Let me start this post by stating a very obvious fact: people are sick of being stuck in one place. They haven’t been able to travel, or experience the world outside for a very long time. Because of this, there’s about to be this “elastic band motion” when the lockdown ends, where everyone is ready to fling themselves into the world at all costs. In fact, there’s already a movement being dubbed as “the great resignation” as people search for a freedom they’ve been denied for quite a while now.

Because of this, many are starting to feel like they want to travel the world more than they want to work. That decision is going to be made even easier if company’s start saying “actually, we need you back in the office” - especially when it doesn’t feel necessary to that person to do so.

Now, that person could leave that job and find another, more flexible place to work, with a few more holiday days, but does that scratch the itch to see the world after being told that they can’t for so long? I don’t think so. Lockdown has, in many people’s eyes, allowed us to trial a new, more flexible way of working - one that allows for a better work/life balance. One that provides people with a sense of freedom to do their best work without having to choose between a career and seeing the world.

For a lot of people, the answer is to become a digital nomad.

What’s a digital nomad?

Digital nomads are people who work remotely in order to earn a living and conduct their life in a “nomadic” manner - heading around the world at will, and plying their trade from different time zones, coffee shops, public libraries, co-working spaces, or even vehicles.

In mid-2020, the trend exploded in the US, with the number of digital nomads rising to 10.9 million from 7.3 million the year before.

This might have seemed an impossible mix with the office lifestyle of years passed, but if you take a look at the list of companies that are now “remote-first” in their approach to work (where everyone, or large parts of their workforce, work remotely by default, with smaller office space remaining to cater for those that want it), it’s a who’s who of the biggest companies in the world. Not just the biggest “tech” companies - the biggest companies. To name a few:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google
  • Slack
  • Apple
  • HSBC
  • Fujitsu
  • Deloitte
  • JPMorgan Chase
  • Microsoft

Just last month, the BBC asked “Is the great digital-nomad workforce actually coming?”. They’re sceptical that a post-lockdown world will set a tide of new nomads loose on the world, but they did concede that the number of people doing it has risen considerably, and will continue the same way.

So, here’s what we have:

  • 🌍 A lot of people that want to see the world
  • ✈️ More people than ever opting to work in a nomadic way in order to have more freedom
  • 🤝 Companies that are willing to embrace their workers living a remote lifestyle

This is not a single person’s choice these days. Lots of people want to try this, and a lot of companies want to find a solution to avoid losing their talent.

So what if there was also a tangible benefit to this coming together of extraordinary circumstances? What if it could be just as liberating for companies as the people that work in them? And, most importantly to my proposal, what if they weren’t alone?

The global expansion problem

There is one thing that I’ll concede to the argument for more office time: having people in one place together can breed a sense of community and excitement, and creates a culture much faster and organically than can be done online.

Then there’s the reality of the nomad lifestyle. It’s likely a very real fear for a lot of people, despite the pressing feeling they currently have to escape the country the first chance they get, that the life of a digital nomad could be a lonely one. You could well have a partner or pet along for the journey but, for many, they’ve made friends at work, and could make more as companies grow.

It’s these two points together that got me thinking about a problem that we’re facing at Octopus Energy, and I wanted to put a potential solution down on paper to see if it made sense.

The problem

Let me start by saying that it’s not a bad problem to have. We’re expanding across the globe, and working towards a greener world on a scale that we’d always envisioned that we’d get to. It’s a little quicker than we expected, but it’s still an amazing thing.

So, we purchase companies in other countries, start exciting joint ventures with others, and then face the inevitable and unenviable challenge of making every country “feel” like Octopus. By “feel”, I don’t just mean the websites and apps we make, but the values we have as a company - the people that are on the other end of the email or phone when you get in touch, and the way they treat each other and work together. It’s about the excitement that you get from someone who works at Octopus when you ask them about what they do and why they’re doing it.

Up until now, we’ve had some wonderful people go out to these different countries. They work with people that were at the company we bought, and those that we recruit in that area. Usually it’s no more than two or three people from our UK base, and their aim is to get the place acting, and feeling, like Octopus. That’s a lot to ask from a small number of people. Not least of all because that person has only worked in one part of Octopus. If a wonderful ops person goes out, the tech presence is still remote, and visa-versa.

