While the term “digital nomad” has been around for over two decades, the trend has really taken off in the past few years. Nowadays, digital nomadism isn’t reserved for entrepreneurial backpackers; it’s a flexible working style people from all walks of life aspire to. But as an employer, managing digital nomads can be a compliance minefield.
This guide breaks down everything you need to know about staying compliant and ensuring your digital nomads are an integral part of your team. As we walk you through this hot topic, we’ll answer the following questions:
- Why should you consider embracing nomadic work styles?
- What are digital nomads?
- How do you stay compliant when employing digital nomads?
- How can you safeguard company culture and performance?
- What should you include in a digital nomad policy?
Why Should Your Business Embrace a Nomad-friendly Policy?
Even if your business has already transitioned to remote working, you may still be unsure about offering total flexibility to your employees regarding where they work. After all, the stereotypes of digital nomads aren’t always positive.
However, digital nomadism doesn’t have to be the antithesis of professionalism. The modern definition of a digital nomad includes regular corporate employees who enjoy the freedom to travel - and work hard while they’re doing it!
Here are the main reasons you should consider a digital nomad-friendly policy:
- Digital nomads report higher job happiness and income satisfaction than other workers, helping you retain top talent for longer.
- They’re typically technically savvy, highly educated, and have a thirst for learning - desirable qualities that will put your business in good stead.
- The demand for flexibility at work is only increasing - and to stay ahead of the competition, you need to offer it. If you don’t, you could lose the great talent you already have and stunt hiring efforts too.
What Is a Digital Nomad?
A digital nomad is a type of remote worker who regularly travels while working. They’re often white-collar employees or self-employed people who use digital telecommunications technology to carry out their job.
Digital nomads aren’t homogenous; some live completely nomadic lives with no permanent home base, while others live away from home only for short periods of time on “workcations.”
While traveling, digital nomads work from anywhere with internet connectivity, whether it be a coffee shop, hotel, or co-working space. Flexibility is the most important aspect of the digital nomad lifestyle.
The COVID-19 pandemic and widespread work-from-home policies propelled remote working trends - and with it, digital nomadism too. Many businesses are now more open to flexible, remote work arrangements that offer their employees the opportunity to work from anywhere, whether it’s in their home office or a cafe in Costa Rica.
Digital Nomad Vs. Remote Worker
Digital nomads are a subset of remote workers and telecommuters. While traditional remote workers tend to work in one location most of the time - usually from home - digital nomads are location-independent. They embrace the freedom to work wherever they choose.
Staying Compliant as a Digital Nomad Employer
While there are many benefits to allowing your employees to work from anywhere, there are some big challenges you should consider too. Compliance is the most complex of them all.
As an employer, you’re responsible for complying with local employment laws. But if your employees work abroad for a substantial amount of time, you may be bound by foreign employment laws as well.
These laws may affect statutory holiday allowances, overtime pay, maximum working hours, notice periods, and more. If you don’t comply with relevant labor laws, your business may incur fines or legal action.
Before an employee travels abroad, you need to research their chosen country’s regulations to determine if they affect your business practices and employment contracts. Seeking the help of an employment lawyer can support you throughout this process.
Work Visas & Permits
Often, digital nomads enter foreign countries using tourist visas; these are usually much easier to apply for than work permits. But working for extended periods of time on a tourist visa can be against the law.
Many regions, including the Bahamas, Croatia, and Seychelles, now offer special visas or programs that aim to eliminate red tape for workers and help boost the economy through tourism. These “digital nomad visas” give workers “the legal right to work remotely while residing away from their country of permanent residence.”
In most cases, workers need to apply for the visas themselves, but some countries allow employers to apply for visas and pay fees on their behalf. It’s worth noting some visas are aimed specifically at independent workers rather than employees.
Ultimately, the employee is responsible for getting permission to work in a foreign country, but being aware of your employees’ whereabouts and their right to remain is important for your business compliance and risk management too.
Payroll Taxes & Social Security
One of the most common questions employers have when considering a nomadic work style is: how do digital nomads pay taxes?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always simple. Both employees and employers are usually liable for payroll taxes, like income tax and social security contributions. But when your employees travel for work, where you pay these taxes depends on local and international laws.
