Remote vs. nomadism

Remote work can't stay static for long, but digital nomadism is unsustainable

At Slite, our handbook has a very clear definition of what remote work is and what it isn't.

The handbook states: "The country or city where you work is not an issue, but we need remote work to be done in one overall location. This means backpacking across a country and stopping along the way is not suitable for our way of working in remote."

Other remote companies are adopting a similar policy. Enzo Avigo, co-founder and CEO of June, says, "We're remote, not digital nomads."

These restrictions are put in place to ensure quality and consistency of work outcomes across a team - and to discourage remote employees from adding stress to their lives outside of work. But the rules also bristle against one of the very foundations of remote work: freedom.

While the policies about location, set some guardrails, they don't answer one of the trickiest  questions at the heart of remote work: What does work freedom truly look like?

What remote work is and what it isn't

Remote work is not a vacation. This seems obvious, but the longer you dwell in the remote world, the more accustomed you become to ideas like "workcations," working from the train, and coworking with close friends and significant others. The line between personal and professional is blurred - for better and for worse.

Slite's Head of Sales, Brieuc Sebillote, describes the experience of a workcation this way: "During a week, you're torn between two worlds. At the end you feel you didn't work well and you didn't spend real good times with the friends you don't see that much. You're not 100% yourself; your mind is still in your work. Which leaves me often frustrated."

Remote work is also not working less. The four-day workweek is gaining traction in the remote world, but most companies stick to the standard 40-hours.

As Hotjar states in its company handbook:

We work a 40 hour week but outside of core hours, you are allowed to plan your time and productivity as you wish (but please coordinate this with your team). Please note we said a 40 hour week. We've found that we hit maximum efficiency when our team works full-time. Therefore we do not support part-time or reduced schedules. We've tried it and it's not for us (at least not now).

So if remote is not a vacation, and not working less, what is it? Or rather, what should it be?

(Ideal) remote work is:

  • Flexible (up to a point)- Longstanding remote companies like Buffer, Zapier, and Basecamp give options for remote flexibility - like us, they provide budget for working from a home office, coffee shop, or coworking space, outfitted with ergonomic furniture, up-to-date hardware, and high-speed internet.
  • Sustainable - What's the point of saving all that CO2 from commuting and powering office towers if you're just going to blow it all on crisscrossing the world? Plus, the burnout and stress from traveling is real - remote should be a lifestyle that builds happiness, long-term.  
  • Async, but balanced - With people working all over the world, remote companies need to adopt an async-first communication style. That means primarily using documents, discussions, pre-recorded videos, and audio notes as opposed to live meetings to make important team decisions. At the same time, the occasional IRL offsite or team bonding activity will build close relationships and foster innovation and creativity.

How people really work remotely

As much as we'd all like to be paradigms of productivity and work-life balance, the truth is, most remote employees are figuring it out as they go.

Last week, I shared a chart around to various online communities to jokingly highlight some of the differences between the nomad mindset and the remote worker mindset. It looked like this:

Of course, this is a massive simplification of the differences in remote work styles. But the sketch sparked some fascinating responses, when I asked remote workers which category they fall into. Here are some highlights:

Remote is king

"I live in Lisbon, but do everything else the remote worker way it seems. I sometimes forget this is a hotspot for nomads." - Justin Borge, Founder/CEO at Help With Your Hustle

"[F]or me, it's great to travel and work at the same time, but then I need to go home for a while. [A]lways need my nest." - Ana Catarina Miranda, SDR at Remote

""Saves money' is an absolute yes when it comes to daily expenses. I was $0 for all of these over that period: commuting, gas, car insurance, lunch, gym membership (I got into road cycling during my breaks and worked out at home). Two years ago, I moved on to working at a fintech downtown, and all of those things became expenses again." -Gilian Ortillan, fintech brand and content marketer

"I'm definitely remote, not a nomad." - Arnaud Rinquin, engineering manager at Slite

...But sometimes the home office is just as distracting as a workcation

"Childcare breaks are a huge productivity block. I work wherever I find space in the house because my daughter just moved into what was my office. So I rotate between chairs around the living room table. Might look into co-working space, there isn’t really a coffee shop culture around here (small town in Belgium)." - Kjell Vandevyvere, freelance copywriter

How to nomad responsibly

You don't need to be a full-time digital nomad to experience the refreshing effects of the occasional change of scenery. A few tips from those who have tread the nomad path before:

"I just got back from a 2+ year digital nomading journey and would be somewhere in the middle, laptop stand but also coworking space, had a good sleep routine, daily schedule, going all around the world, etc. I think a venn diagram would be more accurate." - Cierra Loflin, Content & Community Manager at Superpath

"A remote worker who loves to experience different cultures and still needs to work on sleep hygiene, that’s me. My fav remote worker trait: Off the grid holidays 2x/year" - Soumyajit Chakladar, Creative lead, design and branding at Airmeet

"The biggest difference for me is that being a nomad & living in different places gives me more energy, and this has a positive impact on my work and anything else I have going on. There’s just something about exploring a different environment that gives me a big energy boost." - Aida Knežević, content marketer at Animalz

"I’ve been living exclusively in Airbnbs and slow-travel[ling](staying at least 28 days in one place to get that juicy monthly discount). I usually book well in advance, sometimes 6–12 months, giving me more freedom to plan my travel route. All Airbnbs are apartments, no co-living, with fast internet, and a dedicated workspace. There are some downsides; not all dedicated workspaces are that great, the chair can be uncomfortable, but it’s manageable. I do have a laptop stand and external keyboard and magic trackpad for better ergonomics. The rest is the same as if I were living in the same city: I have a fixed 9–5 schedule, I go out afterwards and explore the city, or travel even further. Also, working on cafés should be an exception, not a rule. It’s doable for a few hours but not every day for 8." - Deian Isac, founder of

What will remote freedom look like in the future?

Right now, in the early days of remote, we put up guardrails against nomadism to to make sure rituals and culture can hold, and workers have a stable setup where they're reachable.

But as travel becomes more and more affordable, and the world becomes more and more accessible, the growing numbers of remote workers will enjoy increasing freedom about where and how to live. Whatever the outcome of these choices, they need to be supported by their employers, as well as local governments. And in turn, they need to fulfill their end of the bargain - producing outcomes that are not only good for their personal fulfilment, but for society at large.

What do you think of the remote vs. nomadism debate? Add your comments in the thread below:

Special thanks to Brieuc Sebillote for the original idea for this article.

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