Now, the idea of “just send more people” is not the answer here. All that happens is that you lose more and more people from the UK, which just isn’t sustainable if you want to expand into a lot of countries. On top of that, you’d actually need to find that many people that want to head to that specific area at that specific time in their lives. It’s an ever-shrinking venn diagram.

So, as companies start to think more about the idea of needing people back in a space together, and people start to wonder if the place they work could be somewhere other than their company’s office, my question would be: could that place move? Could those same people that are in love with the idea of seeing the world, whilst simultaneously in love with the idea of putting their skills towards fighting climate change (or some other mission), do so as a group in various other parts of the world?

The “Nomad Division”

You’ve probably clocked the idea at this point, but let me briefly lay it out.

You could create a department, filled with multiple disciplines, whose aim is to head to different parts of the world and help set up a new part of the business.

New people in that region suddenly have a whole host of people to get to know and learn from, all of which have been with the company for a while, and know what it is that they’re trying to build. Then they start actually building it with them. They share the tech stack and program together. They share the operations model and they recruit together. They share socials, and milestones together.

And whilst they’re building all that needs to be built, these nomads share the culture of the company, whilst the people there share the culture of the country and market they know well. It happens in a way that is magnitudes stronger than it would be with one or two people.

And then, they leave. They leave that part of the world, off to explore a new country and culture - doing everything they’d promised they’d do when they got out of the UK, whilst meeting wonderful people, using their skills, and getting paid. What they leave behind each time is an empowered team who know what they need to do and how to grow. Most importantly, those people have spent enough time with people from Octopus to know what Octopus should feel like.

This could happen a couple of times a year. Two six month projects that transform two new regions in a way that wasn’t possible before. Alongside two excellent new additions to the global team, companies get people who are insanely happy to have the opportunity to travel the world with likeminded people, and not have to choose between their career and their quality of life.

I think this could even work for companies that aren’t expanding into other countries as well. Imagine a project team, functioning as a group, and getting work done whilst happier than ever. With progress reporting handled online, all you’d lose is a few hours in time zone overlap, and the ability to breathe down their necks in person. That seems like a fair trade to me.

Potential problems

Ok, so the last point may be overly optimistic. There are bound to be issues - it’s why I wrote this down! Here are a few obstacles I can think of that would need to be overcome:

Logistics

Firstly, we’re talking about a much more open, post-COVID world, coupled with how painful it could be to move people from the UK post Brexit. Let’s assume those are issues that can be overcome though - free movement should be reasonably easy for vaccinated people, and the movement we’re talking about here isn’t that frequent.

People will want to come home

It’ll be important that, for whatever reason, people can come home if they want and/or need to. If people choose a role like this for freedom, being tied to a contract that specifies a particular country for a particular time would contradict that freedom completely. This does create a sense of uncertainty around who will be part of the team for how long but, to be honest, that’s a feeling that every company has anyway. I have no stats to back this up, but I’d wager that the retention level of folks in a role like this, given the trend of preferred ways of working, would be better than your average agency.

It’s an initial outlay of people

Rather than losing one of two people to a new region, you’d effectively lose a whole team. This format would also work best with people that know your business well, so hiring for the team, without at least a good cohort of people that have been there a while, would fail to give you every benefit. Depending on the size of your company that could be tough, but ultimately it’s an investment that reaps more rewards the longer it runs.

Overall

There’s almost certainly aspects of this that I’ve overlooked or outright not considered, but perhaps the concept itself is interesting enough that it can provide the basis of a discussion.

It’d be interesting to ask yourself over the next few months: are people staying because they’re happy and want to be back in an office? Or are they staying until they can find a sensible, sustainable way to leave? Perhaps they won’t even wait for that alternative before taking the plunge and freeing themselves up to see where life takes them.

I can’t shake the sense that some people would enjoy seeing the world with their colleagues, and perhaps give them the confidence to do something as a group that they might dream of, but never do, by themselves. If a company could offer a way to do that, what a company it’d be…