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The romantic dream of becoming a “digital nomad” is almost as old as the internet itself. Steven K Roberts — a pioneer who rode across the US on a computerised bicycle more than 30 years ago — wrote back in 1994 about creating a “Virtual Technomadic Flotilla . . . of travellers all over the world” on the basis that “physical location becomes irrelevant once you move the essence of your life to the vapours of the net”.

But it wasn’t until Covid-19 that the term really took off. The pandemic created the perfect circumstances: workers wanted change after the boredom of lockdowns; companies had realised they could trust staff to work remotely; and tourist-dependent countries were desperate for visitors. Suddenly it seemed possible for any white-collar worker to work wherever they wanted — not just footloose freelancers, some of whom did already, but ordinary employees too. Scores of countries launched “digital nomad visas” to formalise and capitalise on the trend.

Alas for the romantics, that dream of freedom has collided with the reality of tax, immigration, cyber security and labour laws. Companies haven’t killed off digital nomadism for the masses, but they are wresting it into a less risky and more controlled form. In other words, digital nomadism is being corporatised.

Companies that want to keep their staff happy have “started thinking about how they can bring this into their employee value proposition — they want to control it, but they want their employee base to feel they’re getting something back,” says Claire Pepper at Vialto Partners, which advises companies on cross-border global mobility issues such as immigration, tax, travel, payroll and remote work.

That generally means telling employees they can work from an international location temporarily, but with limits on where and for how long. Pepper says companies will often “redline some countries that are high-risk for cyber security [or] corporation tax” and “have a shortlist of favourable locations”. The most common permitted timeframe is 20 to 30 days — the safest way to avoid tax problems. When Vialto surveyed more than 800 companies about their remote work policies last year, only 7 per cent supported it for more than 60 days.

Some have gone a step further and set up arrangements with specific locations. Technology company Cisco recently sent 17 employees to Rhodes for three months in a collaboration with the local government there. The staff worked remotely from the island but also took part in volunteer activities — an attempt to demonstrate that digital nomads can benefit the host community and don’t have to be disconnected and aloof.

It is a reasonable worry to have. Already there are rumblings of anger from places such as Mexico City and the Portuguese island of Madeira, where digital nomads have been blamed for pushing up property prices and gravitating towards “Instagrammable” cafés with fast WiFi and fancy coffee, rather than getting to know the locals. The OECD, meanwhile, wrote last year that the “benefit for the host country brought by digital nomads remains unclear”. In most countries, digital nomads would only become tax residents after 183 days, the OECD pointed out, and they’re not usually allowed to participate in the local labour market, which means their main contribution is just consumption.

Gianpaolo Barozzi, an HR director at Cisco, told me that “the typical digital nomad is the freelancer, the website developer who can develop from anywhere, but what we are experimenting with — which is much more powerful for the place hosting — is these corporate digital nomads . . . We didn’t send three people, we sent 17, so there is a certain critical mass. Those people have a certain common identity.”

Cisco has a vested interest in the continued popularity of remote work, of course, but it seems nonetheless like a worthy and interesting experiment. More broadly, the fact that companies are allowing staff to work somewhere else for a short while is a good thing in my book. I’m not sure you can really call it “nomadism” though.

In contrast, I spoke last week to Lucy Rogers, a scientist and engineer who is writing a book. Last year, she thought: “If I’m working from my back bedroom, why not do it from anywhere?” She packed her stuff into storage, rented out her house for a year, and went to Chile where she stayed with a local family and did Spanish lessons. Now she is on an island in Thailand.

“I’m going to torment you,” she said mischievously, before turning around her laptop so I could see her view — a cerulean sea and a swaying hammock. Call me an old romantic, but that’s what I call living the true digital nomad dream.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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