With a ‘digital nomad’ visa, you could work from (almost) anywhere
Summer days at Bear Lake get so close to perfect they become clichés, and this day was just such a cliché—sitting behind a laptop, every window open, the room filled with a subtle breeze and the glorious white noise of happy children playing in water so blue it resembled the early colorization attempts of classic movies. Also filling the room: the signal of a newly installed WiFi router and the realization that, most days, I could accomplish as much from this ideal place as from my office 130 miles away.
Alas, it was 2015, and the world wasn’t ready.
Published a decade earlier, Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat,” accurately predicted that the rapid proliferation of inexpensive computers and broadband connectivity would extend opportunities for participation in the global economy to individuals who had previously been excluded. This “flattening” of the globe is, in reality, a leveling of the global playing field.
Friedman’s inspiration for the book came while on a trip to India, during which he witnessed firsthand the extent to which fiber-optic cable—originally laid to facilitate the outsourcing of Y2K bug mitigation—had “made Bangalore a suburb of Boston.” Friedman refers to this phenomenon as Globalization 3.0, which is driven by individuals, in contrast with versions 1.0 and 2.0, which were mediated by nations and enterprises.
Despite all that Freidman got right, a variation on his book’s theme has emerged—one that would have been difficult to predict in 2005.
A long time coming
As Prithwiraj Choudhury, economist and professor of business at Harvard University explains, groups of knowledge workers began to ask the question, “Can we do our work without all being together in the same office?” prior to 2020. Whatever the outcome of that pre-pandemic philosophizing, the answer was required to be “yes” when 2020 arrived.
Covid’s exigencies proved the remote work concept on a grand scale, and individuals began flipping the script—essentially making Boston a suburb of Bangalore. As lockdowns lifted, “work from home” iterated to “work from anywhere,” which gave birth to a movement dubbed digital nomadism. This movement sees knowledge workers perform their nine-to-five jobs far from home for weeks, months or even years at a time.
Seeing an opportunity, dozens of countries—primarily more developed but smaller nations, which tend to be especially susceptible to and affected by brain drain—launched formal digital nomad visas designed to make it easy for remote workers to settle in and infuse the local economy with expatriate cash and ideas.
“These governments want higher income people who can work remotely without taking local jobs,” says David McNeill, founder of the remote work consultancy Expat Empire. “Tourist visas are usually good for about three months, and people have been using those while getting work done on their laptops for a while now. The difference with these digital nomad visas is they incentivize people to stay much longer.”
In June 2020, the tiny Caribbean island nation of Barbados was the first to offer such a visa. Branded the “Welcome Stamp,” it was specifically tailored to the digital nomad lifestyle. Days later, hyper-digital Estonia introduced its own. Fifty more countries have since followed, the most recent being Portugal. While each country approaches the digital nomad visa differently, they generally last one year, are renewable, require the holder have health insurance and a minimum foreign income and absolve them of paying local income taxes. Fees can be as high as $2,000 and as low as, in a few cases, $0.
Though Portugal is the most recent country to offer a formal digital nomad visa, their D-7 visa has long been very effective at attracting expat techies and creatives as a means of revitalizing its economy, which experienced the Great Recession more like a true depression.
“During the financial crisis, Portugal saw young workers move to other countries for better opportunities,” says McNeill, who has lived in Portugal for three years. “They essentially decided to look abroad and ‘import’ people to make up for it. And it’s working.”
International hubs for creatives
Product designer Rob Horacek has his mail delivered to a condo he owns in Park City, though he’s only there about half the time.
“After graduating from college, I discovered that sitting at a desk 50 weeks a year just wasn’t very fulfilling. I’m a creative, and that’s not the way for me to produce my best work,” Horacek says. “What I was looking for was the adult version of a study abroad.”
What Horacek found was Lisbon, Portugal.
“Lisbon is now one of the foremost centers for creatives and entrepreneurs in all of Europe just because they made it so attractive for people like that to live here,” he says. “You get all these creative people from diverse backgrounds in one space and inspiring ideas get exchanged.”
Choudhury has managed to quantify this—the phenomenon of creative sparks being produced by interactions that would not have occurred if everyone merely worked from home. In one study, he looked at Start-Up Chile, a program designed to stimulate the Chilean economy following the devastating Concepción earthquake of 2010.
Under the program, entrepreneurial students from schools like Stanford University receive one-year visas, cash and access to local talent to hire and mentor.
“Over ten years, they have attracted hundreds of entrepreneurs from all over the world, and these not only had serendipitous interactions with each other, but they met and partnered with locals. Now, Chile has its own homegrown start-up scene,” Choudhury says.
Indeed, Choudhury says several Chilean tech unicorns, each worth billions of dollars, are products not so much of the services of Start-Up Chile as they are the ideas imported and cultivated by it.
Covid’s exigencies proved the remote work concept on a grand scale, and individuals began flipping the script—essentially making Boston a suburb of Bangalore. As lockdowns lifted, “work from home” iterated to “work from anywhere,” which gave birth to a movement dubbed digital nomadism.
Youth no longer wasted on the young
But the economics of innovation are not the only thing digital nomadism is good for. It’s also an innovative way to experience the planet while endowed with the energy of youth in ways previously reserved for, typically, less energetic retirees.
Bella Gonzalez is a graphic designer engaged to software developer Levi Linchenko. Armed with the multi-ski resort Ikon Pass, the pair of late 20-somethings is spending the winter of 2023 on the slopes in Switzerland, Italy and France while the sun is up before putting in a full eight hours of work in the evening. Considering that 9:00 a.m. in Utah is 5:00 p.m. in Europe, the time change accommodates both exploration and normal circadian cycles.
