Here, there and everywhere

Digital nomads make it their business to discover the world, without sacrificing their careers — or their lifestyle.

In the past four years, Victor Lai has surfed countless waves in Central and South America. He has hiked the Inca Trail in Peru, driven a scooter in Thailand and rock-climbed in Ecuador. He has relaxed in a hammock outside a thatched roof cottage in Guatemala and done sunset yoga on the roof of an Airbnb in Mexico. He has feasted on paella in Spain and taken Spanish lessons in Ecuador.

But Lai has not just been wandering idly around the planet. As the owner of an IT consultancy called Good Picnic Consulting, he has optimized hundreds of Excel spreadsheets and seen dozens of clients through IT emergencies of various kinds.

Lai, 36, belongs to a new breed of business traveller that trend-spotters are calling digital nomads. These mobile workers like to hop around the globe, indulging in discovery and adventure without skipping a beat in their professional lives. Taking advantage of the fact that so many jobs have become portable, these professionals leverage their location independence to work basically wherever they want. For digital nomads, “remote work” doesn’t mean just working from home or keeping up with assignments while on the road: it means bringing work and travel together into a single, seamless package.

Like many fellow nomads, Lai came to the lifestyle out of a combined itch to travel and a desire for greater freedom and flexibility. After working for a large oil firm in Calgary for five years and feeling increasingly dissatisfied, he hit the backpack trail in 2008, heading to Southeast Asia for two months. On that trip, he realized that he might be able to combine work and travel in the future. He launched his own IT consultancy in 2008 and worked on a mix of remote projects and short-term contracts before officially becoming a nomad in 2012. “My goal was always to live six months a year in a warm place,” he says. “Then someone said, ‘Well, you’re kind of doing that already, aren’t you?’”

Since 2012, Lai has spent roughly half the year in his native Vancouver and half on the road. He powers through the bulk of projects when he’s at home, reserving “maintenance work” for the time when he’s away. That way, he doesn’t have to worry about distractions or technical issues while travelling. As he explains, “There’s nothing worse than when someone asks you to hike a volcano and you have to say no.”

The vast majority of nomads hail from North America or Europe. While there are no statistics available to chart their numbers, they are definitely in growth mode if you consider how many dedicated groups, resources and services are being created to support them. At the time of writing, Facebook groups such as Webworktravel had 12,000-plus members, while the “Digital Nomads” Reddit feed had at least 21,484 subscribers.

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Although Latin American countries such as Colombia are becoming popular with the work-and-travel crowd, it’s Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand and Indonesia, with their abundant beaches, dynamic cities and low cost of living — that still holds the most appeal. Among those who have gravitated toward the region is Daphnée Laforest, a digital project manager from Montreal.

Laforest, who was based on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand at the time of writing, has been a nomad since 2012, when a trip to India made her wonder why she couldn’t satisfy her long-standing wanderlust while holding down a job. Nowadays she does both, while helping others make the transition themselves. At the moment, she has been contracted by WordPress agency Human Made to market Nomadbase, an app designed specifically for digital nomads. “It’s a map of the world that shows where nomads are in real-time, based on their social media check-ins,” she explains. “My paid job is now to inspire and help people go remote — that’s really nice.”

Victor Lai, Daphnée Laforest, Leighton Prabhu, and Josh Zweig

Victor Lai visits the Earthship Todos Santos in Mexico. Earthships are green buildings designed by Earthship Biotecture that meet standard building codes. Digital project manager Daphnée Laforest likes to work at KoHub, a co-working space in Koh Lanta, Thailand. Leighton Prabhu, cofounder of Interstice Consulting, logs on in Uji, Japan. Josh Zweig, co-owner of virtual accounting firm LiveCA, answers a call on a cliff in Lake Louise, Alta.

At 26, Laforest is part of the millennial generation — the 18-to-34 demographic that many say is redefining the face of work. According to Karl Moore, an associate professor of leadership and strategy at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, millennials’ tech-savviness, combined with their multicultural mind-set and disillusionment with the realities of an insecure job market, make them logical candidates for nomadic living. Millennials also place a strong premium on work-life balance. In Laforest’s words, “It’s about fitting your work to your lifestyle rather than the other way around.”

While the nomadic lifestyle is especially attractive to millennials, it draws other age groups as well. According to Harvard researcher Beth Altringer, who published the preliminary results of her research on nomads in Forbes last year, a fairly large proportion of nomads is made up of mid-career professionals who have left corporate positions they didn’t enjoy to move into entrepreneurship and self-employment. Having already proven themselves, they have parlayed their networks and expertise into mobile careers that can potentially offer them greater flexibility and control.

Leighton Prabhu, 48, is one of those professionals. While he started his career quite traditionally, working at PricewaterhouseCoopers (then Price Waterhouse) in Toronto and later at JP Morgan Chase and the Bank of America in Hong Kong and Singapore, he realized he was far better suited to entrepreneurship than the corporate world. “It seemed much more appealing to be in complete control of my own schedule and to be held accountable for results rather than putting in time, which is what I saw in big business,” he says.

