Remote work can be a lot more than just working from home. “Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy,” a new book of original research by a WVU sociologist by Rachael A. Woldoff and Robert C. Litchfield published by Oxford University Press, reveals the true scope of remote working possibilities by taking readers inside a digital nomad community in Bali, Indonesia.
What inspired you to start writing Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy? My last book, Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods (New York University Press) covered affordability issues for professionals in New York City, and I have previously published research on creative class cities and the practice of working in coffee shops. I was reading about creative class workers called digital nomads and their efforts at community-building that seemed counter to conventional wisdom about what makes communities successful. These were largely successful people who were nevertheless responding to problems of cities that I had identified in my prior research by leaving to pioneer a new form of working community. The opportunity to be among the first researchers to learn and write about that kind of truly new phenomenon is rare and exciting, especially now when work is changing so rapidly. During this difficult time, the book tells an engaging story about the possibilities that remote work offers.
What kind of research do you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning the book? My research has focused on a range of topics related to cities and urban life, including neighborhood crime and disorder, urban redevelopment, and racial/ethnic differences in neighborhood attainment, as well as the subjects of neighborhood racial change, gentrification, housing affordability, and creative class cities. In a project like this, I use qualitative research techniques (e.g., interviews and field observations) to slowly build up data on the subject. In this case, which is pretty typical, we spent about a year and a half primarily in data collection mode, and then the next two-plus years analyzing the data and writing the book. But that description makes the process sound a little more linear than it really is.
In qualitative research, you are really analyzing the data as you go, coming up with new questions to ask people to confirm or disconfirm what you are thinking, and going through many cycles of data collection and interpretation. Even after we had shifted to writing the book, we were still in contact with many of our research participants. This gave us the opportunity to ask further questions to clarify anything we weren’t sure about--the kind of thing you can almost never do if, say, you are working with large survey datasets (which I have also been involved in at times in my career, such as my thesis, dissertation, and my last publication on unmarried parents with Dr. Heather Washington).
What is the key theme and/or message in the book? How does it influence associated disciplines? The message of the book is that digital nomads represent the vanguard of a new way of working and living in which work and life are more volitional and mobile. For digital nomads, work is important to self-concepts and identity, but they do not think that this should mean that they have to define their lives on their employer’s terms. Online working, to digital nomads, means that they do not have to live or work in any particular place, nor do they have to stay in the same place all the time.
In my home field of urban sociology, this book challenges the idea that community stability, defined through length of residence, is always the key to community success. Digital nomads build and participate in communities that have high fluidity but are also highly intimate. Digital nomad communities do support longstanding ideas that like-mindedness – having a community of people with the same values – is very important.
In business, digital nomads represent a vanguard of thinking about remote work. Digital nomads offer insights into the importance and possible shape of in-person work community away from the office. They also suggest new ways for individuals to think about their self-concepts around work in a remote environment.
For employers and cities, an important message from this book is that the words culture and community represent more than just collections of perks or amenities. For individuals to experience real community, they need genuine, in-person connections with people who they consider to be likeminded. Our sample shared a set of cultural values that helped them bond: freedom, personal development, sharing, positivity, and minimalism.
What do you hope your readers take away from this book? As a researcher of places and the importance of place, I hope that readers will reflect on what is important to them about the places where they live and work, including the people with whom they surround themselves. I also want to empower workers of all ages to reconsider their skill sets and adopt a growth mindset about how they may be adaptable to jobs that can enable them to work remotely rather than be tethered to locations or hours that are incompatible with the lifestyles they desire or that promote wellbeing.
What is the title's significance? It was very important to us accomplish three things: 1) introduce the term “digital nomad” to a mass audience; 2) communicate the conversation about mobility and search (“nomads”, “In search of”); and 3) share nomads’ core values, which draws the reader into a relatable story. Who doesn’t want freedom, community, and meaningful work? Most of us do. Many people will not want to go back to the office when Covid is over, trust me.
Tell us about the process for coming up with the cover?
The editor just sent it to us! He was afraid we wouldn’t like it because it is very bold, but we were thrilled to see a young woman on the cover. I think it really makes an emotional connection with our audience and fits well with a crossover book that may attract students, scholars, as well as aspirational remote workers as readers.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? I'm a big believer in the time management technique called the Pomodoro method. I set timed goals for tasks. For instance, I may set a goal of 4 Pomodoros (for me, 25 minutes) on one task: working on Chapter 1. Then, I will work for a 25-minute chunk, take a five minute break, and repeat 3 three more times--if possible in one sitting. That usually helps!
Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb? I wrote this book with my husband, Rob Litchfield. I am really proud of that. We have published together a few other times, but this was a huge undertaking, and we did it together. Few people can say they co-authored a book like this with their spouse. I feel extremely lucky to married to someone who is this talented. As a business professor, he has different strengths than I do, which greatly enhanced the book. He comes from a psychology background, worked in the business world, and also has a background in music. I trust him completely, and we push each other to be better. Plus, he knows my needs from day to day, and lets me be me.
Describe your writing space Digital nomads have taught me that it is important to be able to work from anywhere. I have adapted this to working from home. I’m pretty much a minimalist. Coffee, laptop, and access to outdoors for exercise. I don't have an office at home. I write on my bed mostly—with the door closed. My desk is in the living room, and I work there about half the time. It just depends on who is home and where I think I am least likely to be interrupted. I can be creative anywhere, as long as I can get flow going. I enjoy natural light and a place where I can take a break by exercising outside. I also like music and the access to the internet is a must.
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