The couple spent almost half of 2021 touring South America, a region popular with digital nomads hoping to maximize economy and remain in U.S.-aligned time zones. They then dedicated 2022 to renovating their home near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon with the aim of putting it up as a mid-term rental for digital nomads seeking to ski the best mountains of Utah—while they ski the best mountains of Europe.
“It’s been so easy to rent our house because we’re catering to digital nomads,” Gonzalez says. “In fact, the description of our place on Airbnb includes ‘digital nomad paradise.’ We know exactly what they need, and we made it perfect for them.”
The rental income generated by the home is enough to cover the cost of Gonzalez and Linchenko’s own trip, she adds.
The ability to see the demand for this kind of mid-term rental housing from both sides—as provider and consumer—has convinced Linchenko of an impending shift in the vacation rental landscape.
“Remote work is not only changing travel but is also going to change rental markets in favor of mid-term,” he says. “People want the flexibility of staying in a place longer, getting to know the area better and getting a better discount.”
With that in mind, upon their return, the two are planning to build on their success by investing in additional rental properties in places known to be popular with longer term remote workers.
An increase in productivity
For all the ways “work from anywhere” policies benefit employees, what impact do they have on employers?
Dallas Dean, a software development manager at the University of Utah who spends weeks at a time working while exploring places like Romania and Vietnam, is convinced these trips increase his productivity.
“I feel like I’m working for something valuable, to be able to get out and explore instead of just working to pay bills,” Dean says. “Everybody really appreciates this policy and works harder to ensure that it continues.”
The policy Dean is referring to is called Work Reimagined, and it outlines the U’s liberal approach to allowing employees who are able to work from anywhere to do so.
“In the fall of 2020, while we were deep in the throes of the pandemic, we pulled a cross-campus group together … and we asked the question, ‘Who do we want to be when this is over?’” says Jeff Herring, the U’s chief HR officer. “We designed it to not just be great for the employees, but also for the university. With labor shortages and the cost of living the way they are, it’s a great way to get a more diverse workforce which brings new ideas and diversity of thought.”
Choudhury had the rare opportunity to apply scientific rigor to the question of remote worker productivity by studying examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“There is a union of patent examiners, and they negotiated a monthly quota for how many workers could receive this [work from anywhere] benefit. Its recipients were determined randomly,” Choudhury explains. “Their productivity is very objectively measurable because it is the number of patent applications one examines every week. We saw that, while working remotely week by week for several years, there was, on average, a 4.4 percent increase.”
Gonzalez sees openness to this lifestyle as arming employers with a significant advantage in a competitive hiring marketplace, saying, “I would take a $20,000 pay cut if it meant my company was 100 percent tolerant of me traveling while working on their timeline.”
Linchenko, who doesn’t agree with the willingness to take a steep pay cut, still agrees with the overall sentiment. “It doesn’t matter because I’d never take a job where this lifestyle wasn’t possible,” he says.
I’m OK, you’re OK
Having established the potential benefit of “work from anywhere” policies for employees and employers, all that’s left is to quantify the impact on host communities. For that, we can look to yet another iteration on Globalization 3.0: Tulsa Remote.
Middle America, like many small countries offering digital nomad visas, is subject to strong forces drawing talent away. Tulsa Remote, a nonprofit, sought to counter the impact of those forces in 2018 by offering out-of-state knowledge workers $10,000—about one year’s downtown rent—to relocate there, as long as they bring their out-of-state jobs with them.
Two thousand remote workers have since made the move to Tulsa. One study projects that by 2025, the economic benefit to this corner of northeastern Oklahoma will reach $500 million.
“For every dollar we spend on that incentive through the $10,000 grant, we see a $14 return on investment to the community,” says Justin Harlan, managing director at Tulsa Remote.
This model is a prime example of technology upending well-worn—though in hindsight, highly inefficient—methods.
“Cities and states are always trying to lure huge companies to locate there by offering them tax incentives. Those are substantial investments paid upfront in hopes that it pays off long-term,” Harlan says. “If that company chooses to leave, all the jobs go, too. Instead of trying to attract a company that brings 500 jobs with it, Tulsa Remote has attracted 2,000 jobs at 2,000 different companies. There is sure to be turnover, but the impact is so much lower and costs the taxpayers nothing.”
Last year, recent University of Utah grad Savannah Molloy was fretting over the increasingly unaffordable cost of living in the Salt Lake Valley when she learned about Tulsa Remote. Once her application was accepted, she let her employer, Lehi-based Jane.com, know.
“It wasn’t a hard sell to Jane at all. With the pandemic, so many were working remotely already,” Molloy says. “My husband and I went from renting a little apartment in Midvale to a house in Tulsa with a big, fenced yard, paying $600 less each month.”
The Molloys readily admit Oklahoma had never been on their radar before learning about Tulsa Remote. But they’ve grown enamored with the city, and while Savannah says she intends to continue working for the Utah company, she has no plans to return—making her more of a digital dweller than a nomad.
One who sees Utah’s young, educated and vibrant workforce as a key contributor to the state’s economic strength may be concerned that Tulsa has succeeded in permanently pulling just such a worker away. But has it?
What has undoubtedly been transferred to Tulsa is at least one automobile—a resource more easily absorbed by that city, given its lower air pollution levels. Most would call that a net gain, especially during Utah’s inversion season. And though she may live elsewhere, Molloy’s daily professional contributions continue to manifest in Utah’s economy.