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Exploring the Future of Work

and Location Independence

MHCID Capstone Project

Timeline:

22 weeks/ 6 months

March 2022-  August 2022

Team:

1 Researcher 

2 Designers

Role:

Lead Researcher and Strategist

Contributions

  • Conducted and led analysis for 8 semi-structured foundational interviews to define user behavior and identify joys and frustrations.

  • Built, managed and maintained relationships with industry collaborators and subject matter experts.

  • Drove competitive analysis, market research and strategic analysis to triangulate research findings.

Overview

With the pandemic followed by the great resignation, salaried professionals are rethinking what work means to them and redefining how it affects their life. Forcing companies to reevaluate their policies. We want to explore the future of work and how change in one aspect of our life impacts and changes the way we live, learn, work and play may shape our health and well-being in years to come. 

We took this opportunities to dive deeper into an upcoming digital nomad population, the salaried professionals. Our goal was to find gaps, unfulfilled needs and pain points in their experience moving, planning and experiencing a location independent lifestyle.

Defining Problem Space

Decoding the Future of Work 

We found that there has been a  49% increase in the number of Americans describing themselves as digital nomads.[5]

 

There’s also been a drastic shift in the composition of the type of employment digital nomads pursue. A lifestyle popular among independent workers: freelancers, independent contractors, and the self-employed is now made up of majority salaried professionals.  

 

After being untethered from their offices, many individuals who are employed by an organization and are considered salaried professionals decided to take to the road. The number of digital nomads with salaried professionals rose from 3.2 million in 2019 to 6.3 million in 2020 — a 96% increase[5]. 

 

We want to take this opportunity to speculate about the future of work. To understand how change in one aspect of our life impacts and changes the way we live, learn, work and play may shape our health and well-being in years to come. 

Secondary Research

Location Independence

With these externalized assumptions, we entered secondary research to understand, made informed decisions and pushed our creative thinking to design for change/transition/shift/transformation. 

Our overarching research objective is

to understand how COVID nomads pursue and experience location independence.

To understand location independent lifestyle and the current state of work, we approach our secondary research through, 

  • Academic Research, Which helped us build an understanding of the nomadic lifestyle and the impact of technology on it through the years. 

  • Social Listening, through Reddit forums like r/digitalnomad which helped us collect notes from the field. 

  • Articles and New Coverage, to understand the post pandemic response of employers to be either; hybrid, remote or fully in person. 

  • Competitor Analysis, to Identify and research the different players catering to the current digital nomad market.

After mapping the stakeholder ecosystem, we tried looking at the changes in adjacent verticals and how they impact the space. 

  • There’s been an uptake in “work tourism” post pandemic. Nations like Estonia and Barbados are overturning long-held exclusionary practices towards nomads by offering special work visas. 

  • Not everyone wants to work remotely: The shift to remote hasn't been received with the same enthusiasm all around. Companies and many employees prefer having physical work/collaboration space for their employees/ themselves. With ad-hoc need for such spaces, co-working spaces like we-work has skyrocketed to popularity. 

  • Uptake in flexible working ​​​​​​​​​​: Only 7% of civilian workers in the United States, or roughly 9.8 million of the nation’s approximately 140 million civilian workers, have access to a “flexible workplace” benefit, or telework, according to the 2019 National Compensation Survey (NCS) from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.[3] 

Media Insights

Understanding our Work Ecosystem

We wanted to understand the first three degrees of interdependent actors, from within the organization and beyond that are working to pursue both their individual and collective goals.[9]
We collected all our insights from current news articles and media coverage to make two stakeholder maps, to understand the employee and employer priorities. 

Researcher observations- 

  • Motivation, Caution and Pointers: Experienced nomads encouraged novice travelers to have realistic expectations from the lifestyle. 

Eg. “Besides the obvious stuff, I like to have a cheap local cell phone. This way if it is lost or stolen, I will not be too upset about it and have my US phone as backup. Ear plugs, bring 3 pairs, thank me later, also a sleep/eye cover mask." - Redditor

  • Sharing Experiences, Community Building: Individuals in the community shared advice, resources and lessons from being on the road. We saw community building and camaraderie in the community.​​​​​​​​

  • ​​​​​​​​​​​Basic Needs Don’t Go Away: “ If you want to live anywhere you need the same things you need to live where you are now: income (or a pile of cash in the bank), the legal right to stay there (and maybe the legal right to work there), a couple of changes of clothes, and some common sense. Calling yourself a digital nomad doesn't make these basic needs go away.

