Digital Nomads Are Among Us (Part I)
01.04.2016

At present, Tomsk State University is preparing for the III International Transdisciplinary Research and Practice Web-Conference Connect-Universum-2016, which will be held on May 24-26. The organizers of the event are the research centre TSSW (Trans-Siberian Scientific Way), the TSU Department of International Affairs, and the Department of Social Communication of the Faculty of Psychology. The theme of the Conference is “Digital Nomadism as a Global and Siberian Trend”. The interview taken by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan, the Head of the Department of Social Communication, with Eduard Galazhinskiy, TSU’s Rector, will help to clarify the term digital nomadism, answer the question, “Why is it time to seriously study the issue?”, and show how this phenomenon is connected with Tomsk State University. 

Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan: Some time ago, the topic of digital nomadism could seem more of a science-fiction one, than an actual object for scientific research. Especially for Siberia, as some part of the international audience still questions even the existence of the Internet here. However, you have shown a great deal of interest in it. Could you explain, why? 

Eduard Galazhinskiy: Being a manager and a psychologist myself, I cannot help being interested in the topic of digitalization. Besides, I feel like I am turning into a person of the digital epoch. Those are not just fine words but our reality today. We get most of our information from the digital media. Not only business communication, but also interpersonal activity is carried out via digital gadgets and technologies. There is nothing left for us but to acknowledge the advent of the digital era. We witness it no matter where we are: in Silicon Valley, Skolkovo, or Tomsk.  

   I. K.-S.: Tell us more about the term digital nomad, which was introduced to the world at the end of the 1990s by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners. 

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E. Galazhinskiy: Along with the term digital nomads proposed by Makimoto and Manners, several similar metaphorical terms, such as digital natives and digital immigrants, were coined by Mark Prensky. A little later, the term digital cowboys was proposed by Pekka Viljakainen and Mark Mueller-Eberstein in their book No Fear: Business Leadership for the Digital Age. Some people confuse all these terms. But if one takes a while to think, they can easily figure out the differences between them even without looking in the books. Digital natives are young people, teenagers and children, who have been surrounded by the digital environment since the day they were born. One may say that they were born with iPhones in their hands and that they are bearers of “the language of digital technologies”.  Digital immigrants are people who were born before the era of digital technologies. So, they are not native “digital technologies language” speakers. They have to learn this language out of their free will or by necessity. Digital cowboys are some sort of digital natives, but they tend to freedom and risk, especially in the sphere of entrepreneurship. Digital nomads are constantly connected to the Net and, which is the most important thing, they have a desire or a necessity to constantly change their residence in reality. They need, just like real nomads, to change their “pastures”.  

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I.K.-S.: Makimoto and Manners, in general, define the main characteristics of digital nomads as the constant connection to the Net and constant mobility. 

E.G.: It is clear today that this new identity was thought to have appeared under the influence of several factors, such as the rapid development of air transportation and the infrastructure of hosting service; rise of academic and business mobility; absence of long-term guarantees of employment, which led to the necessity to look for jobs in other cities and countries; decreased interest in buying real estate, which can tie up to one place of residence; and so on. 

I.K.-S. – But the main causes of digital nomadism appearing as a phenomenon were exponential growth in manufacturing of digital mobile devices, development of the Internet, and the total switch to the wireless communication. As a result, at the beginning of the 2000s many employees and employers realized that the only thing needed for effective work productivity was a laptop. Sometimes, even a smartphone was enough. Fact: in Japan, 5 out of 10 book bestsellers were written on smartphones in 2007. There is also a story about Diogenes, who saw a boy drinking water out of his palm and throw away his cup. 

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E.G.: True. Why waste money on buying or renting office spaces, if one can communicate with their staff or clients via Skype? If it is necessary to have a meeting, one can do that in so called third places – cafes, libraries, and co-working zones. This cheap and effective way to organize business communication began to be popular in big cities first and then in other places with Internet connections. When you begin learning about digital nomadism, you realize that it has become truly global in the last 20 years. It is enough to type the words “digital nomads” in any search engine to see thousands of pages referring to this social practice. First of all, one finds blogs created by digital nomads themselves. 

I.K.-S.: Do you sometimes see yourself as a digital nomad? 

