Coworking Unconference Asia days away in Chiang Mai

Temple in Chiang Mai

If the future of work is your thing (and it really should be, because change is the new norm), you might be interested in the Coworking Unconference Asia – now just days away in Thailand.

Brought by The Coworking Association of Asia Pacific, co-founded by Steve Munroe of Hubud, Coworking Unconference will take place in digital nomad hotspot Chiang Mai on 8-12 February 2017. The first four days will see a tonne of talks take place, ranging from Seoul’s ecosystem to lessons from Uber in Southeast Asia, along with opportunities for participants to set the agenda (the unconference bit).

The speaker lineup is impressive, with representatives from household names like Google, Uber and Regus to movers & shakers in the coworking world and beyond.

An excursions day will conclude activities with complimentary temple and waterfall trips – a literal cooling down.

Having experienced a conference in Chiang Mai myself, I’m mildly envious of anyone joining Coworking Unconference. It’s a terrific city that allows for both focus and calm (something that cannot be said about most cities) – and the food isn’t bad either!

A digital nomad life is not just for Millennials

Middle aged man on beach

The big news last month, that frankly came as a bit of a surprise, and reverberated around the media, was Trump’s victory UK columnist Lucy Kellaway’s revelation that she was to step away from a successful 31-year career with the FT to launch an educational social enterprise, Now Teach, and become a maths teacher.

This is good news for education (and the economy) which needs a common sense approach, but bad news for those of us who enjoy seeing Lucy rip apart corporate twaddle every Monday in her column.

But there is more.

With her announcement, Lucy issued an invitation to other middle-aged professionals to leave the city and retrain as teachers through the Now Teach programme. Already there is strong interest, confirming that Millennials aren’t the only demographic group seeking purpose in their career (I’d love to know where the marketing people get their insights from).

Earlier in the year, she commented on the absence of older workers in the office in her article In search of the missing office minority – the over-fifties, saying:

This elimination of the vast rump of fiftysomethings from London’s office spaces is at odds with what is supposed to be happening, which is that people are working longer, not just to a normal retirement age but beyond.

In part this is age discrimination. Younger professionals might look aghast at such a claim, but the fact is ageism is an issue (but much less spoken about compared to other forms of discrimination) in developed economies, and it’s alarming to think a shelf life can be so short these days. The world of work has never looked so broken.

But the middle-aged are also pursuing an alternative to salaried employment to prolong their working life, enabled by technology, as noted in their article
Answering Lucy Kellaway: Here’s why over-50s are fleeing salary slavery.

The more experienced among us are increasingly realising skills that built up in corporate service are highly sought in our new connected age. So they have, quite rationally, opted Skype. Slack and other connectable technology as an alternative to the grind of commuting. And rejected the notion of working hours and income determined by faceless committees, preferring the flexibility of offering their skills to the whole world.

This will be welcomed by many of us approaching middle-age; frazzled, but with impressive networks and highly adept at using technology, even if it does mean using email over Snapchat. We are not digital natives, but we began our careers with digital, and when the corporate Grim Reaper comes wielding their scythe a decade from now, we will be ready.

And what an afterlife it promises to be.

Through using tools like Skype, or more likely VR in a few years, the over-fifties (ousted or otherwise) among us can work or stay connected from a variety of locations worldwide – assuming there’s a stable Internet connection (I am tapping this out from a ferry to Cheung Chau island) – without the politics and commute we all know and love.

Who wouldn’t want to give Bali or Thailand a shot, injecting midlife with meaning and a moped (it appealed to Julia Robert’s character in Eat, Pray, Love), with the kids maybe at university or whatever disrupts higher education? Perhaps up-and-coming Myanmar will be the place to be.

Or perhaps the opposite will be true: Balinese and Thais relocating to the Americas or Europe, in what would be a surprise digital nomad reverse trend.

What is certain is that the thirtysomethings and fortysomethings presently in employment should be planning now for a life outside of the traditional office environment. Perhaps we should be forgetting the corner office, and aim instead for a corner of the world (and economy) that delivers a more sustainable lifestyle aligned to our interests and values.