Income Tax for Digital Nomads
Tax residence refers to the country where a person is liable to pay personal income tax. The criteria for tax residence varies depending on the jurisdiction, but it’s commonly triggered when someone lives in a country for more than six months or 183 days. This is the case in the UK, for example.
The 183-day threshold isn’t universal, though. In Switzerland, workers (or those engaging in "gainful activities") become liable to pay taxes after 30 days of residency.
Other criteria may include the whereabouts of an owned or rented property, family, or financial interests. These criteria are often referred to as the “center of vital interest.” For example, while an individual may be working in one country, their spouses and children might be living elsewhere.
In some cases, a digital nomad might be liable to pay income taxes in multiple countries. Double Tax Agreements (DTAs) may exempt them from this, but it’s not always guaranteed.
Social Security Contributions for Digital Nomads
As your digital nomads travel to foreign countries, you also need to know where, what, and how to pay required social security contributions. Each country has its own laws on this, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. To make matters more complicated, social security is often separate from tax residency, so the 183-day rule may not apply.
Generally speaking, you should pay social security contributions in line with the laws of the country where your employee is spending most of their year, but every jurisdiction is different. What may qualify an employee for social security contributions in one country may not in another.
You should also be aware of local reporting requirements you or your employees are bound to. The US, for example, requires employees to continue filing local taxes even while working abroad.
To manage payroll compliantly, you need to know where your digital nomads intend to live and for how long. This will determine which authorities you should pay income taxes and contributions to. In general, if they're abroad for a short time only, they may stay on the current payroll. But thorough research prior to travel is crucial.
Permanent Establishment Risk
In addition to payroll taxes, companies typically have to pay corporation tax within their local jurisdiction. However, employing remote workers based abroad can trigger Permanent Establishment (PE) and, with it, an obligation to pay corporate taxes in another jurisdiction too.
The main triggers for permanent establishment are:
- Having an office or fixed place of business (this can include a co-working space or home office in some jurisdictions).
- Having someone based locally who:
- Has the authority to sign contracts on your behalf; or
- Has an executive or senior management role; or
- Provides core business services (e.g., a lawyer at a law firm); or
- Undertakes sales activities.
If a digital nomad triggers Permanent Establishment (PE), your business may be liable for paying corporate taxes in multiple countries, though DTAs may be available to prevent this.
To mitigate permanent establishment risk, you should assess and approve requests for travel on a case-by-case basis. Working with a local tax professional can help you understand all the risks to make an informed decision.
Keeping Your Digital Nomads, Business Interests, & Company Data Safe
In addition to compliance complexities, you need to factor in other risks when creating your digital nomad policy, such as health and safety, insurance, and data protection.
Health & Safety
Ensuring your employees’ safety at work isn’t just a moral obligation; in many countries, it’s also a legal requirement - a duty of care. And that extends to remote workers who are living abroad.
Before your digital nomad travels to a foreign country for work, you should conduct a thorough risk assessment on their behalf. Here are some of the main risk factors to consider:
- The employee’s general health
- Transport method
- Prevalent illnesses and diseases
- The state of public health
- Likelihood of natural disasters
- Crime rate
- Socio-political landscape
Once you’ve carried out the assessment, you should provide the employee with identified risks and actionable ways they can mitigate them. You should also clearly document how the employee can receive help or support should something go wrong during their travels.
In your digital nomad policy, you may also wish to include a list of high-risk countries or regions your employees aren’t permitted to travel to for work purposes.
Business insurance, such as employer’s liability, often has territorial limits. This means you may not be covered if your employees carry out work from a foreign country, which could lead to significant legal and financial issues for your company.
To mitigate this risk, you may need to take out tailored insurance with the appropriate coverage. You should check the terms and conditions carefully before allowing your team members to travel abroad for work.
On a similar note, if you provide medical insurance for your employees, you will need to check its coverage for foreign travel. Fortunately, a few insurance companies, such as Safety Wing, have special policies aimed at digital nomads.
Keeping company data safe is in everyone’s best interests: for your business, your clients, and your colleagues. Your business also has an obligation to follow relevant local and international data protection laws, such as GDPR.
