We’re Never Going Back to Work
As we enter a “next normal,” many workers will hold jobs that allow them to wander and work from wherever they choose. Will this new class of nomads successfully weave wanderlust into everyday corporate rhythms? Can nomadism come to signal a commitment to regenerative exploration in a variety of forms? This week, we’re restless.
“Nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring.”—Vladimir Nabokov
Since I can remember, I always wanted to be somewhere else. The frantic anticipation of packing my bags, the romantic fantasy of working in flight, and the low feeling of waking up on the inevitable day of return.
In German, we have a word for this: Fernweh—the ache of longing to be far away. Travelling can satisfy this desire, but not for long. Forty-eight hours after returning home it flares up again. Human brains are attuned to novelty and find it deeply pleasurable. Our brains make novel information “stand out.” Some neurons have the specific job of finding novel things, and can distinguish between sights you’ve never seen before and stuff you saw once many years ago.
So what if the lines between “real life” and “vacation” dissolved, and we organized our lives and work in a nomadic way?
Until about 8,000 years ago, all people were foragers, moving around according to the seasons, or following the movements of game. When humans did settle down, the result wasn’t always as successful. When we started building walls and borders, and tying certain privileges to certain living standards, we gained perhaps more comfort, security, and structure. But we might have traded off an inherently human trait that, after more than a year of lockdowns, can’t but burst out.
We’re never going back to work. Unless our nomadic souls can work again.
And by that I don’t mean the kinds of digital nomads who brag about the number of countries they’ve visited as if it were an accomplishment that deserved recognition, or those who hop from hostel to hostel to live as cheaply, take as much, and give as little as possible.
The traits of a nomadic life, as described by Rafis Abazov, adjunct professor at Columbia University and author of The Stories of the Great Steppe, are cultural curiosity and tolerance. Drawing from Kazakh nomads, he points out how nomadic societies have prioritized cultural and social dimensions, and only subsequently incorporate the economic aspects. The nomad’s cultural curiosity about “otherness” and learning new skills and technologies comes naturally, given the constant flow of new people and sensations they expose themselves to. Abazov also describes high tolerance toward differences in religion, language, dress code, status, and many other issues. They embrace a kind of existential fluidity: “Nomadism is also a way of thinking about the world around oneself, about circles of life, about interactions with Mother Nature and the never-ending movement of the human soul.”
What would be your first nomadic destination?
Drop us a voice memo.
Where do you want to go?
What do you hope to find there?
Is there a place you long to return to?
Does travel change people?
Or only some?
What’s the difference between those two?
What’s the difference between a tourist, a visitor, and a guest?
How long did you wander until you met yourself?
Who do you most enjoy traveling with: family, friends, colleagues, strangers, or yourself?
Which borders do you appreciate?
Is there any work of yours that needs to stay behind when you depart?
Which things will you take with you?
Where is your unfinished business?
Berlin, Rio, or Zanzibar?
And here are the 10 best destinations for digital nomads in 2021 (via Joland).
Top places to work from
- Any bar in a sunlit square in Italy that offers Aperol Spritz and olives at 4:00 pm (for contemplation)
- An evening bubble bath (for ideation)
- An upper-deck TGV train ride before sunrise (for networking)
- The mezzanine of the Dear Lisbon Gallery House in Lisbon (for pastel de nata and productive meetings)
- Your childhood room in your parents’ house (for strategy)
- Any room with an ocean view and smell (for writing)
- A Premium Economy window seat on a transatlantic Air France flight (for sketching and movie inspiration)
- The armchair in the lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel (for imagination)
- The 800-meter, 163-floor elevator ride in the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai (for elevator pitches)
- The Berliner “Ringbahn” on a Sunday morning at 11:00 am (for user research)
- A cabin in the woods (for doing your taxes)
- On a polar-expedition yacht (for team bonding)
- In the blue room of Casa Gilardi in Mexico City (for solitude)
- On Cape Town’s Lion’s Head for sunset at 6:00 pm, when the clouds are lifting (for agenda-setting)
- In front of the big buddha at Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Kaohsiung, Taiwan (for support)
- At the 42nd Street Library in New York City (for bumping into your favorite authors in the 2nd-floor restrooms)
The essential homebound
Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to work remotely. Of all the realities that the pandemic has laid bare—from the vulnerability of cities to contagion to the peril of human encroachment on wild habitats—the starkest may be the inequality between essential workers and those of us who work from home. One group is college-educated, richer, and more likely to be white. The other, disparaged as low-skill, is stuck in place because the work they do cannot be done offsite. There are those of us who order groceries online, and those who deliver them. And take our garbage out. And tend to us when we are sick.
