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The Anthropology of Digital Nomads

It has been ten years since David Berreby published his seminal Strategy & Business article on digital nomads- The Hunter Gatherers of the Knowledge Economy: The Anthropology of Today’s Cyberforagers. In the article Berreby draws on the controversial field of evolutionary psychology to point out that hominids have spent the majority of our evolutionary past adapted as nomadic hunter-gatherers, not as farmers, crafts people, factory workers, service workers, or any other mode of living and working invented since the advent of the agricultural revolution and sedentism (~10,000 years ago). The 3+ million years that elapsed between the emergence of early hominid species and the beginning of sedentism effectively wired us as nomads. The 10,000 years since humans ‘settled down’ have not been long enough to fundamentally alter our hunter-gatherer hard wiring. Since the development of agriculture and sedentism, the species has endured a succession of “social cages”- agriculture, city states, chiefdoms, kingdoms, nation states, and most recently, large corporations. Jared Diamond goes so far as to say that the “adoption of agriculture was the catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”

Until now…

The more networked our economy and society become, the more possible it is for people to live and work nomadically. As the folks at Worksnug put it, “work is not a place you go, it is something you do.” This flexibility gives people the opportunity to rediscover their inner nomad. Berreby puts it this way: “Perhaps the information economy, that purely human creation, reproduces our ancestral environment, replacing literal landscapes and foraging with a virtual version.”

Nomads 2.0

They want to come and go as they please, wear what they like, work the hours that suit them- and not too many, thank you- because they value a balanced life more than piling up possessions. They want to work in small groups and be a part of every decision. Direct orders set their teeth on edge. You must explain why you want them to do something or, better, show them by example. You earn their respect by doing what they do. The above quote is not (but easily could be) about today’s digital nomads. It is an anthropological characterization of the !Kung San, a small group of nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia.
  • Their ultimate value is freedom of movement.
  • There is a strong valuation on the personal autonomy of adults.
  • Most self-aggrandizing or dominant behavior is nipped in the bud.
  • They impose moral sanctions on those that don’t behave altruistically.
Berreby suggests that at the heart of nomadism is an egalitarian ethos grounded in an aversion to alpha males and dominant behaviors. In the corporate context, this sets up a conflict with the kinds of leadership behaviors that are commonly rewarded. No wonder, then, that senior managers are often the most vehement opponents of flexwork and telecommuting programs: They fear losing control over the people working for them.

Leading Remote Teams

In the absence of good-ole-boy networks and management by face-time, how does one go about getting the most out of remote workers and teams? We suggest that there are (at least) 4 basic values that digital nomads share, and that any would-be leader of nomads needs to understand in order to be respected (and effective).
  1. Community: While they are independent-minded and value their freedom and mobility, they are also community-oriented and work well in groups. They simply want control over the groups with which they affiliate. This is why social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are so popular among digital nomads: they enjoy connecting with others in communities of their own choosing.
  2. Transparency: Nomads, both traditional nomads and digital nomads, are what they say they are. Everything is out in the open. Goals. Objectives. Time lines. Budgets… Communicate exactly what is expected of them, and you will get their trust.
  3. Trust: The single-most important ingredient to leading digital nomads is trust. Nomads do not need to be micromanaged. If they have a technical issue/problem, they have a community they can turn to for help. If you require them to come to you with every problem, then you better be able to solve the problems yourself!
  4. Results Only: As Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressler demonstrated with the R.O.W.E. (Results-Only Work Environment) telecommuting program at Best Buy in Minneapolis, independent-minded knowledge workers want demonstrable results as much (or sometimes more) than their leaders. Refine performance management systems and use them frequently and consistently.
What other values do digital nomads share that are misunderstood (and mismanaged) by their corporate leaders? Please add to the list and revise our initial 4 core values!