KoHub coworking space puts Koh Lanta on the digital nomad map


Ko Lanta might not be as widely recognised as neighbouring Phuket or Phi Phi, but it has become a hotspot for at least one traveller group. A picture of bliss, the Andaman island that feels like a blend of Bali and Laos (if you take away the temples) has established itself as a popular digital nomad destination. Its sweeping beaches and sunsets are fabulous, its roads are free of traffic, the crowds are mercifully absent, and there is a more mature feel about the place – ideal conditions for both chilling and getting stuff done.

Taking a few days recently to unwind on the island, I stopped by coworking space KoHub en route back to Krabi to see what it was like, having heard about it while attending the Digital Nomad Conference in Bangkok earlier in the year.

KoHubKoHub wasn’t an easy spot from the road, and I found it to be quiet when I neared the entrance, far from the hive of activity I had been expecting. But there was a good – and somewhat enviable – reason for the stillness of it all.

Greeting me at the door, KoHub’s amiable Polly explained that many of its members were out kayaking, as it was the weekend. Where else can you do that? 🙂 She then kindly took me on a tour of the work spaces and dining areas set amidst a tropical garden.

Established two years ago, KoHub has a swelling membership that comprises web developers, designers and online teachers, in addition to people passing by to connect with like-minded others (the average tenure is a month).

I was told that the transience is such that digital nomads hop from one established hub to the next within Southeast Asia, seeking out locations as the seasons (and prices) change. The circuit starts in Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north, before moving south to Ko Lanta, across the equator to Bali, and North again to Vietnam. I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before other affordable locations join as pastures along the route, from Penang to Yogyakarta (someone who can shed light on this is Dave Cook, whom as I mentioned before, is leading a study into digital nomad behaviour).

Transience aside, there is a strong sense of community. KoHub is not a coworking space alone. Members can take Thai lessons and themselves teach English at a local school, and there are eco-friendly activities like upcycling.

KoHub activities

The environmental message came out strong: outings include the aforementioned kayaking and island tours, and Full Moon parties are organised on the nearby beach (a popular thing in Koh Lanta, apparently).

Indoors fun meanwhile included a games room with foosball and movies, in a setup similar to traditional offices (I was told it’s also popular for Skype calls).

All that foosball fun leads to hungry stomachs (or maybe that’s just me), and KoHub’s food offerings looked better than average. One of the biggest appeals of living in Southeast Asia is the food, which is among the best on the planet, and Thai cuisine in particular is renowned the world over. KoHub’s menu includes familiar favourites like tom yam and tom ka, alongside curries, fruit shakes and fresh juices.

While I didn’t see many members on the day, KoHub is becoming highly subscribed to the extent that a new space on the island is sought to accommodate more people. It has come a long way in two years, and a bright future beckons if more people join the digital nomad movement. Altogether now: ko ko, there’s ko limit…

From Keynes to karoshi: the long hours debate continues

Today is World Values Day (apparently), an invitation to reflect on what really matters in life, such as happiness, independence and family.

It’s easy to overlook the things that are important to us as we strive for success, and sometimes it can go too far. In recent weeks, the long hours question has found itself once more in the spotlight. A Washington Post article, Stop touting the crazy hours you work. It helps no one, over leaders trumpeting their aversion to sleep, was shared on Linkedin, while tragedy in Japan attributed to karoshi has sparked ongoing debate.

Economists have been wrong about a number of things, but Keyne’s now famous 20th century prediction about working hours is one of the more glaring (and perhaps grating) failures. In 1930 he predicted the working week of his grandchildren’s generation would be reduced to just 15 hours. He was way off the mark. From New York to Tokyo, professionals continue to grind out evening hours and beyond.

Of course, Keynes may yet be right: some commentators are now suggesting the elimination of work altogether by 2050 because of automation (and who knows how that might look). But until that happens, there are alternative models to consider.

The Scandinavian way of life, for example. Sweden famous introduced a 6 hour work day and Denmark’s work day typically ends at 4pm. A former Danish co-worker confirmed this was true, saying that “presenteeism” was, well, absent from Danish workplaces.

But while we can’t all work in Scandinavia, we can take a piece of Scandinavia with us, and I don’t mean shopping for a desk at IKEA. When I attended the Digital Nomad Conference in Bangkok earlier this year, one name stood out more than most. Tim Ferris, he of “4 Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich” fame.

