Remote Work: Navigating Digital Nomad Visas and OECD Regulations

 

 

This article was written in partnership with Fragomen, the world’s leading provider of visa and immigration services.

The idea of working from anywhere now enjoys considerable real-world purchase. Employees are taking up new opportunities to work away from the office, while corporates are including remote work pathways into long-term talent management strategies. National governments, for their part, are continuing to establish remote worker, or ‘digital nomad’, visas; as well as further tightening and refining remote work regulatory landscapes. This blog unpacks the current status of remote work, with a particular focus on the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)*.

* The OECD is made up of the following 38 countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Türkiye, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

 

What do we mean when we say ‘remote worker’?

The idea of a ‘remote worker’, although inherently broad, can be crunched into the following core notion: an employee who does not work in their employer’s office where such remoteness is not a function of their job. In this way, employees who work at client-sites, whose role is inherently mobile (for instance, pilots), or who perform business travel-related work (for instance, attending trainings, negotiations, or events) are not remote workers. The concept can be further broken down as follows:

  • Same country. Employees who live and work in the same country as their employer, but simply never (or rarely) come into the office. 
  • Hybrid workers. Employees who generally work in a ‘hybrid’ fashion: splitting their time between working in-office and working remotely. 
  • Different country and ‘digital nomads’. Employees who live and work in a country different from their employer. This cohort includes the famed ‘digital nomad’ – remote workers who live and work in a third country separate not only from their employer’s location but also, critically, their own nationality. Digital nomads are therefore often subject to immigration-related constraints. Their time in the third country is generally limited, and they will often be barred from providing goods or services to the local economy or joining the domestic labor market. 
  • Business travel or holiday. Employees who either a) work remotely during business travel, provided that such work is distinct from their business travel tasks; or b) work remotely during a holiday trip. This type of remote work tends to be very temporary in nature.  

 

Diving deeper, the immigration options for digital nomads, as well as prospective business travelers or holidaymakers, can be cut three ways:

  1. Apply for a standard work permit. Although such permit regimes are primarily geared towards foreign nationals working for domestic (as opposed to overseas) employers, in some countries this immigration pathway may be one’s only choice. 
  2. Apply for a dedicated remote worker, or ‘digital nomad’, visa. If available, these visas allow one to work fulltime, but only for overseas employers. Alternatively, visitor visas (or visa free programs) may expressly allow equivalently comprehensive remote work rights. This, however, is rare.
  3. Rely on whatever limited work rights exist under a visitor visa (or visa free program). Generally, visitor visas (or visa free programs) only allow foreign nationals to engage in limited, short-term or incidental work – if they grant such rights at all. Although this may suffice for business travelers and holidaymakers, those seeking long-term, comprehensive and full time rights to work for a foreign employer would often need to look to the other options on this list.

 

Digital nomads: A trend of expansion and formalization 

Countries are continuing to implement dedicated remote worker, or ‘digital nomad’, visa programs that allow foreign nationals to work for an overseas employer. Such programs often impose unique application, income, and insurance requirements but in turn grant favorable work and residence rights, including for dependents. Developments in 2024 include: 

 

 

This trend towards formalizing remote worker visa programs is a welcome development. It helps ensure that digital nomad pathways are well publicized and rigorously designed, reducing uncertainty or confusion for potential digital nomads. Additionally, such programs allow for targeted data-gathering. Many countries currently lack precise data on their digital nomad populations. 

Commentators have noted that in some cases such formalization efforts may be part of a broader strategy to retain foreign talent in the long run – with legislators hoping that the ‘nomad’ becomes permanent. The future trajectory of such ‘long-term digital nomad’ populations will be intriguing, and jurisdictions are likely to vary. Some countries may continue to keep this cohort at arm’s length – benefiting from the consumer activity boost but offering no domestic labor market opportunities. Alternatively, other countries may use remote worker visas to attract skilled talent in the first place, with the intention that such workers eventually join the domestic labor market. These countries may even provide their digital nomad population with preferential treatment when it comes time to apply for a domestic work permit.

 

Remote work in the OECD

Narrowing the focus to the countries of the OECD, internal Fragomen data highlights: 

  • considerable variance regarding digital nomad programs; 
  • a general tolerance for limited work rights under tourist, visitor, or visa free arrangements – but with notable exceptions; and 
  • an inexorable (but as yet incomplete) pivot towards establishing remote-work specific workplace regulation. 

