Braving the new world as nomadic professionals

Nomadic professionalism is an experience of our working life that is becoming ever more common, and more culturally influential. It is a combination of feeling deeply attached to your work, while at the same time loosely attached to organizations. A sense that your work defines you more than your company does, your productivity more than your title. That you can take your work with you, if you need to, across different places. It’s a psychological experience as much as a social trend. Perhaps you stay in your company for 25 years, but if you feel “I need to keep myself employable, I want to do work that I can take with me” for all those years, you are a nomadic professional.

Gianpiero Petriglieri – Associate Professor in the Organizational Behaviour department at INSEAD business school

In the next 3 years, being a nomadic professional will be much harder than before. Some of the key principles of what defines it are mobility, professionalism, and social sensitivity. Mobility is the aspiration and openness to moving around the globe; professionalism is the capability and skills to excel in a chosen profession, while social sensitivity is the awareness of local context and adaptability to different cultures. I foresee that it will be much harder because of some recent key trends that are amplified in 2020.

The first trend is the rise of nationalism. In any culture, making an “us against them” rhetoric are highly effective in rallying people, and this leads to more politicians using it. There are many examples around the world of successful politicians doing it, such as Trump in the US, and Boris in the UK.

In some countries, this trend is also already reflected in public policies, especially immigration. An example is the 2019 change in US immigration policy that negatively impacted immigrants. This trend led to people being unable to pursue opportunities because of where they are born. For example, many of my colleagues have received working permit rejections, even though they all had job offers from reputable companies. These kinds of policies are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, this trend is already creating a distrusting environment for people that are seen as “stateless” or not “one of us”. People who are mobile and have moved to many countries could face challenges in gaining people’s trust, especially because of the idea that they’re not here to stay. This permanent decrease in the starting level of trust in nomadic professionals is worrying because if you don’t belong, you cannot do business or work together. Furthermore, you cannot lead.

All in all, this trend makes upholding all 3 principles harder. Even if someone is professionally capable, and adaptable to the local social norm and culture, starting with a lower base trust will make it much harder to build the minimum level of trust necessary to do business and work together. Additionally, the policies restriction negatively impacts mobility from a legal standpoint.

The second trend is the lasting impact of COVID-19. Because the pandemic started in Wuhan, China, people started to discriminate against people of Asian descent. There were even many incidents of violence all around the world. In the UK, a Singaporean was walking down Oxford Street, got beaten up, and the perpetrator said: “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country”. In NYC, a man sprayed an Asian passenger on the subway. Both cities, London & NYC, are cities that are considered international and diverse. If the effect in such international cities are as pronounced, how is it for other, less international and diverse, cities?

Additionally, it’s not helping that politicians are quick to blame other countries, such as Trump calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”, and there are a lot of circulating rumours that is unproven. Still, people start to believe; typically this is in the form of circulating messages in WhatsApp and Facebook university. I’d argue that it might not end at Asian discrimination. Because the infection numbers of countries are public, people from countries with a high rate of infection might also get discriminated.

Furthermore, to combat the pandemic, many countries have introduced border restrictions. Lifting these border restrictions will need careful planning from governments to ensure we could manage the pandemic as a society, and thus will take some time. Most likely, the global level of travel will not reach the previous levels in the next 3 years, unless a vaccine is developed soon and quickly distributed.

This trend of border restriction and discrimination is hastening the reversion of globalisation. Another indicator is the pandemic’s negative impact on the global supply chain. The WEF makes a case that post-COVID-19, although many companies will diversify where they’re producing, many companies will bring production back to their home country.

Similar to the first trend, this trend makes upholding all 3 principles harder due to restriction of ability to move around and discrimination which leads to difficulties in building trust. To counter these first two trends, I’m proposing a 4th principle, which is “Personal”. This principle should answer how we could connect with others on a personal and emotional level, and bypass the “us against them” mentality.

The last trend is the rising scepticism of businesses. This is relevant to many nomadic professionals that claim a business can do good, and they strive to help the world by doing business.

According to Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millenial Survey, fewer and fewer millennials have positive opinions of businesses. 45% of the 13,000+ respondents from 42 countries said that business doesn’t have a positive impact on wider society, increasing from 39% in 2018. Additionally, 76% agreed that businesses focus on their agenda rather than considering the wider society. Also keeping in mind that millennials are currently the largest group of consumers, this trend is not good for business sustainability.

This trend led to businesses needing to “prove” themselves with actions to retain their customer base. This statement is supported by the increasing CEO activism, where CEOs make statements and engage in politics to connect with their customers, impact the fabrics of society, and fulfil their business goals.

This makes it more challenging for nomadic professionals because not only they need to adapt to the local culture, they need to be able to advocate for causes that the people, especially their customers, care about. It’s no longer the time for us to work behind closed doors, but time to show our face and share to the world what we’re doing and how are we contributing to making the world a better place. This will add a 5th element to our principles, which is “visibility”.

To end this piece, I forecast that being a nomadic professional will get harder in the future, mainly due to the rise of nationalism, COVID-19 lasting impact, and rise of scepticism towards businesses. These trends led to difficulties in moving around the globe and in building trust. A possible antidote to part of the issue is to uphold 2 additional principles, which are “personal” and “visibility”. “Personal” principle means the emphasis to connect with people on a personal and emotional level, and “Visibility” principle is the emphasis on showing our work publicly and how we’re making the world a better place for everyone. Both could impact us by positively impacting people’s view of businesses and helping people have reasons to trust us.

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