Sunday, May 19, 2024
HometravelDigital nomads are travelling by day and working by night

Digital nomads are travelling by day and working by night

UNITED STATES – Ms Therese-Heather Belen is living the dream, working remotely full time while travelling across Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and India.

But the dream comes with a catch: Her workday starts in the evening and lasts through the night. To stay in the same time zone – about a 12-hour difference – as co-workers at her New York-based marketing tech firm, she works and takes meetings into the wee hours of the morning.

For some, ambitious “workcation” trips like these are seen as a way to make up for time lost during pandemic lockdowns.

For others who choose to wander far from their home time zone, such adventures can veer off course, becoming hellish journeys to the land of sleep deprivation.

Ms Belen, who is travelling with Remote Year, a programme that functions like a kind of study-abroad trip for working adults, said this lifestyle allows her to experience more of the world than would have been possible working a traditional nine-to-five job.

“You hear stories all the time like, ‘I went skydiving before I started my workday,’” she said.

Remote workers and so-called digital nomads have logged odd hours from hot spots such as Bali and Goa long before Covid-19. But the abrupt shift to remote work during the pandemic pulled what was long an idle fantasy for many into the realm of the possible.

Almost 17 million US employees describe themselves as digital nomads, more than double the pre-pandemic number, says MBO Partners, a firm that connects companies with freelance talent.

The trend of longer work-leisure trips has accelerated as pent-up demand for international travel has boomed after years of restrictions. That is giving some digital nomads a bad reputation for driving up prices and trampling local culture in popular vacation destinations, but it has not slowed them down.

Dozens of countries are marketing a new class of visas to these professionals to compete for tourism dollars. And despite many highly publicised return-to-office announcements in recent months, some degree of remote work remains a fixture at most companies.

Many remote workers who have decamped to far-flung locales will, like Ms Belen, work a split shift, logging on for a few hours in the evening to midnight, before taking a few hours to sleep and then waking up to log back on for another round.

And it works, to a certain extent.

Her mum was a labour and delivery night-shift nurse, so the idea of sleeping during daylight hours did not strike her as outlandish.

She is usually online with co-workers until 1 or 2am, and then sleeps in until 10am or so before waking and catching up on e-mail. But because her job revolves around meetings, she is sometimes on call at all hours.

“Tonight, I have a 3.30 to 4am meeting that I have to be on,” she said. “So I have many, many alarms that are set for the most random hours for me to jump on that meeting and then just fall back to sleep after.”

Some, like Ms Belen’s partner, a software engineer, have an easier time with time-zone differences.

That is because their jobs are less meeting-heavy and more open to asynchronous work, so they have more flexibility to get things done on their own schedule.

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Ms Tue Le, chief executive of Remote Year, estimates that 15 per cent of programme participants travelling in Asia keep strict US hours by staying up overnight.

Roughly another third work flexible hours with a mix of evenings or early mornings to collaborate with co-workers back home.

The graveyard shift can work for those wired to stay alert deep into the night, said sleep medicine professor Ilene Rosen at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

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But for many others, such schedules go against ingrained circadian rhythms, making it challenging or impossible to get enough sleep.

“The science as we have come to understand it over the last 20 years indicates that while it may be exciting, and that it may be even doable for some short period of time, it isn’t great for our bodies,” Prof Rosen said.

Studies have found longer stretches of night-shift work have been associated with more serious health consequences, like heart disease and cancer.

While some digital nomads make it work, others who cannot hack it end up throwing in the towel and going home.

“I’ve met a lot of people who say I would never do that, and won’t even try,” said Ms Carolina Zuniga, who works remotely in marketing and is heading back to Bali for the third time from her home in Costa Rica.

She has met others that start out very enthusiastic, but swiftly run into problems. Their trip turns into a bust, too exhausted to go out and do or see anything.

For those still determined to give it a shot, Prof Rosen advises keeping as much consistency as possible, even on weekends.

Compensate with naps as needed and keep your room as dark as you can when you sleep during daylight hours.

She gives the same advice to incoming medical residents as they prepare for their first overnight shifts. That includes avoiding light at dawn at all costs – wear dark sunglasses, even if it is overcast.

Melatonin can be useful to regulate sleep, but timing doses can be tricky if daily sleep schedules vary. BLOOMBERG

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