Prabhu is now the cofounder of Interstice Consulting, which specializes in helping startups and small to mid-sized companies develop their businesses in emerging markets. “I’m not a millennial, but I share a lot of their values,” he says. “I value experiences more than material goods and control over what you do and where you are based.” Prabhu spends most of the year floating between the firm’s two offices in Moscow and Singapore, and the rest travelling to other locations across Asia, Europe and the Americas. In a bid to support other foreign entrepreneurs and companies establishing operations in Asia or expanding their business there, he also helped launch a coworking space called The OutPost in March 2015.

Because nomadism has such a large virtual component, most nomads work either as consultants or service providers in sectors such as media, finance, online sales and marketing, or as bloggers and life coaches. The tech industry has been particularly hospitable to nomads: companies such as Automattic (the people behind WordPress) now have entirely virtual workforces, and elite talent firms such as 10x Management provide full logistical and administrative support for top-tier workers who want to go nomadic.

While large accounting firms have yet to adapt their remote work programs to nomads, some accountants have embraced the lifestyle as sole practitioners or owners of small firms. For example, Josh Zweig, 32, cofounded LiveCA LLP, a full-service virtual accounting firm, with Halifax-based accountant Chad Davis, 33, three years ago. But while Davis, a father of two, splits his time between LiveCA’s two offices in Halifax and Toronto, Zweig has taken his job everywhere from Israel to Scotland, Sweden and Brazil. He’s now in Medellin, Colombia, where he settled in December 2015 for what he anticipates will be a full year — just enough time, he says, to learn salsa and Spanish.

Rojean Hatton, 36, an accountant from Calgary, also realized early in her career that cloud-based technologies could allow her to break out of traditional accounting. Having always wanted to own her own business, and having caught the travel bug on a trip to East Africa in 2012, she launched Paper Mountain Accounting Professional Corp. in 2014, integrating cloud computing into most of her operations. However, a few aggravating experiences with faulty Internet connections set her on a collision course with what Altringer calls “the illusion of location-independence,” a common issue faced by nomads. “I was lucky in that I wasn’t very busy and I was just trying to figure things out,” she says of a test run gone wrong in Argentina. Ultimately, Hatton decided not to become a full-time nomad. She now prefers to remain in Alberta about 10 months of the year and to keep her travel limited to low season. In her eyes, “trying to figure out the logistics is just not worth it.”

For Zweig and Davis, however, the logistics are part and parcel of their daily life. They both put in many hours sourcing new apps, streamlining processes and fixing the inevitable bugs. Over the past three years, they have been able to develop a fully virtual setup that allows them to oversee everything from client accounts to payroll management for themselves and their 13-member team, which is dispersed across Canada. These days, they field client calls on Skype, hold internal meetings with Google Hangouts, and manage tax and systems with apps such as Xero, QuickBooks Online and Kashoo. The technology doesn’t come cheap — at the time of writing it rang in at about $15,000 a month — but for them these investments are worth the excitement of constant innovation and the satisfaction of work-life integration.

By its very nature, a virtual setup entails a loss of face time. While this is a cause of concern for many employers, Zweig and Davis have covered their bases well. Recognizing the potential downsides of a fully remote team, they have made retreats a central pillar of their work culture, gathering their team members twice a year in different spots around Canada for teambuilding and fun. As for clients, Zweig says most are actually enthusiastic to learn about their new accountant’s atypical lifestyle. “When I started, I would have my degrees in the background for every call,” he says. “I even bought a white background because I thought my clients would want to see me in the office.” But Zweig soon realized his props were a kind of mask. When he started showing up for calls in a T-shirt and telling people where he was, he found “the responses were amazing.” Before long, he was getting emails saying, “Hey, I’m moving to this country — what do you think? How do I set myself up?”

But while nomadic life definitely provides for good conversation topics, it also takes a toll on one’s sense of connection to a broader social network. Zweig doesn’t mince his words when describing what blogger Mark Manson calls “the dark side of being a digital nomad”: “When you’re not sedentary, people come into your life and then go. You constantly have to start again, and that can be exhausting. So there are going to be times when you feel alone.”

Four years into nomadic living, Zweig has learned to get through these moments by bracing himself and seeing the challenge as a learning experience. Paraphrasing comedian Louis C.K., he says, “This is what being a person is about. Being there with no support but yourself, and learning how to cope with it.”

It’s a life skill Zweig and other nomads are willing to learn as a more peripatetic future peeks out on the horizon for many industries. As Lai says, “I think my roots are with me now. It’s not as hard as people think, and it’s only getting easier and easier. It’s the way of the future.” According to Zweig, this future could include the accounting profession as well. “Mentalities have changed,” he says, citing recent innovations in accounting software that have made remote work increasingly seamless. “I imagine in the next five years we’ll see a lot more nomadic accountants.”

While he doesn’t know if he’ll still be a nomad by then, Zweig says that for now, the lifestyle is just what he needs to integrate his drive to work with his yen to see the world. “When I worked in an office, there was a clear separation between work and life. Office equals work, everything else equals life,” he says. “Now, there is no longer this clear separation. Yes, I may have to step away and take a client phone call in the middle of a parade,” he says. “But that’s a pretty good price to pay for being part of Carnaval during tax season!”