'We're secret digital nomads – our bosses have no idea we're working abroad'

‘I blur my Zoom background and keep an eye on the weather back home – if it’s cold in the UK, I put on a jumper and don’t sit where it’s obviously really sunny.’

Anna* is a secret digital nomad – someone who’s moved abroad and works remotely… while her boss believes she’s still in the UK.

A breakup prompted her move to Barcelona, with a quick trip turning into a long-term stay when Anna realised she didn’t want to go back home.

‘I had to move out of the flat we shared and I was a bit of a loss where to go,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I have a couple of friends who live in Barcelona who invited me to stay for a week.

‘When it came time to go home I realised that I didn’t really have anything to go back for, apart from my job – and I’d been doing that fully remote since the pandemic anyway.’

Anna floated the idea of relocating to Barcelona past her HR department, who told her it wouldn’t be possible.

But Anna wasn’t prepared to give up her newfound life so easily.

‘I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try, so I went home, picked up my laptop and booked a ticket back to Barcelona,’ she says. ‘I’ve been here for six months now and it’s easy to pretend I’m still in the UK.’

To keep in line with the new Brexit regulations, Anna regularly pops back to the UK – but has no plans to come back full-time.

And at this point, she’s not stressing about her boss finding out.

‘My quality of life is much better in Barcelona,’ she shares. ‘I’ve got friends and a life here now that is better than anything I had back home.

‘There’s no way they’ll get me back.’

Anna’s not the only worker living a secret nomadic life.

When the pandemic hit, our work lives changed forever. After being sent home to work many of us still haven’t returned to the office, allowing many of us to swap busy cities for countryside retreats or upping sticks and relocating abroad.

But while many of us dream of becoming a digital nomad – meaning you can work from any far-flung corner of the globe – working abroad isn’t as simple as packing a case and booking a one-way ticket to whichever sun-drenched beach you fancy.

If you’re already employed in the UK, your place of work will need to have things in place for your move, including sorting out your PAYE, working out if they’ll need to pay additional taxes on your earnings, and adjusting your working times according to your location.

‘There’s no way they’ll get me back’

Considering the faff involved, it’s no surprise that many employers deliver a flat ‘no’ to a working-abroad request.

But – lured by better weather, work-life balance boost, and a holiday that never ends – some workers refuse to accept that rejection… and choose to become secret digital nomads instead.

‘Before the pandemic I rented a small room in a house share in London,’ says David*, who works in IT. ‘I’ve always loved to travel so being confined to a tiny room during lockdown was really hard on me.

‘As soon as we could travel again a friend of mine booked a flight to Portugal and asked if I wanted to come.

‘I had a lot on at work and I couldn’t take any leave but I knew I needed to get out so I thought I’d risk it and take my laptop with me and just work from the hotel.’

David was nervous at first but when he realised that no one had cottoned on, an idea started to take shape.

‘As soon as I came home, I moved out of my flat and stored all my stuff in my parents’ spare room,’ he tells us. ‘I booked another flight, this time to Greece, with no end date to come back to the UK.’

David has spent the last year travelling the world, working from each new country as he goes.

He adds: ‘It’s saving me loads of money compared to what I was paying in London.

‘I get to explore places my wage and my holiday allowance never would have let me so it seems like a no-brainer.

‘I always keep my camera off during meetings, something I did before I started travelling, so no one can see where I am.’

But does David worry about his boss finding out about his secret life?

‘I don’t see how they will ever know,’ he shrugs. ‘There have a been a few times when things like time zones or delayed flights have nearly caused issues but as far as I’m concerned, I do my job well so it doesn’t really matter where I do it from.’

According to Lloyd Davey, a partner at Stevens and Bolton solicitors, that might be wishful thinking on David’s part.

‘There are a number of complex tax and legal issues that arise when an employee works remotely from overseas,’ Lloyd explains. ‘If you’re out of the country for an extended period you could be treated as a tax resident in two jurisdictions at the same time, which can affect things like inheritance tax.

‘Additionally, you might need to pay local taxes on your income.’

If paying more tax isn’t bad enough, you might also be missing out on employee benefits.

Lloyd explains: ‘Employees who work remotely from overseas may be entitled to the employment rights of local workers in the host country, which might be more generous than what you might be entitled to in the UK.

‘Employers need to honour these rights which would be difficult to do if they’re unaware you’re overseas.’

Lloyd also mentions working abroad can increase the risks of hacking and cyber fraud, especially if you’re using unsecured wifi networks, and if your work equipment becomes damaged your employer’s insurance policies might not cover items if they’ve been taken out of the country.

If you’ve got your heart set on working abroad, it seems honesty is always the best policy. Lloyd suggests being upfront with your plans so your employer can seek legal and tax advice relevant to the country you’ll be working in, but be prepared that even if you ask your boss nicely, the answer might still be no.

So what happens if you decide to throw caution to the wind and go anyway?

You could get sacked, basically. Be warned.

‘It is a statutory requirement that an employee is informed in writing of their place of work, this could be your home address or an office,’ Lloyd notes. ‘Working abroad is a breach of contract and an employer may subject employees to disciplinary proceedings or decide to terminate their contract.’

While it’s a good idea to do your homework and speak to your boss before you book your flight, if you won’t take no for an answer be prepared that you might not have a job if you get found out.

For secret digital nomads, like Anna and David, it seems this is worth the risk.

Names have changed to protect people’s secret remote-working identities.

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