Web Scraping

Notes from the Field

Source: r/digitalnomad 

Community size: 1.5 million

Competitor Analysis Insights

Notes from the Field

Through our competitor analysis we discovered that everyone has a different experience with this lifestyle and many products and services have been created to solve for a variety of pain points. It also dispelled the common misconception that digital nomads navigate these challenges alone. Many of the tools were created or centered around the community. They also largely focused on the individual nomad as the key stakeholder.

Competitors tackle the following most common problems: 

  1. Social connection - Eat With, Meetup, Web Work Travel

  2. Learning how to navigate the lifestyle (educational tools) - reddit, Digital Nomad Daily

  3. Help with decision making, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​- Nomad list

  4. Travel aids (reviews, support tools)- Nomad Notes

  5. Accommodation Platform - Selina

  6. Planning services- Nomad Collective

  7. Obtaining work- Galavant

  8. Routine- Classpass

Academic Research Insights

Understanding Nomadicity

For long, nomadicity as a lifestyle choice would impact the kind of work you could do with most workplaces requiring an employee to pursue a location dependent lifestyle, grounding roots based on their employer’s location and requirement. Even then, there have been work-based motivational forces shaping their nomadic practices, identified as choice, opportunity and obligation[9].

This digitally mediated work/life practice opened the doors of nomadicity for knowledge workers that are willing to work as independent, choice based workers. It also blurred the boundary between work and life, making it a challenge to set boundaries and balancing work, travel and exploration[11].

We understand that remote workers, like digital nomads, need a different level of support from their co-workers and other players in their ecosystem, including their managers, employers etc. When studying digital nomad based communities on Twitter, Jeff and Ingrid found [12] through web scraping and analysis, 

  1. The first theme centers on worker identity and is currently dominated by the experiences of digital nomads.

  2. The second theme focuses on the practicalities of working in a physical location and is currently dominated by issues related to co-working spaces. 

  3. the third theme is a loose and speculative set of ideas around the evolution of work in the future, predicting how enterprises may have to adapt to new ways of working.

Ideation and Brainstorming

We are current ideating and coming up with concepts that we would then present to our participants for concept testing. 

My Role

As the lead researcher, I was responsible for planning and conducting foundation research to define population behavior and identify joys and frustrations as well as exploratory research with our concepts. I created an early concept testing activity to engage participants in ideation and system implementation process. This helped the team validate concepts early and prioritize customer needs vs good to haves. 

Aside from research responsibilities, I was also responsible for timeline planning and management, and building relations with internal stakeholders.

What is pushing salaried professionals to pursue this lifestyle?

So, we started wondering,

STEEP Analysis

When we started looking at the social, economical, technological, environmental and political factors to understand the trends over time that might have caused salaried professionals to rethink their location based lifestyle. 

We found, there have been significant changes in social and environmental spheres that have pushed technology to the forefront of our everyday lives. Particularly, 

  • COVID became a catalyst to remote working for all digitally enabling jobs

  • COVID also became a major motivator for people to pursue location independence, now that they didn’t have to go to office.

Today, more companies are moving towards flexible  or hybrid working models.

Remote working allows salaried employees to work from anywhere
This increases their motivation to pursue location independence.
This means, we might see a shift in salaried full-time employees traveling and working remotely.

Salaried professionals who adopted a location independent lifestyle post pandemic, who we call “COVID Nomads.”– are taking advantage of this new freedom to pursue location independence to pursue a nomadic lifestyle.

We defined our target population as,

COVID Nomads

They are salaried professionals who adopted a location independent lifestyle post pandemic. They are taking advantage of this new freedom to pursue location independence to pursue a nomadic lifestyle.
Research Plan

A Case for Location Independence

After creating the journey map we recognized that through transitioning their lifestyle from location dependent to location independent, they go through three major stages, motivation of moving, planning of moving and experiencing the new location independent lifestyle. We built our research question around these stages to understand the biggest joys and challenges they faced along the way.

Goals

Through the foundational round of research, our goal was to- 

  • To understand the resources and tools used by participants during their transition into location independence and tools/ resources they use to sustain their location independent lifestyle.

  • This could unveil frustrations with certain tools, challenges they faced and surface pain points for technological intervention.

Research Method

Semi-structured interviews with Artifact Sharing

We chose semi-structured interviews to give our participants space to talk about their personal journey, joys of their experiences and frustrations from the road. Our goal for the interview was to - 

  • Confirm hypothesis from secondary research and build on the journey map

  • Understand more pain points and workarounds participants have experienced in real life. 

