Some years ago, while traveling back home to Athens, I realised that if I ever decided to move back, I would have to make a difficult decision.
On the one hand, being able to work with and for clients and employers located in booming job markets such as Berlin, London, Amsterdam or Paris. On the other, I would have to keep living in one of these metropolis. This was an energy-consuming recurrent dilemma which was breaking my focus from other, more productive things.
Fast forward few months later, I started getting reports and experiences on remote work. Ex colleagues, friends, remote-only companies ( Gitlab, Automattic ), and the vibrant digital nomad community. Once I started looking, I realised remote work was there all along, bigger than I thought, and growing.
Eventually I started working remotely myself in 2019, and half a year later remote work was about to be sent into orbit in orders of magnitude never imagined in the pre-covid era.
Is it just because “we have to” ?
Health recommendations from government officials and health experts are definitely clear: They endorse remote working as a measure to break another key link in the infection chain. But is that all?
It definitely is not. Remote work brings a long list of crucial life improvements for the employee, and an even longer list of cost-savings and business improvements for the companies & employers. Allow me to briefly go through some of these points.
Location, Location, Location
What’s the first criteria one filters when looking for a new role? What’s the first criteria included by a company in a job description? Companies actively advertise the city their office is located at. They spend time, money, and hours of work to draft guides, shoot attractive urban photos and provide relocation support & tips to potential employees. I’m not even going to go into VISA processes, temporary housing, apartment hunting, etc etc. The lucky companies who are already in popular cities (such as Berlin or Amsterdam) have it rather easy. The rest of them, headquartered in smaller mid-sized, less-known cities, are either forced to open offices in the bigger capitals or ultimately take a hit on finding and attracting talent. Therefore, the current state of things is not so democratic and promotes the over-concentration of people in big cities.
Moving into a new city is a challenge on its own. I’ve had my fair share of moves around Europe and I’ve witnessed the consequences first hand. I’ve also experienced and worked with other colleagues who suffered from cultural shocks, “adaptation depression”, had relationship issues when they had to leave a loved one behind. All these issues had a tax on their work quality and performance.
As any knowledgable HR department will tell you, the physical presence of an employee at an office comes with a long list of costs. The exorbitant commercial real estate rents and the struggle to actually find offices. The in-house IT support, the intranet / extranet network support. And you have business travel: that plague. Gazillions of euros spent for business trips that could be Skype/Meet/Webex/Zoom video calls.. provided everyone bothered to invest 50–100E for a good pair of headphones / microphone and a decent camera. (no, your casual freely provided smartphone headphones won’t do)
I expect the salaries average overall to drop, but that will be countered by significant lower living costs. (more bang for your buck). Not having to pay a $5000/m rent in San Francisco leaves a lot of room both for you to save more or rent & buy better, bigger property, and the company to cut costs on salaries. On the other hand, people who lived and worked in smaller cities (because they wanted to stay close to family, friends or because they had to because of other various reasons) can now try out their luck in bigger companies, asking higher salaries than before. These two phenomena are probably going to cancel each other out. Competition for job applicants of high-profile companies will increase, but so will access to companies globally. (there’s going to be far more people that will be eligible to be hired by Google but there’s going to be a ton of new companies all around the globe ready to hire you) Low cost workers from developing markets will probably not be a huge issue as geographically these countries tend to be in much different timezones, and in any case, we already had outsourcing in place anyway — if anything, these workers may adapt their hourly rates higher than before.
So you just want to “work from home” ? Isn’t that a bit boring?
This is the key misconception with regards to remote work. It’s often assumed that remote work means you stay home with your pyjamas (or not) and flip flops. I attribute that false image to most people’s first contact with remote : the first wave of the pandemic and the quarantine — we actually HAD to stay inside. But no, this is not how it usually goes.
Coworking spaces and working-cafes all across the globe are full of remote workers. Remote workers in fact are travel-addicted. They like to jump from country to country, spending some months to each and even try to integrate with the locals. I’m not a digital nomad myself (hard to do that when you have a newborn) but I do enjoy being social and connecting with other professionals of my field either online or in coworking spaces and meetups.
The pandemic was indeed a strong push towards remote work, but keep in mind that even remote, under the pandemic, isn’t at its’ “normal” state. (take people with kids for example : working while your kids are in the room/next room isn’t easy — that’s not how remote is supposed to be)
Looking ahead, in a world where location is irrelevant to work
I’m not sure we can grasp the full extent of the impact this is going to have in local communities, big cities and smaller towns. There’s already reports for a mass exodus of people from hubs like San Francisco and London. These cities are still going to attract people who just want to live there, but with location not being an issue for career development, it is going to unlock a strong de-centralising movement towards smaller cities, suburbs, or even countries in the case of fully distributed remote-first companies. That means a better distribution of spending and growth and a sudden boost of various sectors of the economy which were previously exclusive to the big metropolis. At the same time, big cities’ cost of life growth will probably flatten out and possibly correct at a percentage that will vary depending on the city/country. The housing market will be affected, undoubtedly.
Many smaller cities, both in the US and in some European countries, lack the infrastructure to allow for that growth. There would need to be strong investment in networking, schools, hospitals, security, public administration, transportation.. to name a few.
What about the planet?
This is a trickier calculation. How does reducing daily commutes and business travel measure against increased energy consumption in smaller scale spaces? I have the impression (not based on real data though) that overall energy consumption and CO2 emissions will drop. (of course if we take into account the tourism dip, CO2 emissions should be at historical lows, but that’s supposed to bounce back)
What about companies which decide to not go remote?
Changing habits and well established practices and ways of life takes time, effort, trial & error. Several companies are adapting to the new reality well, others, probably estimate that their requirements are such that an onsite way of working is more appropriate. My prediction is that it will become harder and harder to find skilled experts willing to work anything more than 50% onsite, unless these companies counter balance onsite with amazing offices, conveniently located, other perks and/or above-average salary packages.
So how has remote impacted your life? What are the new opportunities opening up for you? What are you afraid of?