Home / News / India /  The hunter-gatherers of the digital world

PANJIM : The beach is boring, declares a poster at a backpacker cafe in Fontainhas, Panjim’s Latin Quarter with cobbled lanes and ruby-red villas. The poster is the only decoration at the spartan café that offers free Wi-Fi and dorm beds for 650 a night.

But Nikhil Mundhra spent one month in Panjim only for the sea and sand. He’s not your regular tourist—the 24-year-old India sales head for a digital monetization company is one of India’s growing number of digital nomads who depend on the internet to work remotely, without a fixed home base.

“Beaches are the best part of Goa," says Mundhra, who would hit Miramar daily for an hour-long run. The rest of the time, he worked out of 91springboard, a co-working space in Panjim’s St Inez, away from the crowds hell-bent on touring.

In December, Mundhra moved to Alt Life, a hostel that doubles as a co-working space in Dharamkot in Himachal Pradesh. He continues to work steadily for his Canadian employer, plans treks to the Dhauladhars on weekends, and ring in a productive New Year. “The best part of the day: the evening cycle rides," says Mundhra. To these young travellers, who chase work-travel balance, it is the freedom to experience slices of local culture that makes a workday meaningful. What makes an ideal destination, though, is the internet. For millennials, who entered the workforce around 2003 in an era of relatively higher salaries post-liberalization, travel was never about pilgrimages or visiting relatives. Many of them are choosing to see the world at their own pace, sampling Ros omelette in Goa and biking in high-altitude Kangar to collect social media mileage that would outdo any souvenir. Unlike their predecessors, the backpacker and the flashpacker, digital nomads aim to be financially self-sufficient to sustain their lifestyle. Though millennials seem carefree, it does take time to discard the rule-based world they’ve grown up in and the notion that life must be lived with caution. Mohammed Danish, a bootstrapped engineer building a SaaS product, hit upon the benefits of mixing work and travel after he quit his job as chief technology officer at a co-working company in 2018 and decided to see the world.

“I met many who were working remotely or on their own projects and was amazed to see this culture that gives you freedom of work. It is an adventurous life. I carry only one backpack with all the things need," says Danish, 26, now in his hometown of Anupshahr in Uttar Pradesh after a month-long stay in Singapore.

For Mundhra, it was about ditching a 12- to 14-hour workday, his routine at his first job at an Indore startup after graduating as an engineer from Vellore Institute of Technology. The other path his classmates took was to cram for the IIM Common Admission Test. Instead, Mundhra says he is doing what he likes. “Isn’t that important? If not, there will be no individuality. We will all be the same."

Mundhra is not alone in his desire to set himself apart. Millennials are the “disrupted generation", shaped by technological and societal transformation, says Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019. Millennials are no less ambitious than previous generations but 57% of those surveyed would rather see the world than have children or buy homes. Many don’t hesitate to leave jobs; they actively consider freelance or contract work if workplaces aren’t inclusive enough or the pay insufficient.

To live without worrying about money is possible only if one has a job and the discipline to see it through. Danish works 70% of the time Monday to Thursday. “I work in cafes, public libraries and sometimes drop in at companies and co-working spaces to network," he says. Mundhra works four hours a day, talks to colleagues on Slack or Skype, and switches off on weekends.

Nomadism and globalization

It was in 1997 that the term ‘digital nomad’ was first used by computer scientist Tsugio Makimoto and journalist David Manners, writes Greg Richards a professor at Tilburg University’s School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. He says traditional backpackers can be seen as a “neo-tribe", gathering in self-sufficient enclaves, while the digital nomad “utilizes existing digital and logistic infrastructure to maintain a fluid, individualised lifestyle".

Professor emeritus Joshua Meyrowitz of New Hampshire University says society is witnessing a return to early nomadism—hunting and gathering. The ‘location-independent traveller’ tries to integrate with the local community, while avoiding the strictures of ‘system’, he writes.

Businesses too have started up around this way of work. Across the world, there are summits, workshops and even cruises to guide eager nomads. Seasoned travellers start online support forums and bring out guides, partly to sustain their own lifestyle.

Nishchal Dua, who has travelled across India and 18 countries, founded The Remote Life to act as a bridge between freelancers and companies in 2016.

“The opportunity is in telling people how to manage time and communicate with remote teams while connecting location independents with companies," says Dua. Of the 11,000-plus registered on his site, 40% are from India. Not all are based out of Medellin or McLeod Ganj but work from their homes, especially women, says Dua, who was recently in Bengaluru to speak at The Global Nomad Summit started last year. A few years ago, Shivya Nath, 31, who’s been globetrotting for seven years, put together her digital marketing skills and travel experiences to start a rural tourism company. Some startups are trying to get entire offices to migrate to a nomadic lifestyle but with limited success. In October, Harsh Snehanshu and Ashish Singh, co-founders of YourQuote, a writing app, took their eight-member team from Bengaluru to Burwa in Himachal Pradesh for a workcation. The team had trekkers and bikers and the hills fit the bill. Till Diwali. “Many wanted to be with their families and we got a bit disillusioned," says Snehanshu.

The management of 91springboard shifted its head office to Panjim in 2017, and 36 of the 54 employees moved. “For the most part, those who moved seem happier. It has led to high performance and a loyalty boost," says Varun Chawla, co-founder.

Mundhra’s learnings are growing. The life experience and increasing confidence are better than any MBA, he says. His family is slowly coming round, adjusting to the idea that he’s not “settled" yet independent and happy. “I am from a Marwari family and have to send home money every month. It is good money and at first, they asked if I was selling drugs," laughs Mundhra. As for the pursuit of happiness: “For the first time, I am happy after college."

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