One silver lining to this new class dichotomy comes from an unlikely source: unemployment benefits and stimulus payments. In what amounts to a vast experiment in Universal Basic Income, results are already showing up—with anecdotal reports, like this one, heralding the promise a post-pandemic economy might hold.
To attract and retain a post-pandemic workforce, nomadism must transcend lifestyle to become an organizational quality.
Good luck, dear employers, trying to contain us!
You may entice us with workplaces that don’t look anything like work, and rather resemble beach bars, golf courts, or clubs. But that won’t cut it. We did like the remote work, but having spent so much time at home, we lost a sense of home, ironically—and can’t help but look for it elsewhere now.
Our workplaces need to become destinations and satisfy our innate desire to travel, our neophilia, fernweh, and wanderlust. Not even allowing us to be digital nomads is good enough anymore. If we are to return to work—and give it our everything—then work itself must become nomadic. Organizations must become nomadic.
Let’s take a closer look at what that means.
Nomadic organizations possess three distinctive pairs of qualities:
Ephemeral, yet rooted in purpose: Many people view moving as a hardship. Nomads, however, consider mobility a resource. Likewise, nomadic organizations embrace movement and impermanence. The entire organization is consistently in motion, and work shifts from something we do, remotely or not, to something we experience. The same way Airbnb evolved from being a hospitality provider to becoming an experience provider, the workplace will evolve as the focus of business changes: from machine (productivity) to platform (creativity) to journey (purpose).
Frugal but giving: Nomadic organizations thrive under material constraints and are adept at doing less with more, and adapt this frugal mindset for tackling all business challenges. Different from efficiency, frugality implies using limited resources in the most creative fashion, not just to increase output, but to innovate in the most inclusive way. This includes elements of a gift economy, a process of giving–receiving–reciprocating. Nomadic organizations rely on the trust and generosity of both their members and the strangers whom they encounter on their travels, and they will only engender these responses if they give without the expectation of instant reciprocation. There is another word for this kind of behavior—caring—and it is an important and timely reminder for any company that views itself as part of a larger community.
Becoming while storytelling: If all formal structures collapse and complexity grows in increasingly pluralist markets and societies, the only anchor that remains in lieu of permanent structures and homes is identity. And identity is created and cultivated through stories. Nomadic organizations understand that for us nomads, what we narrate about our travels is as important as the experience itself. Each trip is a story, and the more trips we can take, solo or as a collective, the richer our stories will become, and the less we will give in to the lazy temptation of having just one single story, and confusing that one story with the truth. Nomadic organizations not only allow a multitude of stories to be told, all the time, they also change their own story constantly. They are not pivoting; they are the pivot. For business to be inspiring, interesting, and growing, it must be unfinished business. If “home is not a piece of soil but a piece of soul,” as the writer Pico Iyer once put it, then the nomadic organization is collecting moments and memories on the go, as pieces of soul-searching that have only one goal: to bring us closer to home.
Read the full article
Blurred borderlines (for the worse and for better)
About 3.5 percent of the world’s population is on the move, at least 79.5 million people around the world have been displaced, and millions of stateless people are in between borders, unwanted by all. If you’ve seen Human Flow, a documentary by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, you might remember these words: “When there’s nowhere to go, nowhere is home.”
Meanwhile climate migration is expected to exacerbate territorial conflicts in other parts of the world. The Earth is expected to face a greater temperature increase in the next 50 years than it did in the last 6,000, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By 2100, going outside for a few hours in parts of India and Eastern China could “result in death even for the fittest of humans.”
Would getting rid of borders change anything?
What if we got rid of things like a global passport power rank and tedious visa applications, and transcended the idea of nationalism altogether? Rather than stressing shared norms, beliefs, and behaviors on a national level, we might even create new, regenerative rituals and practices.
In his book The Leap, Steve Taylor, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, describes the so-called “shifters,” or people who have undergone profound personal transformation, and no longer wish to define themselves in terms of nationality, religion, or ideology:
“They no longer feel they are American or British, or a Muslim or a Jew. They feel the same kinship with all human beings. If they have any sense of identity at all, it’s as global citizens, members of the human race and inhabitants of the planet Earth—beyond nationality or border. Shifters lose the need for group identity because they no longer feel separate and so have no sense of fragility and insecurity.”
One more argument for such a “nomadic world” in which we’d have something like a global passport (or none altogether?) is that the global freedom of movement could increase the gross world product by between 50 and 150 percent, writes Bryan Caplan, a libertarian economist at George Mason University, in Open Border: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. In Caplan’s scenario, people would still own passports and maintain territorial notions of belonging, but “governments would relinquish their exclusionary authority, so that anyone, regardless of citizenship, could accept a job offer from a willing employer or rent an apartment from a willing landlord.”