Digital Nomads Reveal a New Type of Remote Worker

Forget working from home. Now, it's all about working far from home.

Damir Spanic / Unsplash

A spring 2021 survey by The Harris Poll on behalf of Fast Company finds nearly half of Americans who have worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic have traveled away from their primary residence while continuing to work remotely without using vacation time over the past year. With a majority hoping to continue this trend after restrictions have lifted, a new type of remote worker has emerged: the digital nomad.

Forty-five percent of Americans that have worked remotely during the pandemic say that they have traveled out of town within the last year, while working remotely, without using vacation time. Men were more likely to say they had done so than women (52% vs. 34%, respectively). Younger employees were also more likely to travel and work remotely simultaneously (56% of those under age 44 vs. 27% of those age 45+).

Most employees still appear to be in experimentation mode with nomadic remote work. Half of these employees (50%) spent a total of two weeks or fewer out of town while working remotely without using vacation time, and about a quarter (26%) have spent three weeks to a month doing the same. For most (59%), the longest single trip taken while working remotely without using vacation time was one week or less; 22% said their longest trip was actually an overnight trip.

Given pandemic restrictions in most international hotspots, trips by those traveling out of town while working remotely over the last year have been overwhelmingly within the U.S. Most stayed within their home state with 54% saying the farthest they traveled out of town in a single trip was within their home state. Forty-three percent were more willing to get away with their farthest trip being outside their home state but within the U.S. Only 3% say their farthest single trip while working remotely without using vacation time was outside the U.S.

The most popular reasons for traveling regarded a change in environment primarily due to the pandemic, such has being closer to family or friends (31%), getting away from an area with a high number of COVID-19 cases (30%), wanting a change of scenery (27%), wanting to quarantine with family or friends (26%), getting away from an urban area or an area with many people (25%), and going to a place with fewer or no COVID-19 cases (18%).

Life events still occur even during a pandemic, though, and many remote workers traveled for such reasons. Nearly one in five (18%) say one reason they traveled was because they had to make an emergency trip (e.g., health-related travel, death in the family). Some wanted a cheaper cost of living (24%) while others decided to move to a new place (12%).

Nevertheless, there are those still seeking adventure and good weather even during the pandemic. A quarter (25%) of those who traveled while working within the last year mentioned they got a good deal on the price of traveling, such as cheaper airfare or all-inclusive packages. A fifth were also seeking a better climate (21%) and adventure (17%).

However, such a free-moving lifestyle still comes with challenges. Top obstacles these employees faced while traveling and working remotely without using vacation time have included balancing other personal commitments (e.g., caring for family members, pet care, home maintenance) (44%), being too distracted to work (e.g., wanting to do other activities, adjusting to a new environment, too many people nearby) (36%), and maintaining a healthy work-life balance (34%).

COVID-19 also remained a key concern with 19% saying navigating COVID-19 travel restrictions like getting tested before and after travel, finding locations to visit, or disinfecting hotel rooms was a challenge.

Of course, actually getting work done proved a challenge for some. In addition to being too distracted to work, finding/maintaining a stable internet connection and working a different time zone from the office were challenges for a quarter of digital nomads (25% and 23%, respectively).

Despite such challenges, nomadic work won’t be going anywhere. Only 31% of all Americans expect to work onsite 100% of the time after all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted even though 39% say they did so before the pandemic. Another 29% expect to work remotely 100% of the time or work in a hybrid manner (i.e., both onsite and remotely) after all restrictions are lifted. More importantly, when asked if they plan to travel out of town while working remotely without using vacation time after all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, more than half of those expecting to work remotely/hybrid after the pandemic — 57% — said yes.

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Fast Company during April 16-19, 2021, among 1,105 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. For more information on methodology, please contact Dami Rosanwo.

Download full data tables here.