a
traditional office space, the dominant rhetoric of location-independence fails to recognize the
nuanced interplay of space, work, technology in enabling and constraining nomadic lifestyle.
These dynamics became apparent to our research participants when discussing their mobile
workspaces. The imperative reliance on affordances of specific spaces and technologies
prevents them from being able to conduct work practices from any spaces in which they may
find themselves. While technologies are increasingly miniaturized and portable, they may often
not be operable in particular spaces. As evidenced in previous research, the spatial materiality
of certain locations are simply impossible to alter in order to use technologies and perform
certain types of work, thus restricting digital nomads when choosing spaces (Mitev & de
Vaujany, 2013). For example, connectivity and maintaining operable battery levels on devices
were issues that digital nomads had to consider throughout their travels and sojourns. Digital
nomads must find spaces that accommodate these necessary attributes to complete their work
before they can begin to select spaces that appeal to their spatial preferences. These qualifying
infrastructural possibilities are not found in every space.
It is important to note the difference between spaces and places in the context of location
independence. Saar and Palang (2014, p. 6) define space “as physical and social landscape
which is imbued with meaning in everyday place-bound social practices and emerges through
processes that operate over varying spatial and temporal scales”. Thus, while space is the
physical area, place is instead the meaning that influences the particular space. Digital nomads
may be able to use technologies to create different places to work in, but not all spaces provide
the possibility to be turned into functioning work ‘places.’ Technology has both enabled and
restricted the ability for digital nomads to work in various spaces. However, the constraints
technology places on digital nomads suggest that even these workers are limited by and
dependent on locations and spaces. For nomadic workers, each space they inhabit involves
certain types of affordances, thus their lifestyle is more nuanced than implied by the common
use of the term location-independent. Rossitto et. al (2007) argues that spatial discontinuity
corresponds closely with technology discontinuity. As nomadic workers change the spaces in
which they are working, the technologies and tools they use may jointly change as well.
Mobility vs. Location-independence
While digital nomads have the ability to be mobile and the opportunity to work in a range of
spaces outside of a traditional office, they are still not completely ‘location-independent.Our
findings from observations of hypermobile independent workers support the premise of earlier
work on multi-location consultants working for an organization conducted by Hislop and Axtell
(2009); they argue “while the consultants were able to carry out some work activities in all four
of the locations examined, they were far from able to carry out any task, anywhere” (p. 71).
The characteristics of spaces can still restrict and enable what forms of work can be conducted
in certain locations. While some characteristics can be altered through technology, others
cannot, which in turn makes some spaces not conducive for work. Thus, it is not possible to be
location-independent since space matters to digital nomads and is carefully selected to enable
their nomadic practices. Digital nomads have differing spatial requirements for various forms of
work which inhibit them from being able to work in any location. For example, a digital nomad’s
collaboration work is similar to socialization work since information and knowledge is being
shared, but yet they often need vastly different environments for collaboration work. Articulation
work is vital to be able to plan and arrange these other forms of work. Digital nomads must
continually engage in articulation work to mesh different tasks and the resources of different
locations dynamically. Their technologies and capability to take strategic advantage of their
environments can help to reduce the amount of constraints a space has in regards to a
particular form of work; however, it often does not completely eliminate the need for certain,
differing spatial characteristics in their workspaces. Thus, while digital nomads are an
interesting form of nomadic workers, even their extreme mobility does not translate to being
location-independent.
When nomadic workers are unable to find a space that fits all their needs for a space, they are
often able to use technology to alter the affordance of space in order to fit their requirements or
become better-suited for their productivity levels (Brown & O’Hara, 2003). In order to be as
productive as possible, nomadic workers often utilize their technologies and applications to
create an appropriate space to focus on their tasks (Humphry, 2014). This phenomenon of
“making space” requires advanced preparation as well as thorough planning in order to achieve
productive work (Perry et al., 2001; Büscher, 2014).
However, nomadic workers cannot “make space” if the environment has limitations that are not
naturally conducive to their work or cannot be altered through the use of technologies available.
For example, while a nomadic worker may be able to use noise canceling headphones to drown
out the background noise of a coffee shop, it may not diminish the effect of visual distraction
and the limited time some coffee shops allow for each person to sit and use the space. This is
particularly essential during focus work since nomadic workers must find an environment that
supports productive, solo work.
Despite bearing the burden of mobility and “making spaces” for work, digital nomads still
maintain their immense ambition to travel to new locations. Their desire to travel and have
flexible schedules is one of the main catalysts that cause digital nomads to lose interest in
traditional office jobs. Their sense of adventure and eagerness to travel distinguishes them from
other forms of nomadic workers. Digital nomads are highly adept with creatively using
technologies and spaces to overcome challenges and make a sufficient income in order to
continue living their preferred extremely nomadic lifestyle.
Figure 7. The interplay among work, space, and digital technology
Digital work, one of the least location-bound forms of work, is closely tied with the use of digital
technologies and infrastructures. Our findings demonstrate that digital work still depends on
different spaces and locations as depicted in Figure 7. Digital technology has changed how
work and space shape each other; technologies such as cloud services or local digital
infrastructures have certainly expanded the notion of workspace as many digital workers are
able to work from a larger number of locations and on the move. However, space matters in
how work is conducted, and technology may not render digital work completely location-
independent as portrayed by the media and business press.
Conclusion
Digital nomads have been pioneers in terms of creatively problem solving many challenges nomadic
workers face on a regular basis. While spaces have previously been studied in the context of mobile
work, understanding the term location independence through this context has not received an
adequate level of attention. If a nomadic worker were to be location-independent, by definition they
would be able to transform any space into an adequate place to work. As mobile work continues to
evolve into more extreme trends, understanding the role of digital technologies and the changing
relationship with space is critical for scholars. Forms of work that are independent from a particular
space are now gaining traction and have become very appealing to many young professionals.
However, through recognizing that being location independence cannot be achieved by any form of
nomadic worker, we can begin to perceive a greater conceptualization of the dynamic relationship
between space, work, and technology.
Labeling digital nomads as location-independent nomadic workers is a fundamental
miscategorization that has been created and perpetuated from both social media and various
publications. In order to complete their work, digital nomads deeply rely not only on their
technologies but also the ability to find and use environments in which they can conduct productive
work and use their technologies. While digital nomadism is indeed considered one of the most highly
mobile trends in work, it does not lift the burden of finding sufficient spaces to work. Although many
digital nomads are quick to label themselves as location-independent, their reliance upon being able
to find and create certain workspaces is pivotal for conducting productive forms of work. Discovering
spaces that fit the requirements necessary to accomplish work while also prioritizing spaces that
accommodate individual preferences could not be accomplished without technology. The important
role that space has for nomadic workers should not be overlooked, especially as these workers
become more prevalent.
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