“Tethered Nomadism” – Unintended Consequences of Return to Office Mandates

By Rowena Hennigan | January 12, 2024

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Key Points

In the wake of a global shift towards remote work, digital nomadism gained mass appeal:.

The "Back to Office" movement is challenging the newfound flexibility workers have come to cherish.

"Tethered Nomads" are working part-time in offices and part-time in settings of their choosing.

The "Back to Office" drumbeat may continue to sound, but the "Tethered Nomad" is set to redefine the workplace

In the wake of a global shift towards remote work, a once-niche lifestyle choice gained mass appeal: digital nomadism. Offices were vacated in favor of makeshift desks in living rooms, beachside resorts, or highland mountain retreats, proving that for many, work was no longer a place but a task that could be performed from any corner of the globe. As I was already a nomad with my family, I have delved into this phenomenon before, unpacking the essentials for a successful nomadic life—whether solo or with family in tow.

The emergence of digital nomads is also reshaping the landscape of both commercial and residential real estate. Commercial spaces face a transformative challenge, as the need for traditional office environments diminishes with the rise of remote work. Companies are downsizing their physical offices or converting them into flexible co-working spaces to accommodate the hybrid model. On the residential front, there’s an uptick in demand for flexible housing options that cater to a mobile lifestyle, such as short-term rentals and co-living spaces, which offer amenities conducive to remote work. Moreover, this shift is stimulating interest in less densely populated areas, reducing pressure on certain urban housing markets while boosting real estate values in smaller cities and towns that are becoming hotspots for digital nomads.

As the world grapples with the stages of post-pandemic recovery, a new narrative is emerging: the “Back to Office” politics. Companies, in a bid to rekindle pre-pandemic operations, are calling their employees back to the corporate fold. However, this summoning is meeting with unexpected resistance, sparking a significant revolution in the workforce. Traditional office workers, having tasted the fruits of remote working, are increasingly trading their fixed desks for a more independent and location-agnostic lifestyle.

But, where once digital nomadism conjured images of free spirits traversing the globe, a study by MBO Partners has revealed a new twist in this narrative: the rise of “Tethered Nomading.” This trend marks a redefined approach to digital nomadism, characterized by deeper roots and slower paces, reflecting a shift in how workers engage with the nomadic lifestyle.

This pivot is not a mere continuation of remote work but an uprising against the rigid structures of traditional employment. As we delve into this landscape, we witness the decline of the conventional worker and the concurrent rise of the independent nomad. It is an era where the ropes of office cubicles are being exchanged for the freedom of life on the (slow) move.

Return to the Fixed Office Location? No, Thank you

The “Back to Office” movement, fueled by a desire to restore collaboration and company culture, is challenging the newfound flexibility workers have come to cherish. After a protracted period of working from dining tables and home offices, many employees are questioning the value of the daily commute and rigid office hours. The resistance is not just a mere inconvenience for organizations but a watershed moment that is redefining the employer-employee contract. As companies grapple with the complexities of hybrid work environments, the creation of well-defined remote work policies has become imperative.

Forward-thinking companies have taken note of the shifting sands and are actively instituting policies that enable work-from-anywhere models. The blueprint for these policies emerges from a recognition that work is not where you go, but what you do. With appropriate strategies in place, businesses can navigate the intricacies of tax laws, compliance issues, and the duty of care for remote employees. They are finding that embracing digital nomadism doesn’t just expand their talent pool but also brings an array of benefits, including reduced operational costs and enhanced employee satisfaction.

The Rise of Tethered Nomads

The term “tethered nomad” might seem contradictory at first glance — “nomad” suggests freedom and movement, while “tethered” implies being tied down. However, this emerging term encapsulates the evolving dynamic of the modern workforce, which balances the autonomy of nomadic work with certain fixed elements that keep them grounded.

So here is the “Tethered Nomad”—not entirely untethered from traditional work but not anchored firmly to an office space either. This breed of workers seeks to marry the structure of conventional employment with the autonomy of remote working. They’re crafting a hybrid existence, leveraging technology and flexible work policies to work part-time in offices and part-time in settings of their choosing. The result? A personalized work life that offers the freedom to roam, albeit with a consistent base to return to.

Statistical evidence and workforce studies are beginning to paint a clear picture: the traditional office worker is in decline. Last year, a report from Gallup highlighted that 60% of U.S. workers who have been working remotely would prefer to continue this way as much as possible. Companies failing to accommodate these preferences may find themselves struggling to retain talent, as more workers pivot towards independent or flexible work arrangements.

There is another interesting trend too. The population of these “tethered nomads” remains over three times larger than pre-pandemic levels. Some manage to maintain their nomadic lifestyle by staying within proximity to their office. In contrast, independent workers—freelancers, self-employed individuals, and contractors—have seen a 14% increase in their ranks as digital nomads since the previous year. The autonomy of independent work allows for greater flexibility, fueling the ongoing rise of the digital nomad trend among this group in 2023.

Supporting the Nomadic Infrastructure

This paradigm shift has not gone unnoticed by businesses. Innovative employers are developing robust support systems to accommodate this new style of working. Co-working spaces, flexible office hours, and result-oriented performance metrics are gaining traction. Moreover, companies like Boundless Life are pioneering services to cater to the needs of ‘Tethered Nomads’ with families—from co-living spaces to community-building activities, ensuring that workers have the resources they need to thrive, irrespective of their geographic coordinates.

As we sail into this uncharted territory, the signs are clear: the future of work will be defined not by those who cling to the past but by those who adapt to the changing tides. The “Tethered Nomad” is more than a trend; it’s a movement—a manifestation of the collective yearning for a balanced, fulfilling life that doesn’t compromise on career aspirations or personal freedom.

The “Back to Office” drumbeat may continue to sound, but it is the silent revolution of the “Tethered Nomad” that is set to redefine the rhythms of the workplace. As companies and workers negotiate this new landscape, one thing is certain: the office, as we knew it, has forever changed.

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Rowena Hennigan is a global expert on remote work and digital nomadism.

 

 

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