  • Narrow down problem space with the need for technological intervention. 

We were also interested in seeing the tools and resources our participants used to plan and track their travel as well as work. We made an optional request to our participants to bring along any tools/resources they have used/use daily.

Journey Map

We collected all of this information to build our journey map. In doing so, we divided the journey of a COVID nomad from location dependence to independence into three major sections. 
1. Choosing the lifestyle: What was the biggest motivator for them to switch their lifestyle?
2. Planning for and in their new lifestyle: How do they break out of location dependence and plan to move around?
3. Experiencing the lifestyle: What are the joys and frustrations they find of living this lifestyle?
Research Operations

Connecting with COVID Nomads

Our goal for the foundational round of primary research was to invite

8-10 participants for a 60 minutes interview session.

Method Of Recruitment

We sent out a screener survey to known nomad communities as primary recruitment and direct recruitment mailers through social networks and connected circles for secondary recruitment.

Defining COVID Nomads

Through our screener  our major criteria was to screen in individuals who are, 

  1. Full time salaried professionals or long term contract based employees. 

  2. Pursued or are pursuing a work and travel lifestyle recreationally after March 2020.

Participants Screening

For demographic information through the screening process, we asked them, 

  1. The length of their travel 

  2. Primary location (country of homebase)

  3. Types of trips they have taken, international/ domestic. 

This information helped us recruit participants with a wide range of travel experiences.

Selected Participants

For our foundational round of research, we were able to successfully recruit 8 participants who have travelled/have been traveling all over the world.
The map shows all our participants last work and travel trip

Next Step

Ideation and Brainstorming

Project Timeline

The project started with the team exploring and identifying an unmet need for an emerging user population. We focused our secondary research to validate our speculations and understand the stakeholder ecosystem surrounding COVID nomads. Our foundational research helped us identify common pain points and frustrations among COVID nomads. 

We used our insights to ideate on possible design concepts and directions. After narrowing down to two, we started rolling research to initially validate our findings and then identify the desierable features and functions of the concept. 

The project had a timeline of 22 weeks, to do through the entire product cycle.

Participant Map.png

The map shows the last work and travel trip taken by our participants for foundational research.

Unlike traditional digital nomads, Majority participants traveled in groups or pairs for at least one trip.
Participants spent majority of their time in their home base taking short recreational travel trips (2-4 weeks) during which they continued working.
Designing User Spectra

Understanding the Mobility Spectrum

We noticed a wide range of travel pattern among our participants that were unlike a traditional nomad or a vacationer.That’s when we realized- It’s a spectrum.
 
To better understand our participant's needs and behavior, we designed user spectra. The mobility spectrum shifts the focus from an individuals needs and behavior to accommodate the edge cases and scenarios. 
 
We based our spectrum on the participants, 
Social Travel Pattern: who are they traveling with. 
Frequency of Trips: How often they took work and travel trips.
Home-basing: If they consider a location to be their physical homebase. 
Length of Trip: How long each of their work and travel trips are.
Concept Testing

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The team collaborated with internal stakeholders, advisors and instructors to ideate and narrow down from 60 intial concepts to two concepts, both revolving around the user's need to setup a work environment in their destination during an extended stay. Esentially, two sides of a coin.

Concept 1: Finding an Optimal Work Environment

A tool that helps traveling professionals find an optimal work space on the go that reflects the unique culture and character of their travel destination.

 

This concept was created keeping in people who visit a destination for a short term as well as long term. Helping working travellers find an already existing optimal work environment in their destination city. People can search for a workspace based on their daily workspace and work type needs. 

Concept 2: Create a Workspace on the Go

A service that ships temporary work kits to traveling professionals who can rent what they need.
This concept was created keeping in people who visit a destination for a long term, four weeks or more. They can rent anything from external monitors to office chairs.

Analysis and Insights

Nomadicity in Pandemic Times and Beyond.

I took a three tier approach to analyzing the data. All interviews had an active notetaker.

  1. Initial sense-making and theme finding came through the notetaker notes.

  2. Using those themes, we affinity mapped all our data and came up with our initial set of insights. 

  3. After taking some critical distance from the research, I went back to re-code the data we collected to find implicit motivations and themes we might've missed in the initial round. 

Insight #2

The Great Realization

Work while traveling can deepen pre-existing relationships at the expense of new ones. We see a shift in mindset, salaried professionals rethinking what work means and how it defines their life.

