What I learned about the Future of Work by spending three days with 300 remote workers and digital nomads

I just wrapped up the 2019 edition of the Nomad City conference in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

I had the honor of sharing the stage here with other digital nomads and remote work advocates, including representatives from companies like Microsoft and Automattic (the people behind WordPress.com).

After three days of workshops, keynotes, and a BarCamp-style “unconference”, I left filled with even more energy and excitement about this movement.

Now is the perfect time to become a remote worker or digital nomad

Let me tell you why…

Remote work, or “telecommuting” as it was once known, used to mean sacrificing productivity and having to put up with slow VPN connections and awkward conference lines with the sound quality of a fast food drive through.

These days, many of us use the exact same technologies whether we are in the office or not. Services like Slack, BaseCamp, Zoom, and DropBox, are cloud-based and work well wherever we are. As a result, many jobs that have been traditionally done in corporate offices, can now be done remotely from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. 

This is a unique moment in history. You can now have a New York, San Francisco, or London job, without having to live in New York, San Francisco, or London. This is going to disrupt and change entire economies, but most people (and politicians) haven’t figured it out yet. In the meantime, you get to reap all the benefits.

Remote work is good for business

If there’s one thing I took away from the conference this past week, it is the idea that remote work is good for business. Many people seem to think that being able to work remotely is a concession from the employer to the employee… That your boss is doing you a favor if they let you work remotely. This is wrong! 

Remote work benefits business! The best businesses have already figured this out and are actively hiring remote workers. Automattic, the people behind WordPress.com, describe themselves as “a distributed company with 1,146 Automatticians in 72 countries speaking 92 different languages” and they see this as a huge competitive advantage.

Other companies shut down for the day at 5 or 6 PM, but Automattic is always on. That doesn’t mean that they burn out their employees though. In addition to being fully-remote, they also offer an open vacation policy (no set number of days per year), paid sabbaticals, and “encourage all employees to take the time they need for vacation, to pursue their own interests, to stay healthy, and to spend time with friends and family.”

Automattic may be at the forefront of the remote work revolution, but they’re certainly not alone. Check out this slide from Laurel Farrer of the Remote Work Association (part of her Nomad City 2019 keynote presentation on “The State of Remote Work in 2019”) showing a fraction of the many companies that have embraced remote work so far:

Businesses with remote teams are not only saving money on rent and other office-related costs, they are also able to hire from a much, much larger talent pool. 

If a business is based in the SF Bay Area, and they require their employees to work from the office, then they can only hire people who already live in (or are willing to move to) the Bay Area. Imagine how much competition there is for good software developers in the Bay Area (meanwhile Twitter is full of tech workers complaining about the high cost of living, high crime rates, and low quality life in SF). 

…but if the company embraces remote work, then they can hire from anywhere! After all, what are the odds that the best person in the world for a given job just happens to live within commuting distance of that company’s office?

Businesses aren’t the only ones who are jumping on the remote work bandwagon though…

Governments are starting to realize the benefits of remote work too

In the past, if a local government wanted to add more jobs to their city, the standard plan was to try to woo big business with tax breaks and other incentives. See: Amazon’s HQ2 and the ongoing Foxconn-Wisconsin saga (the subsidies from Wisconsin to Foxconn are said to work out to $172,000 to $290,000 per job).

Now, in the age of remote work, some cities and states are taking a different approach. Instead of luring the big businesses, they are aiming to attract the workers themselves. 

It was actually here in Las Palmas that I saw this for the first time. Rather than chasing away remote workers and digital nomads by raiding coworking spaces, representatives from the Las Palmas city government took the stage at the very first Nomad City in 2016 to roll out the proverbial welcome mat. 

They pitched us, an audience of remote workers and digital nomads who have the freedom to be able to work from anywhere, on why we should work from Las Palmas. With perfect weather year-round, fast internet, a stable government, great healthcare, and a reasonable cost of living, it’s not a hard sale to make.