E.G.: Yes, I see myself that way pretty often. My position means that I have to travel a lot and always to be online. This constant connection to the Net, despite where you are, changes the lifestyle and the way of working. Everything turns into office: a café table and airport lounge chair. 

I.K.-S.: Do you feel like you have new opportunities or new boundaries? 

E.G.: Actually, both. The advantages are that I can communicate with anyone any time I need to, receive and send information, and be in control of my online presence. The main disadvantage, however, is that I can never feel that I’m offline. I get an email – I have to respond to it immediately. Such a lifestyle requires certain skills; otherwise, life becomes extremely nervous. One must have certain psychological skills as well to live comfortably being constantly connected and mobile. It is important to pay attention to physical health, because of additional pressure – the continuous change of time zones and unlimited working schedule.  

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I.K.-S.: You may agree that not everyone can get through the difficulties of the digital nomad lifestyle in the digital society, despite all the advantages it provides. 

E.G.: Everyone makes a choice now. If one wants to be updated on what is going on and be demanded as a professional, they have to master such a way of living. At present, the most in-demand specialists turn to this way of existence.  On a global scale. These people need to be motivated differently, they need different organization of their working spaces. For a university rector it is also a challenge. The University is a community of free creative individuals. Such individuals today become digital nomads. Especially if they are young and appear to be digital natives, who can use all the technical achievements of the modern network information society. They speak several languages and have no problems with maintaining international communication. These people are oriented towards the highest level of self-actualization. They search for new types and places of activity. But they will do only what they are really interested in. How do we keep them as employees – professors and researchers? Only by creating a new – nomadic – environment for life and work, which allows them to enjoy travelling and to be productive employees. Honestly, universities have not begun thinking this way yet. 

I.K.-S.: Has anyone done that? 

E.G.: Entrepreneurs have.  Research done by Pekka Viljakainen and some other studies showed that business has come to the point where they are ready to use the potential of digital nomads and can turn it into profit. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers has developed a whole system of cooperation with talented and fidgety young people. 

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Employees of PricewaterhouseCoopers have flexible schedules. They can take vacations any time they want to go for several months and work remotely on a beach. They can change places of residence and even types of activity. At first sight, it seems to contradict to the classical market ideology. However, if we look closer, we will see that this organization has an opportunity to hire the best professionals despite their places of residence. And not to lose them if something changes in their lives. Moreover, working in different parts of the world, these employees become their company’s ambassadors and find new target audiences for the company. For me it proves that the phenomenon of digital nomadism can trigger economic processes. 

I.K.-S.: Why haven’t universities started thinking this way? Don’t they need the best professionals and ambassadors all over the world? Such employees could consult students and post-graduates, conduct online lectures, give tasks to the audience, and evaluate the results. Perhaps, there are some technical problems, which do not allow organizing the online education process properly? 

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E.G.: There are no technical problems. Multiple applications and platforms have been developed to maintain communication between professors and students, even if they are in different realms of the world. There is another problem. A problem of a bureaucratic matter that concerns our labor code, which was written and issued before the digital era. Everybody heard the story about a professor from Chelyabinsk who faced charges for fraud. He was in training abroad. The training programme was paid for by the receiving party.  Being abroad, the professor conducted lectures remotely.  Despite the fact that the students confirmed that the classes really had taken place, the professor faced charges for embezzlement. It happened two years ago, even though there was already a chapter on distance work in the labor code of the Russian Federation. 

I.K.-S.: It is difficult to be a digital nomad with our labor code… 

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E.G.: Meanwhile, such a free way of interaction between a university and its employees seems to be the best for both sides. There are classes in a curriculum that may be conducted remotely if needed. But there is also research work that can be done any time at all. Some people are most productive in the morning, some feel inspiration at night. The most important thing is a result: a scientific discovery, project, or publication. It is important to remember that different people need different amount of time to compete their work.   So our labor code should be oriented, first of all, towards the results universities may achieve hiring people to work on- and offline. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult today to connect our labor code with the challenges of the digital era. And nobody is trying to solve the problem at the moment. Universities are not allowed to hire the best specialists, who prefer to work remotely.

I.K.-S.: Do you believe the situation will change some day?

E.G.: Yes, I do. Otherwise, Russian universities will never achieve their bold goals and will be left behind by those who accept the changes of the digital era.