remote worker

Working remotely (and travelling) during the pandemic

By Franz Buhr, Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon

As the COVID-19 pandemic disseminated and intensified remote work practices, more and more professionals became interested in spending a few months at pleasant destinations where confinement restrictions were not so strict. These ‘pandemic travellers’ add to existing mobility patterns of digital nomads – professionals who work while travelling. Lisbon has increasingly attracted mobile remote workers, who relocate to the city for short periods with the goal of combining work, travel and leisure.

During (and even before) the pandemic, a number of countries established schemes facilitating the inflow of remote workers, such as Croatia, Estonia, Barbados, among others. In December 2020, Greece joined the global hunt for digital nomads as its parliament passed a new law allowing digital nomads to half their income tax. Although there is no national programme aiming to specifically attract remote workers to Portugal, digital nomads have demonstrated interest in relocating to places like Lisbon, Ericeira or the Madeira islands.

Long before ‘pandemic travellers’ started heading to Lisbon to enjoy its mild weather and the possibilities of working from cafés or coworking spaces (which was impossible in Belgium or Germany, for instance), digital nomads had already ranked Lisbon as a favourite destination. In 2018, the economy magazine Forbes placed Lisbon as the fourth ideal city for digital nomads (after Bali, London, and Chiang Mai). These professionals seem to be attracted to Lisbon’s sunny weather, fast internet, walkability, and local infrastructure to work from. In November 2020, during the first phase of the pandemic in Portugal, a special decree was passed authorising hotels (which were mostly empty) to adapt their restaurants and lobbies as coworking spaces, signalling a growing demand for shared offices by digital nomads and other remote professionals.

Although some prefer to work from ‘home’ (usually a short-term rental with high speed connection), digital nomads often work from cafés and coworking spaces. As temporary residents, they seem to blur long-established distinctions between tourists and residents (or between outsiders and locals), as they find accommodation through digital platforms, but also become knowledgeable about local trends using mobile technologies to learn about nightlife, restaurants and the city’s ‘hidden gems’. Moreover, as their mobilities are motivated by the possibility to combine work and lifestyle, digital nomads usually move to places where they maximize purchase power, thus adding pressure to local markets. In this sense, the impact of digital nomads upon local neighbourhoods deserves further research, especially as it may intersect with wider urban change patterns, such as gentrification and commercial landscape transformation.

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