However, the countries your digital nomads travel to may have lower standards for data protection than your home country. Therefore, you need to implement measures to ensure sensitive data is handled appropriately, no matter where your team members are based.
Providing extensive training during onboarding can help your colleagues understand their obligations and responsibilities to keep data safe.
Here are some of our other top tips to help you prevent data breaches in a remote work setting:
- Implement a Zero Trust security model.
- Prioritize endpoint security.
- Create and update data security policies and processes.
- Educate your staff on cyber security and data privacy regularly.
- Enable a Mobile Device Management solution.
- Enforce strong credentials and multi-factor authentication.
- Ask employees to use a VPN solution when connecting to public WiFi.
- Perform regular updates and patches.
- Implement a robust offboarding process.
Safeguarding Company Culture & Enhancing Performance
Welcoming digital nomads to your team can bring plenty of benefits, but you may still worry about how it will affect company culture or your bottom line. Below, we discuss the best ways to maintain connection, collaboration, and productivity when your team members are distributed around the world.
Hire the Right Talent
Offering a truly flexible work environment is bound to make you a really attractive employer, but when it comes to hiring remote talent (including digital nomads), you need to be selective.
Your company should outline key values and expectations that reflect your company culture, and you should hire according to those values. Some examples of company values are “accountability,” “respect,” and “responsibility.” Remaining focused on these values will enable you to choose candidates who uphold and positively contribute to your company culture.
There are also some important qualities you should look out for in a digital nomad to ensure they will be able to perform well in a remote and distributed team environment. For example:
During the interview process, be sure to look out for these qualities and skills.
Clear communication is vital for running an effective distributed team. Having the right technology and communication practices is key to success. Digital nomads should be part of your team just as much as any other employee is, so regular communication will help keep them integrated, engaged, supported, and oriented towards your company’s goals.
Implementing an asynchronous work policy is ideal for managing digital nomads, especially if they’re working in different time zones. By optimizing communication channels, making use of asynchronous tools, and prioritizing documentation, your whole team can work together effectively, even when they’re working to different schedules.
Offer Clear Direction
Once you’ve hired the right talent and outlined clear communication methods, it’s important to create an environment in which your digital nomads can thrive and produce their best work.
Regular one-to-one sync-ups between digital nomads and their line managers are essential. During this time, they work together to overcome challenges or barriers, celebrate successes, and set realistic goals and objectives.
You can also use goal-oriented tools such as Monday and Culture Amp to support your digital nomads asynchronously. These tools can aid digital nomad time management, providing them with the direction needed to stay focused and motivated. Tools can also help managers keep track of their team members’ progress without micromanaging.
Make Social Events More Inclusive
One of the biggest challenges for digital nomads is feeling isolated, so ensuring they feel like an integral part of your team is essential.
An effective way of integrating digital nomads into your team is by making your social events more inclusive. Organizing virtual catch-ups and team activities across various time zones ensures everyone can attend, no matter where they’re based.
Not only will these events help nomads feel more connected and less lonely, but they’ll also help boost team collaboration and communication.
Digital Nomad Policy Checklist
Creating a comprehensive digital nomad policy allows you to maintain control of how your employees work without micro-managing them. Your policy should allow employees to enjoy high levels of flexibility while working in a professional, safe, and compliant manner.
Use this digital nomad policy checklist for ideas:
- Ask your employees to request working from abroad before they travel to a new country. This will help you assess risks and compliance issues on a case-by-case basis.
- List high-risk countries where employees are either not permitted to travel for work purposes or advised against it.
- Outline expected working hours, but remember to be flexible. Stepping away from the traditional 9-5 is one of the perks of nomadic work. Still, you may wish to set core hours to allow for meetings and synchronous collaboration where necessary.
- Give clear examples of how and where you expect your team members to work while traveling. For example, you may request colleagues work in professional environments with minimal distractions, such as co-working spaces or hotel rooms (and not the beach!).
- Provide guidance and rules about the use of company equipment. This may include restrictions on using public WiFi to access sensitive data or enforcing the use of a VPN or similar network security software.
Ultimately, it’s not possible to grant your team members total flexibility to travel and work wherever while remaining compliant and risk-free. Instead, you should set reasonable limits and assess travel requests on a case-by-case basis.