The majority of participants are using location independence as a way to meet and reconnect with old friends and family who don’t live around them. Participants are willing to sacrifice the possibility of making new friends and professional connections to spend more time with people they already know.

Insight #1

COVID Nomads aren't Nomads

They just want the agency to travel more often. They are just individuals who want to use their newfound agency to travel more often. 

COVID was a catalyst for intrinsic motivations to take over like exploring new places, reconnecting with friends and family, and testing potential homes.

I can work anywhere, which was definitely not possible pre-pandemic this is now a possibility for people. Then you can make work more interesting.”- International, Long Term Traveller.

[You’ll experience] a bit of FOMO like you'll see people hanging out in office or like you'll see happy hours pop up on [social media] and you're like ‘oh shit like that would be fun’, but you make the most of what you can. ” - Short Term Traveller

Insight #3

Expectations from self, remained the same.

Participants find it hard to create and maintain a routine for themselves.

Participants found themselves struggling to set a new normal expectation for themselves: Exercise, keeping up with friends and family, work, engaging with locations, doing interesting activities, etc.

Routine is the hardest part for me... the timezone switching, the weather switching, the niceness of where I stay switching, the language switching... all that stuff breaks [my routine]. ”
- Long Term Traveller

Insight #4

Work Environment is Crucial

When packing for a trip, people put in more care and effort into thinking about their work equipment in comparison to personal items.

Most mentioned packing “work kits” with essential equipment.

Accommodation was often selected based on availability of adequate workspace.

Participants are willing to purchase temporary tools to support work productivity when they are traveling depending on how much time they are spending in a location.

There's a couple of things which are hard to plan. Spacing is one... I cannot tell you how many times I've looked through photos to try to determine how many workable surfaces are in an Airbnb... I don't believe in working from couches or beds. ”- Long Term Traveller

Insight #5

Work Flexibility in the Future

Almost all participants moved to a fully remote job during the pandemic, with the majority actively seeking fully remote positions.

Half mentioned preferring hybrid work in the future where they could choose how often they work in-person.

Participants seek opportunities that offer control and freedom of when and where to work after experiencing this lifestyle.

I actually got the job that I have now because it's completely remote. “ - Long Term Traveller

Caribou is an application designed to support people who work while traveling by helping them find workspaces and travel activities on the go.
Introducing

No more missed meetings or wasted lunch hours.

By switching between “work” and “explore” mode, Caribou helps users maximize their experience by achieving their ideal work-travel balance.
Multi-modality to support quick match through a smartwatch on the go or a well planned trip to a nearby location through a smartphone.
For every location, workspace, and place to explore. You can see the basic information about the location, and visitor reviews. You also get a quick glance at all your requirements it satisfies and find out the average time spent there by visitors. 
Multi-modality to support quick match through a smartwatch on the go or a well-planned trip to a nearby location through a smartphone.
By switching between “work” and “explore” mode, Caribou helps users maximize their experience by achieving their ideal work-travel balance.
For every location, workspace, and place to explore. You can see the basic information about the location, and visitor reviews. You also get a quick glance at all your requirements it satisfies and find out the average time spent there by visitors. 
Rolling Research

Dynamic Research Practices

The team collaborated with internal stakeholders, advisors and instructors to ideate and narrow down from 60 intial concepts to two concepts, both revolving around the user's need to setup a work environment in their destination during an extended stay. 

After evaluating both concepts for market needs and business feasability, we decided to turn once again to our users to understand which resolves their painpoints. 

Goals

With a timeline of one week for evaluative research, we turned to rolling research, adapting the discussion guide based on our findings.

Timeline: 1 Week

We broke our research into two rounds with set goals for each, 

​Round 1: Concept Testing

Evaluate each concept based on user feedback to satisfy their needs and reduce pain points. 

  • Identify key use cases of each concept.

  • Understand key features of concepts 

  • Narrow down to one concept. 

Round 2: Systems Implementation

Evaluate the concept key’s features for their utility against the most frequent use cases.

  • Identify gaps in the concept features based on feedback. 

  • Create a blueprint of good to haves vs must-haves features.

Storyboard Concept Evaluation

I used the next 10 mins to present the participants with a storyboard. The three sections of the board showcased

  • The problem faced by a person working and traveling

  • The concept and how it can be used in the scenario

  • The validation, showing the benefits of the concept in the scenario.

