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Remote Workers vs. Digital Nomads – What Is the Difference?

Search Remotely Difference Between Remote Work And Digital Nomad

Reporting to the daily grind of work while at home, has become an accelerated trend in recent years. The shake-up of the traditional workforce has brought with it changes in the way workers see and define themselves. “Remote worker” and “digital nomad” are two relatively new concepts, but what are the differences between them?

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We answer what many want to know. How do remote workers working from home differ from the virtual worker traveling as a digital nomad. In this update, we also introduce an even newer job term, “hybrid worker.” And, we briefly discuss variants of digital nomads like “flashpacker”, “backpacker,” and “global nomad.”

digital nomad

Remote Workers vs. Digital Nomads — The Basics

The main distinction between remote workers and digital nomads is in the location. To put it simply, remote workers are generally individuals who work for a specific company and are allowed to complete their job from anywhere. Most often, remote workers choose to work from home (WFH). WFH may also be referred to as a home-based worker. For more details, you can turn to the  Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

An update to our article reveals that the National Library of Medicine adds even more related terms. In its article, Skills and Abilities to Thrive in Remote Work, researchers culled through most recent organizational psychology literature and found these job terminologies for workers who work at home:  teleworking, telecommuting, working virtually, and virtual teaming. We’ve added working online and online entrepreneurs. 

Further, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions proposes this definition for workers who work from home away from their employers’ offices.  WFH remote workers are workers who perform their daily work tasks using information technology away from an employer’s or contracted client’s location. 

So even though two years as passed since our original article was published on this site, location still remains the key distinguishing factor between remote workers who work from home in comparison to digital nomads.

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Workers working virtually could be a remote team member of  a bigger distributed team, such as InVision or Buffer, for example, or they may be remote workers for companies who also employ traditional in office employees. Remote workers can also be self-employed, independent contractors, freelancers, and gig workers.

Hybrid work vs remote work and digital nomadism

Even though much hasn’t changed with the definitions of remote workers, staff and employees who work from home, there is a new job term coming into play. What? The hybrid worker.  In the last year or so, many remote first employers have attempted to call back to the office, their remote workforce, temporarily working from home. Reliexchange estimates roughly 25% of remote workers who have been directed by their employers to return back to the office have refused to return to the traditional office setting full time.  This has led to the rapid acceptance of hybrid worker compromise.

Just two short years later, after the dust from Covid-19 has settled, SIEPR, conducted research to find that hybrid work may be the future of working agreements. Top economists at SIEPR during interviews with major multinational conglomerates as well as mid-sized employers worldwide conclude that 70% of the employers are accepted that hybrid work is the best of both worlds. The hybrid model appeases workers who have a preference for working from home and it soothes business executives and human resources professionals concerned about the potential for lower employee engagement decreased productivity arising from fully remote arrangements.

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With a typical hybrid model, employees might work two days at home completing independent tasks that heavily dependent upon technology.  They may also take these two days to collaborate with their small remote teams. The remaining three days, employees report to a traditional in office setting.  During the time working at the corporate campus location, workers may be involved with larger meetings, events and trainings. Further, in office presence of distributed workers can allow for task completion requiring higher order thinking, complex negotiations and face-to-face clarifications of contract requirements and technical specifications, for example.

It’s All in the Location

As you can see, the location of a remote worker determined whether they are also a digital nomad. Remote workers don’t travel constantly and they may work entirely from home or divide their time between working from home and going into a centralized office from time to time.

Lifestyle of remote worker and hybrid worker little difference

As we’ve looked at the characteristics of the remote worker and hybrid worker, it is clear that the lifestyles of the two types of working arrangements are no different from the other. Both the hybrid worker and the remote worker are tied (most often) to their home-base (home residence) and/or traditional work office (campus or satellite). In this regard, remote and hybrid workers may prefer the partial or fully remote job package because of their lifestyle.  Anderson and Kelliher have found that these options give employees the opportunity to effectively manage the demands of home (childcare, eldercare, home maintenance, yard work, and housecleaning) without negatively impacting the work required by their employers. But, when we talk the lifestyle of digital nomads, there’s a huge difference.