Now some cities and states have started upping the stakes…

Vermont offers a “Remote Worker Grant” of $10,000 to remote workers who move to the state. Tulsa Remote offers $10,000 and free coworking to remote workers who relocate to Tulsa, Oklahoma. They also do a pretty impressive job of selling Tulsa as a great place to live on their website. I had a chance to chat with the program’s Executive Director, Aaron Bolzle, this past week. He told me that they received over 10,000 applications for the first 100 slots in the program!

In Sicily, they are giving away free houses (plus over $1,000 to couples who move there and have children) in a bid to keep small towns alive.

These subsidies attract lots of attention, but the real innovation here is that cities and states are starting to compete with each other to attract new residents. And digital nomads and remote workers are the people who are in the best position to take advantage.

On most days, working remotely — sitting alone in a room in front of a computer — can make you feel like you’re the only one in the world. Like no one else has figured this out yet. But after the conference last week, after seeing all of the businesses that run remote, the remote jobs available, and the subsidies that cities are offering remote workers, I left with a very different feeling….

Remote work is going mainstream

Some people are going as far as saying that offices will be obsolete by 2030. That might sound a bit extreme, but it is fair to say that most knowledge workers would prefer the flexibility of being able to work remotely.

I disagree that offices will be obsolete anytime soon though. As much as I believe in and advocate for the benefits of remote work, I understand that it’s not for everyone.

Remote work is results oriented. There is an understanding that, as remote workers, we are being paid to get the job done, not to show up and fill a seat. That means taking more ownership and accountability. Again, not for everyone.

But the most desirable jobs will be remote jobs. Actually, they already are: 

Zapier recently commissioned a survey conducted online by The Harris Poll among over 880 U.S. knowledge workers (those who primarily work in a professional setting and use a computer as part of their job) and found that 95 percent of U.S. knowledge workers want to work remotely.

And as more and more companies embrace remote work, especially in the technology sector, being able to work remotely will be seen as an important skill. Or perhaps more accurately, as an important signal. Kind of like the way many employers look at university degrees today (“we don’t really care about what they studied, but the fact that they graduated shows us that they are capable of sticking to something and getting it done”).

Those people who don’t have remote work experience may start to feel like they are being left behind.

So where does all of this leave you? Do you work remotely now? Would you like to?

Eating My Way Across Uzbekistan – Part 1

My first morning in Uzbekistan, and I’m exhausted. The journey here has taken days. I only fell asleep a few hours ago, but the morning sun is already burning through our hotel room windows.  Unable to sleep any longer, I decided to go for a walk.

Most of the city is still asleep, save for a few birds and the odd policeman. I wandered through the old covered bazaars and caravanserai, past the mosques and medressas that will be packed with tourists in a few hours, and started down one of Bukhara’s dusty back streets.

The conversation began, like so many others in this part of the world, “Hello mister, where are you from… “. My cynical brain is sure this is a trap. But it’s too late to get away. An outstretched hand can’t be ignored. Best case, he wants to sell me a rug. Worst case, I am the rug. A moment later and I’m being led by the arm into the stranger’s house.

We duck under a low doorway and round a corner into a room that somehow is even hotter and dustier than the desert air outside. I’m now standing just inches away from a fire burning so hot, my eyeballs may start sweating any moment. Two more men are waiting in the room to continue the interrogation.

I manage, in my heavily-accented, light-on-vocabulary Russian, to explain that I am a tourist from America. I show them my camera. One man pounds the table while another man asks the questions. He doesn’t wait for me to answer the first question before shouting the next one. He has to raise his voice for me to hear him over Michael Jacksons’ Smooth Criminal blaring from the radio.

Far from a scam or an assault, this was my first taste of Uzbekistan’s famous hospitality. The men, as far as I can tell, are father and sons. The woman, who was present in the room with us but never spoke, must be the mother. The family bakes Non bread out of their modest home in Bukhara.

One brother mixed the dough as the other formed it into balls and left it to rise. The father proudly displayed his collection of dough stamps, the round tools covered in spikes that they use to prevent the centers of the loaves from rising, giving Uzbek Non bread it’s distinctive form. The clay oven burned bright and hot, but they didn’t start actually baking any loaves before I left. Still I considered this a good omen for the rest of my trip.