After a storyboard walkthough, we discussed if the scenario felt relevent, if they had ever been in a situation like this and what would they have done/done differently, to understand what features were relevant and what were missing from the current concept we asked them a magic wand question. 

Desirability Test

I designed the desierability test to understand how participants view the concept, beyond the social desierability bias. Challenging the participants to think about why they prefered a concept over the other. 

I asked the participants were asked two questions, with three choices for an answer. Each question had a specific motive. 

  1. To understand if they find the concept and its features relevant for their use

  2. If they see any immediate competitors in the market or familliar services. 

Round 2: Feature Assesment 

After we narrowed down to a concept through our first round of interviews for the study. We pulled out a list of features most commonly requested by our round 1 participants. 

For Round 2, we presented just one storyboard of the selected concept with the possible features for the concept.

Research Method

Concept Storyboard Walkthrough with Desirability Test

I designed a modified trip-tech method [Séguin, Scharff, Pedersen (2019)], to support our needs and goals for the study. 

Concept Validation

People want a hassle free, temporary workspace as they work and travel.

When presented with the two concepts, participants saw themselves coming up with more use cases when finding a workspace within their destination. They were attracted by the promise of a unique space to work from in each destination they visit.

However when discussing the key features for a service that helps them workspaces on the go, participants had a few qualms. 

Insight #1

They want to know everything

When discussing individual workspace information, they wanted the process of searching made easy. Current platforms are not optimized for their needs.

They want to know what facilities are available in a location and what are not. Their needs can sometimes be very specific.

I need to know if the place has a charging port. Not a lot of cafes have charging ports to avoid you taking up the space for far too long.

-Long Term Traveller

Insight #2

But they don't want to be told everything

When discussing the boundaries between work and travel, participants echoed the thoughts of our previous participants.

In order to set a balance between work and travel, they consider notifications and alerts as a sometimes neccessary evil. They want updates about things to do around, events at their travel destination but also want the agency to opt out of recieving updates when working. 

It's easy for me to look at a pop-up when i'm working and feel like ditching my work to go check out that event. But that's not the reality of this lifestyle. You need to be focus on your work during work hours. “

-Short Term Traveller

Insight #3

They still want to do everything

Participants mentioned planning and optimizing their travel to cover a list of places to visit in an area at once. 

Finding a workspace nearby to a destination they visit could help them get their work done between or right before their travel activities.

Concept Testing Insights

Building a Workspace on the Go

I took a rolling approach to evaluating the data we were collecting. The team attended all participant interviews with the designers notetaking as I conduct the interview. 

We had de-briefing session after each interview. This process made it easy to modify our discussion guide between the two rounds of research. 

Impact: Research to Design

Designing for the Working Traveller

As we narrowed down to a concept, we translated our research insights into design principles which informed our key features. We also used our overall research repository to make design decisions as we created our infromation architecture and sitemap for the product. 

Design Principles

Design for Flexibility

Support and accomodate varying work needs, while allowing for spontaneous travel.

Design for Balance

Respect the dual nature of their experience by balancing work and travel needs.

Design for Delight

Reflect the spirit of adventure sought by travelers by incorporating moments of delight and exploration.

Building an Information Architecture

Planning is an essential element and the most timetaking part of living this lifestyle. When designing the system, the biggest challenged we faced was accomodating for the most common personality trait we saw among our users; the planner personalities and the most common usecase we saw for the application, spontaneous, last minute requirement. 

We designed keeping in mind this two pronged approach our users might take to search for a workspace.  

  • The quick match feature helps users match onthe go. 

  • While planners can look through the filters, location details and make a reservation beforehand. 

  • To support users on the go, we took a multi-modality approach to designing the application on smartphone as well as smartwatch.

Next Steps

Moving Forward with Caribou

With the availability of time and other resources the next step for the project would've been, 

Usability Testing Caribou

Conduct usability research with our target user group, people who are working and traveling recreationally. 

The goal of the study would be to validate our design decisions and key features

  • Evaluate the user's satsification with the data provided on the platform. 

  • Evaluate the microinteractions and their match to the user's mental model. 

© 2022 by Nikita Nerurkar. 

Education

Other Projects

Design, Technology & Social Innovation Workshop 2020

MIT India Initiative | 2020

Inchin Hackathon

Makers Asylum, Mumbai | 2020

Master of Human Computer Interaction and Design (MHCI+D)

University of Washington, Seattle

Bachelor of Technology in Electrical and Instrumentation Engineering

Birla Institute of Technology and Science(BITS), Pilani

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