 

Digital nomad divergence. There is considerable variance within the OECD regarding implementation of dedicated remote worker, or ‘digital nomad’, visa programs. More specifically:

  • Formal programs. Around a third of OECD countries have a dedicated program for digital nomads, or have announced that one will shortly be in place. This includes prominent economies such as Italy, Japan, South Korea and Spain
  • Hybrid arrangements’. A small number of OECD countries expressly blur the division between their visitor visa frameworks and ‘digital nomad’ programs. For instance, in 2023, Canada announced that it was commencing a digital nomad program. However, ‘digital nomads’ simply need to enter the country on a visitor visa and are not required to provide any additional documentation
  • No programs. The majority of OECD countries have not established either formal or ‘hybrid’ digital nomad programs, including significant members such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. This is not necessarily surprising as remote worker visa programs have, with notable exceptions, proven particularly attractive to smaller economies looking for new ways to attract foreign nationals. For instance, in Europe, Estonia (one of the continent’s smaller economies) was a prominent digital nomad first-mover; meanwhile, the Caribbean is one of the most prolific digital-nomad friendly regions in the world. 

 

Limited work under visitor visas (or visa free programs). Around two-thirds of OECD countries expressly allow a limited degree of remote work under visitor visas, or visa free arrangements. Often, such work can only be performed in private locations (for instance, hotels), is limited in scope (only ‘incidental’ tasks), and is time-limited (at best the length of the visa, but sometimes shorter). Such limited work rights should not be confused with the far more comprehensive rights provided for under dedicated remote worker, or ‘digital nomad’, visas. Australia, for instance, allows ‘incidental’ remote work; so too New Zealand, but holidaying must remain the primary purpose of one’s visit. In Austria the work activities must be limited to a few hours a week (anything more structured requires work authorization); while in Ireland one can only work remotely for a home employer for 14 days in any 90-day period. 

These trends can be further broken down:

  • Scope and growth. Around two-thirds of OECD countries expressly grant some form of work rights for visitors. In a recent development, in late 2023 the United Kingdom expressly confirmed that visitors could work remotely while in the country, provided that – as with so many other jurisdictions – such remote work is only incidental to the primary purpose of the visit.
  • Overlap with digital nomad programs? Many OECD countries which have digital nomad programs also grant limited work rights for visitors. As visitor work rights tend to be pale shadows of their digital nomad cousins, any practical overlap between the programs is marginal at best. For instance, remote workers on a visitor visa in Estonia cannot work longer than five days in a 30-day period; while the country’s digital nomad program grants work rights of up to one year. 
  • Expressly banned. Several OECD countries (including notable economies such as Germany and the United States) expressly ban any form of remote work for visitors. This cohort includes three countries with digital nomad visa regimes (Italy, Japan and Spain). 

 

Regulating the remote workplace. Fragomen internal data shows that most OECD countries require employers to adhere to some form of workplace regulation specific to remote workers (as opposed to simply relying on general employment law). To be sure, the stringency and scope of such regulatory requirements varies across jurisdictions. In some instances, employment contracts must be explicit about ‘work-from-home’ or ‘remote work’ conditions. In other instances, employers must provide appropriate equipment to remote workers, and satisfy themselves that a home office is adequately safe and healthy. Often, employers are also required to notify authorities about the existence and work conditions of remote workers (including any change of work location). 

That said, a sizeable minority of OECD countries have yet to establish much, if any, workplace regulatory framework specific to remote working. We expect this to change. Legislators – both within the OECD and elsewhere – are increasingly understanding that the unique benefits, challenges and requirements of remote working mandate distinct policies and protections. For instance: 

  • In late March 2024, Bulgaria (not in the OECD) introduced new regulations around remote work which distinguishes between the needs of remote workers and office workers. This includes increased work-hour flexibility; mandating a right of disconnection; and introducing remote work-specific health and safety obligations.
  • In Poland (an OECD member), labor authorities announced that across 2024 they would prioritize remote-work audits, including assessing whether employees have been provided adequate work equipment.

 

Conclusion 

Working from anywhere is sticking around. Certainly, compliance issues (including around immigration, tax and social security) will continue to give employers pause-for-thought when pondering remote work options for employees. Additionally, employers will need to keep track of the increasing amount of regulation specific to remote work arrangements. 

Nonetheless, alongside such regulatory hurdles is also a rich possibility. Remote work arrangements, including digital nomad pathways, allow employers access to a broader and more diverse workforce, and provide their existing employees with a greater ability to craft more appropriate and sustainable work-life arrangements. Going forward, employers should continue assessing how remote work can be integrated into their long-term strategies.

 

Co-Authored by Charlotte Wills and Dominic Dietrich of Fragomen along with John Lee of Work From Anywhere

 

Charlotte is a Partner and solicitor based in Fragomen’s London office. As a lead solicitor to clients, she provides strategic immigration advice and support across a range of industries. Her portfolio of accounts includes large financial institutions, companies from the IT and media industries, as well as clients from the oil and gas sector.

 

 

Dominic is a lead analyst based in Fragomen’s Brussels office. He tracks immigration policy trends across the Europe and MENA regions as part of providing actionable, forward-looking insights for Fragomen and its clients.

 

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Remote Work: Navigating Digital Nomad Visas and OECD Regulations