In Samarkand, I struck gold. I followed a young boy pushing a cart down a small alley. He was heading the opposite direction from everyone else. Away from the main pedestrian street that connects the Bibi Khanum Mosque with the Registan.

His cart, like dozens of others I had seen in the bazaar, was a mutant. The chassis and wheels were from an ancient baby carriage, and on top, there was a round platform wrapped in old linens. Unlike the carts I’d seen in the bazaar which were piled high with bread for sale, the boy’s cart was empty.

Following the boy lead me straight to the source. Another family bakery. This time, I caught them in the middle of the day, just as they were pulling piping hot loaves of Non bread out of the oven.

There are very few pleasures in life that can compare to tearing into a freshly baked loaf of bread. Warm and pillowy soft inside, with just the right amount of crunch on the outside.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Anthony Bourdain. Today would have been his 63rd birthday.

The World According to Instagram

Instagram now has over one billion users. That’s roughly three times the population of the entire United States, sharing and liking photos and videos. Not exactly a well-kept secret, but I think most people underestimate just how massive the “Instagram effect” can be. Especially when it comes to discovering new trends. Instagram influences the way we dress, the things we buy, and the food we eat. But what about travel? How has Instagram changed the way we travel?

continue reading The World According to Instagram

What’s my favorite place in the world? Why do I love to travel?

Check out this short video of a talk I gave at a conference in Nevada earlier this year.

Side note: I planned to speak about my predictions for the future of work, but a day or so before my talk, I changed topics. I was sitting at the table with a well-known motivational speaker / mentor who earns a living on the paid speaking circuit. When he heard about my lifestyle, he said I’ve got to talk about travel, so that’s what I did.

Oh the places I (still) want to go…

When I tell people that I have lived for years as a nomad, traveling all the time, they often say to me, “You must have been everywhere by now!”
No way!
I am very fortunate, having traveled to many countries, but there are so many more that I have not yet visited. I am missing two whole continents (I have never been to Australia or Antarctica) and I’ve only just scratched the surface of Africa.
Even in Europe, where I’ve done the most exploring, I still have a handful of countries left to visit… like Scotland, Sweden, and Norway in the North; Cyprus and Malta in the South; also Belarus, and a few of the Balkans. Closer to home, I’ve never even been to Mexico, Central America, or anywhere in the Caribbean!
I don’t travel for the sake of “checking countries off my list.”  Instead, I go to the places that interest me the most. I also revisit my favorite places as often as I can. As for the rest, I figure I’ll get there eventually.
But there are plenty of new places that I am very eager to visit. Here are a few of the ones that excite me the most at the moment:

continue reading Oh the places I (still) want to go…

Bourdain

Very few people have touched my life the way Anthony Bourdain has. I’ve read and re-read his books. Watched his shows. Listened to him lecture. Read other books because he liked them. Reading Kitchen Confidential convinced me not to pursue a career in restaurants. I was born into the industry, and as much as I love it, I’ve kept a safe distance as an adult (thanks, Tony!).
But it was reading A Cook’s Tour that changed everything for me.

continue reading Bourdain

Journey to Patagonia: Part 1

April 13, 2018

Arrival in Buenos Aires.

I just traveled for an entire day to get here. Uber from Cascais to Lisbon, three hour flight from Lisbon to Frankfurt, and a 14 hour non-stop flight from Frankfurt to Buenos Aires. Then the taxi ride from the airport to my Airbnb in Palermo took so long that I had to ask the driver to stop for a bathroom break. There was an accident on the main road, so we took a detour. So did everyone else. A few more detours later and we were on a road that was only partially paved, and surrounded by trash heaps.

Even after all that, I’m a little surprised to actually be here. I almost cancelled this entire trip to South America. It sounded fun, but too disruptive. There’s too much going on in my life. Work is busy! I need to get back to DC. All the usual excuses. Plus, this was supposed to be the year to slow down a bit, travel a little less, and spend more time in one place. Instead, I’ve been to five continents in five months.

continue reading Journey to Patagonia: Part 1