Datum 2021-09-17
Artikeltyp News

Digital nomads challenge our norms regarding working life

This article was written before our official name change on January 1, 2022 from Mälardalen University (MDH) to Mälardalen University (MDU).

Digital nomads, i.e., people who have created a geographical freedom and flexibility for themselves using digital aids and who live according to this ideal, are a growing group in the labour market. With the rise of digitisation, the whole world can become an office as long as you have a stable internet connection. Caroline Ingvarsson, Senior Lecturer at MDH, conducts research on digital nomads and their importance for future working conditions.

Although digital nomads have a more extreme way of working and living, their lifestyle choices influence the norms and beliefs that exist around modern working life and what it means to "go to work". Caroline Ingvarsson, who has lived as a digital nomad for six months herself, has conducted an interview study with digital nomads. She believes that digitisation and its accompanying tools gives us opportunities to achieve a more modern and freer working life.

A growing number of people in the labour market

"The focus of my research is on changing and future working conditions and the importance of the physical workplace for how we understand our work and the technology we work with. There are a growing number of digital nomads in the labour market, and we need to understand how these individuals work, just as we have gained a lot of knowledge by understanding what it is like to work in a factory, in offices, as project managers and so on," she says.

The phenomenon of digital nomads has developed gradually over the past ten years, although the movement stalled to some extent during 2020 and 2021, due to lockdowns and that travel was made difficult because of the pandemic.

"But the trends we are still seeing are that digital nomads are a growing group of people in the labour market. They often have university degrees, are in their late 20s and 30s with established careers but choose to shake up their lives to find a different kind of challenge," says Caroline Ingvarsson.

Digitisation enables remote working

Digitisation is a prerequisite in order for the digital nomadic lifestyle to work. Being able to work remotely in the way that digital nomads do is not possible unless there is an internet connection, computers and a work situation that allows cooperation to take place completely remotely.

Hence, the lifestyle choices of digital nomads influence the norms and beliefs that exist around working life and jobs. A clear example is remote working and home offices as the accepted form of work for many people during the Corona pandemic. But Caroline Ingvarsson believes that working life even post-Covid will also be characterised by an increased interest in remote working.

"With Corona, we have crossed a fairly high threshold. It has become easier and more accepted to participate in the working day without being physically present in an office, for example. For many people, the past year has become proof that it is possible to work and manage people remotely," she says.

Shifts in working life standards

From a broader perspective, modern employment with regulated days and salary is not so obvious, as it grew out of industrialisation where people started working for pay, usually for someone else and as a cog in a larger machinery. These representations of what work and working life are, have started to shift.

"Partly it's about a shift in what you think is a reasonable way of working, and partly it's about what type of goal fulfilment you think the job should provide. Digital nomads have chosen to change career to have a more balanced working life and to have greater freedom to manage their own jobs. They actively opt out of a traditional high-performing career life in favour of developing themselves and their abilities and working with issues that they feel passionate about," says Caroline Ingvarsson.

These shifts are also visible in the more traditional working life, says Caroline Ingvarsson.

"In five years’ time, we will see many small shifts in norms regarding working life, such as, for example, we may change our attitudes regarding what is a good workplace, both physically and socially. Many people also express that they want the opportunity to decide more about their own job, work for smaller companies where there are greater opportunities for influence, manage their own time and also control the content of their professional role," continues Caroline Ingvarsson.

Major changes in leadership and management

For leaders and managers, these shifts in standards will signify major changes.

"Managers and leaders will have to ask themselves questions to a higher extent than before, such as "How am I a good manager of employees that I meet very rarely?" and "Through what channels can we maintain the desired type of communication?" says Caroline Ingvarsson.

Working life also tends to become more transient, says Caroline Ingvarsson, where more people work on assignments rather than through a job.

"We see that more organisations are investigating how to work with more mobile organisations where shorter assignments, fewer employees and several different forms of employment become the new norm. This places great demands on how you as a manager lead teams consisting of employees who work on shorter or longer assignments, where you do not meet physically and where the organisation is more dynamic," she says.

How do you create a location-independent organisational culture?

In the long run, this shift in norms also raises important questions about how we need to change our opinion of what organisational culture is and how we create it.

"The work that is put into building and maintaining what we call an organisational culture is mainly done physically on location. How do you create a “we” feeling when employees meet each other so rarely? How are we going to convey visions, values and core issues to a company when they can't be shared on site?

Caroline Ingvarsson hopes to soon expand her study on digital nomads to also include organisations whose staff increasingly consist of employees who work remotely on assignments, including the core business areas of the organisation.

"I will study issues such as how to build and maintain a vibrant organisational culture when people no longer get together and how it will be reflected if we will also include remote working in organisational culture after the Corona pandemic. After all, it is something that is lost when you only meet on the computer, and I am interested in relevant questions such as how to build loyalty to those people you never meet? concludes Caroline Ingvarsson.

Global sustainable development goals

MDH is conducting research in all of the UN’s global goals for sustainability. This project is clearly linked to Goal number 8 Decent work and economic growth.

How MDH works to achieve sustainability External link, opens in new window.

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