Lifestyle of Digital nomads differ from remote and hybrid workers

On the other hand, digital nomads have a rather different lifestyle, in the sense that they move from city to city and country to country on a weekly or monthly basis. They also work from a home base, but many of them are freelancers and do not have a permanent residence. This means that their home base may be based on a temporary arrangement such as an Airbnb, hotel, hostel, resort or retreat.

work from home

In World Travel Leisure, digital nomads are believed to be individuals who are not tied down to a specific location. They are “location independent.”  But, we have to remember, these individuals still have to make a living. So they have incorporated remote work into their ideals on living the perfect life.  Often, for digital nomads, a vision of the leading the perfect life revolves around travel. The stereotypical digital nomad is one who works while traveling. He/she carries all of the necessary devices to work and communicate with work colleagues and supervisors in their backpack.

All Digital Nomads Are Remote Workers but Not the Other Way Around

The rise of the digital nomad has been made possible by companies outsourcing more and more tasks to freelancers and companies willing to have employees who work while also traveling the world. But not all remote workers are digital nomads, as they have a permanent or at least semi-permanent residence somewhere. They can work from anywhere in the world, but they are generally staying put in one city, perhaps traveling and working from time to time.

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Digital nomads, however, are all remote workers, as they earn their living (either for a company, freelancers, or for themselves) while traveling the world indefinitely. They don’t have a permanent residence and even though there are many types of digital nomads, they are all defined by their passion for exploration. Digital nomads get to live among some of the most diverse cultures in the world and for many of them, working remotely is the way they fund their adventures.

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By definition, digital nomads never set foot in an office and their lifestyle is mostly defined by the fact that they are location independent more than by their remote worker status. To be a digital nomad, you need to relinquish many of your possession and live out of a suitcase, so to say. It’s a lifestyle where minimalism is a principal requirement and meeting people in-person for something work-related is basically unheard of.

The flashpacker, backpacker and global nomad

And much like the hybrid worker job terminology was derived from the root remote worker, there are variations of the digital nomad. Not all digital nomads are the same. Each have defining characteristics and traits.

  • Flashpacker. Research suggests that this subset of digital nomads, flashpackers travel about two months per year.  They pack with them everything they need to work and travel. This includes mobile printers, laptops, phones and digital cameras.
  • Backpacker. Researchers define backpackers as those travelers who aren’t oriented toward work. They travel mainly as tourists and only work odd jobs to support the traveling journey.
  • Global nomad. Researchers describe global nomads are people who are from mature economies from wealthy countries who take advantage of fiat currency to travel to various places. They don’t live or stay permanently in any specific spot, but travel around the globe. While they travel they work. 

remote worker

So How to Determine Whether You’re a Remote Worker or Digital Nomad?

Digital nomads are indeed the highest-profile of remote workers, and many remote workers who also spend some of their time working and travelers identify with this lifestyle.

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Nevertheless, if you have a job that requires you to be in a specific location most of the time and you have to work during the business hours of a specific time, you’re not a digital nomad.

To be a digital nomad, you need to be able to work from anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi connection, be it an airport or coworking space and you need to be able to do so on your own time, irrespective of time zones.

Moreover, most digital nomads don’t have a permanent address and they have a mailbox to forward their mail no matter where they are in the world.

cafe laptop

Overlapping Areas of Two Similar Lifestyles

It goes without saying that there are many different types of digital nomads, which include those who set up a semi-permanent residence in a country with a low cost of living. Some of them spend years in the same place, all while working remotely, so even though they started out as digital nomads, they slowly transition back to remote working.

Contrary to popular belief and what social media may make you believe, not all digital nomads work from the beach with an ice-cold drink in hand. Most of the time, they work from co-working spaces or their lodgings. Being a digital nomad is not just a string of never-ending fun, and it actually entails many days spent working in a hotel or the kitchen table of an Airbnb.

On the other hand, not all remote workers are glued to their home office desk or their favorite table of the corner coffee shop. They often take their work with them while travelling, sometimes for extended periods of time, but they always return to the same place or set up a new base in another place after trying the digital nomad lifestyle.

Being a remote worker vs. digital nomad is certainly not a black and white sort of situation. There are many areas where the two lifestyles overlap, but as you can see above, digital nomads have certain defining characteristics that the remote workers lack, particularly when it comes to location independence.

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In the end, it all comes down to job flexibility and your lifestyle preferences. Remote working brings countless benefits, including the lack of a commute and the ability to set your own hours, so it’s certainly a lifestyle that suits a wide range of personalities.

Nevertheless, being a digital nomad requires an adventurous spirit and a desire to delve into the unknown. Not everyone is cut out to sell all their possessions or put them in storage indefinitely to travel the world while also honoring work commitments. As such, there will always be more remote workers than digital nomads, but the lines between the two lifestyles are inevitably blurring continuously.

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