Ferris’ 2007 bestseller described a different approach to work, in that you could eliminate 50% of your tasks in 48 hours (in doing so living the life you want). As a result, the book created quite a stir.

But what’s the reality like? Are freelancers and digital nomads enjoying reduced hours?

I asked London anthropologist Dave Cook, who is conducting a fascinating study into the social and cultural impact of nomads, to shed some light. He explained that, based on his observations:

free from imposed working structures, digital nomads tend to move into a working pattern that is personal to them.

This makes sense. However – and this is surprising – none of the working patterns observed looked anything like the model championed by Ferris:

I haven’t seen anything approaching the ideal of the 4 hour work week. In fact some of the digital nomads I’ve spoken to find the sales rhetoric of some of the self help books such as Ferris, or bloggers who over-emphasise life hacking, quite irritating, because meaningful daily routines can be reduced to productivity problems to be solved.

Indeed, rather than a 4 hour work week, some nomads (bootstrappers, for example) work harder than they would in a conventional day job.

Explaining further, Dave added that there was no conventional working pattern. Much depended on cultural background and level of experience. Some digital nomads are young, with relatively little work experience, while others have fled the “tyranny” of micromanagement and are putting in the hours on their own terms.

And that’s what really this is all about: the freedom to call the shots. Power is now in the hands of the individual, who determines what works best in accordance to their needs, or what is personal to them, as Dave describes it. And that may indeed result in long hours – or failure altogether.

Whether it’s a case of working at a desk in Pudong or from a deckchair in Phuket, work-life balance is evidently less straightforward than it seems.

The Beach 20 years later: spirit lives on in digital nomad tribes

Matinloc Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Today is a remarkable anniversary. Alex Garland’s The Beach was published 20 years ago (younger people might recognise Alex as the director of Ex Machina). What’s remarkable is that it’s only been 20 years. The world has changed almost beyond recognition since: ICQ (yes, that long ago), Google, the iPod, MySpace, Facebook, the smartphone, the Millennial, Tesla, the selfie, Instagram, #sorrynotsorry. It has been a period of enormous change, for better or for worse.

Looking at it now, The Beach evokes “end of an era” and end of innocence feelings, and not just because disillusioned Richard left the hidden paradise he called home. It really was the fin de siecle: the end of the 1990s, the end of the 20th century, and the end of simpler times as we knew them, when care-free hedonism and dial-up connections reigned.

Soon after reading the now cult classic and watching the Hollywood movie when they emerged, I travelled to Southeast Asia for the first time. I felt like a novice backpacker like Richard, armed with a knackered copy of the Rough Guide and a traditional camera with 3 rolls of film (no digital cameras then, let alone smartphones), staying at cheap Malaysian guesthouses, popping into “cyber cafes”, and staring wide-eyed at the sheer exoticism of the Far East, as the region was still called then in that quaint pre-globalisation way.

Seven years later, I unexpectedly returned to Kuala Lumpur – this time in a suit, my own “innocence” lost. And this time, I stayed.

Hopping about frequently in Southeast Asia, I never forgot The Beach and the hope that there was a mystical idyll out there somewhere, buried in the South China Sea or hidden in the Indonesian archipelago. I was fortunate enough to encounter extraordinary beaches and fascinating characters, but The Beach as described in the book, a tropical shangri-la, was forever elusive.

And yet, while the untainted paradise beach will likely stay a myth, the utopian spirit of The Beach lingers on. Its post-911, post-capitalism incarnation can be seen in the form of co-working spaces, filled with digital nomads who get about using apps such as Airbnb and Waze.

Like The Beach’s main character, digital nomads also flock to Thailand (although the book’s original location was The Philippines), to places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Krabi, making connections and living the dream. And with the passing of Richard’s generation into middle age gloop and suburbia, the baton has been passed to globetrotting Millennials, themselves looking for purpose.

Travel might no longer be romantic, as it surely was pre-internet, but the essence of what made The Beach special – the pursuit of a more spiritual, community-minded and more “authentic” alternative to everyday life – endures to this day.