Remote working during COVID-19: Surf's up as Australians head north to work from the beach

Alicia and Dave Corsar are living the dream. Waking up facing the ocean in northern NSW, they can have a morning surf before heading to work – from the back of their campervan.

The Sydney couple is part of a growing number of digital nomads uprooting their city lives for a seachange to work remotely.

Northern NSW tourism and business figures say the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend of digital nomads relocating to regional areas.

Mr and Mrs Corsar own two F45 gyms - one in Frenchs Forest on the Northern Beaches and another in Coffs Harbour on the Mid North Coast.

Until recently, they were based in Sydney and took occasional short trips north to keep an eye on the Coffs business. But then COVID-19 turned everything upside down as gyms went online and Mrs Corsar lost her job.

"In the global scale it can be quite depressing but on a personal level it allowed us to take stock of life," Mr Corsar said.

The couple decided to ditch Sydney and hit the road. Their van clocked 9000 kilometres in June alone as they traversed the NSW coast and managed the gyms remotely.

"We've pretty much lived out of the van the last two months. It's afforded us a good insight into what we can achieve," Mr Corsar said. "You've still got work to do but we're fitting it around the van life."

Mrs Corsar said losing her job "freed up the flexibility to work remotely" and allowed her to return to study.

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"We definitely want to continue doing it," she said.

Van life is not without its challenges. Running two businesses from the road requires steady internet connectivity, something not always available in remote campsites.

Their only regret is not quitting the rat race sooner.

"We're disappointed we didn't buy the van 10 years ago and make it part of our lives earlier," Mr Corsar said.

Sam Ficek works in digital marketing at car-sharing company Car Next Door. Instead of being stuck locked down in Sydney, Mr Ficek and his girlfriend Mecha moved to Byron Bay.

"My work is really flexible, they're happy as long as I'm getting the work done," he said.

"Our average day would be wake up and go surfing, if it's good in the morning. If not, work until 2 or 3pm in the afternoon then go for a surf and work some more. You're still working eight hours a day, it's just flexible. It's just nice to be somewhere else."

After a few months in Byron, Mr Ficek returned to Sydney and moved his furniture in storage to hit the road indefinitely. The couple is now in Noosa with plans to keep heading north.

Pru Chapman runs a Byron business called The Owners Collective that mentors early-stage entrepreneurs. She said the entire Northern Rivers region has benefited from the influx of digital nomads.

"In the global scheme of things we're right on the front of this tidal wave of entrepreneurs working for themselves," Ms Chapman said.

"Everyone is seeing working for themselves is totally possible. It's one of the huge positives that will come out of COVID - we're seeing the traditional nine-to-five [mentality] completely disabled."

Todd Sotheren is president of Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce and says the arrival of the National Broadband Network last year was "a massive game-changer" in attracting digital nomads.

"It's hard to put a size on it because the very nature of it is quite hidden," he said. "There's quite a significant number of those sitting in cafes and co-working spaces around town."

Mr Sotheren said the digital nomad trend helped diversify the region away from tourism. "The digital economy is more than welcome here."

David Jones, president of Destination Byron, said the pandemic had created a new type of tourist.

"The rental market in Byron is horrendous because everyone from Sydney and Melbourne has escaped if they could and are taking short-term rentals and working here for three months," he said. "You'd be surprised how many laptops are sitting around at pools at the moment."

See also: What to expect from your summer holiday this year

See also: Aussie expats hit with reverse culture shock after returning home

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