Here’s Some Real Talk About Working Remotely Abroad

The more marginalized identities you hold, the less Insta-worthy it tends to be

One pandemic silver lining has definitely been the transition to more flexible working arrangements, something women have basically been asking for since they entered the workforce. Bosses are trusting their team members to get shit done outside the office and normal working hours.

With many countries opening borders and offering special visas to remote workers, it may actually be possible to live that #digitalnomadlife and clock in from overseas. I mean, who wouldn’t want to conduct Zoom meetings with an ocean sunset at their back and an umbrella cocktail in hand?

As a Black lady freelancer based in Istanbul, Turkey — my third overseas location — I’ve found that the reality of being a digital nomad doesn’t always live up to the fantasy. The more you diverge from the cis-het white normativity, the less your experience will look like what you see on Instagram.

Payroll and taxes don’t see color

At the risk of sounding like a toxically positive Karen, it’s not always about race. Your first problem as a digital nomad is actually going to be that payroll policies and tax systems just weren’t designed for the remote worker abroad. (I’m not going to get into the latter. Trust me, though. It is one. hot. mess.)

Unfortunately, this is something that the people hiring you may not actually know until they start talking contracts with HR. Travel writer Imani Bashir, who is a long-term Black expat, learned this the hard way when she was unceremoniously fired from her remote job after moving to Mexico during the pandemic.

Turns out that in our globally connected world, it is actually surprisingly difficult for companies to pay employees in countries where they don’t have a presence, says the Society for Human Resource Management and the Financial Times. (IMHO, Business Insider kind of underreported this fun fact of their coverage of Bashir’s situation.) And let’s not kid ourselves: women, POC, and LGBTQ+ workers aren’t the folks that most companies are going to sink time and money into creating workarounds for.

Even when employers do offer paid contracts to remote employees abroad, many bosses are still just learning how to manage virtual projects and may not have any experience doing so across different time zones.

It’s especially hard for women supervisors, whose own work-from-home juggling acts may have knock-on implications for your digital nomad success. I just lost an opportunity for regular content marketing work—the holy grail of digital nomadship—because the hiring manager’s toddlers’ East Coast morning schedule conflicted with my working hours. I don’t work past 8 p.m. Istanbul time for mental health reasons, and she couldn’t meet mornings, so we called the whole thing off.

Man on bike in tropical location pointing to a street sign that says, “Follow That Dream.”
Oh, if only it were this easy for all of us. Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Bias sans frontières

Payroll (and, ugh, many payment platforms, including Stripe and PayPal) may not yet be borderless, but bias sure as hell is. For women and digital nomads from marginalized communities, this has implications for how our bosses and clients evaluate—and value—our remote work performance.

On a recent episode of “The McKinsey Podast,” senior partners Alexis Krivkovich and Lareina Yee note that protocols for recruitment, hiring, evaluations, and advancement have never been particularly women-friendly and they also don’t really fit with the new normal of remote work.

“Informal” and “open-box” evaluations, which I suspect bosses are probably leaning into during the pandemic, make people more “to rely on gender, race, and other stereotypes” in their feedback, according to a 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review.

With rare exceptions, when I was an in-person staffer, my performance reviews never went well. My accomplishments were team victories but only the team failures—and the occasional missteps my bosses blew out of proportion—ended up in my file.

Without the kind of glowing feedback my white colleagues received, I was not considered for mentoring or positioned for advancement. This all would have been so much worse and triggered way more anxiety and depression had I been working remotely with a 7-hour time difference.

It’s all in your head

Workplace microaggressions compromise mental wellbeing and can exacerbate mental illness. But as a digital nomad, you may find it hard to access the culturally responsive care that you need to offset them—or to manage mental illness in general.

Even though Istanbul is a modern, global city, the mental health care sector here is not particularly robust. Health insurance just doesn’t cover mental health treatment, and the options for medications for conditions like ADHD—without which I cannot do my job—are incredibly limited compared to the U.S.

Your American therapist may be working remotely now, but she almost certainly can’t legally treat you. Psychologists’ licenses can’t even cross state lines—though some states have relaxed these rules because of the pandemic—so you are SOL if you’re in another country, as I recently found out.

Depending on host country demographics and the local discrimination situation, POC and LGBTQ+ folks in particular may not be able to find health practitioners who have the knowledge base or experience to provide competent treatment. Western medicine’s baked-in racism and homophobia has been exported globally, so do your research about the situation on the ground before you book that flight.

Something else you may not have access to as a digital nomad? A coronavirus vaccine. As rich countries horde vaccines and pharmaceutical companies refuse to release patents, many Black and brown countries that might have been affordable, attractive options for remote workers have limited doses for their own citizens and protracted schedules for vaccinating their populations.

Even if you can get vaccinated, you may not be able to get the vaccine you want as many poorer countries are using vaccines with lower efficacy. If you’re already vaccinated, there’s the ethical quandary of relocating somewhere where a majority of people aren’t because you can still transmit the virus. It’s unlikely that you will spread the virus, but it is not impossible.

Social media would have you believe that the digital nomad’s summer is all jump-posing on white-sand beaches and doing asanas on mountaintops, but here’s some #RealTalk: I’m currently planning a summer “vacation” around quarantining on arrival in the U.S., getting a vaccine, and then doing intensive like 18 intensive sessions with a local Black clinical psychologist before returning to Istanbul.

View of Galata Tower in Istanbul in the late afternoon with birds flying overhead.
Istanbul! Photo by Anna on Unsplash

Eyes wide open

I know this all sounds like I’m saying to opt out of being a digital nomad, but I’m really not. If it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do, in some ways, it’s easier to do than ever, due to employers’ newfound flexibility and other nations’ open invitations to remote workers.

Arguably, it might even make you a better worker. The stunning scenery or fascinating culture of a new locale may ignite creativity you can channel into your work. You may find that you can thrive in ways that you can’t in the U.S. or that your own lived experiences have uniquely set you up to flourish in a host culture.

You may feel more protected from the virus in host countries that addressed the pandemic better early on. Or, like Imani Bashir, you may find greater peace outside the persistent threat of racialized violence that her family faces in the U.S.

It’s important to go in with your eyes wide open, aware that your race, gender, and other intersecting identities present challenges to digital nomad life that other workers just don’t face. For us, it’s just not as simple as grabbing your laptop and heading to the nearest tropical island or European capital with open borders.

But if you can figure out how to get paid, advocate for yourself with bosses and clients so you don’t miss out on career opportunities, and access the health care you need, you have a real shot at making remote work actually work.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG:

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