While exploring Mayan ruins and lost cities in the jungles of Guatemala, I emerged from a dense forest one day in search of something truly elusive: a Wi-Fi network.
The year was 2006. I was with my wife and two sons on the trip of a lifetime, going from one Mayan site to another across five countries over six weeks. I wasn’t on vacation. I worked during the entire trip. At the time, I was writing a weekly opinion column for Computerworld, with consulting work on the side.
I decided as an experiment to tell neither my editor nor my clients that I would be traveling. I wanted to conduct an experiment — to see if they would even notice that I was abroad. (Spoiler: They didn’t.)
With a deadline imminent, I really needed that internet connection. After trudging through a forest from the village where we were staying to a small town rumoured to have a hotel, I found it: a run-down building with “Hotel” hand-painted on it, with a metal table and two chairs beside the structure more or less in the dirt road.
More importantly, I checked my phone and there it was: Wi-Fi! (In that place in those days, Wi-Fi was rare, but if you could find it, there was never a password involved.) I sat down, logged in, sent my column and breathed a sigh of relief.
Sweltering in the Central American humidity and swatting away mosquitos, I didn’t know at the time that I was living in the future.
The rise of remote work
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a rush to remote work in early 2020, it merely accelerated an existing trend.
The rise in remote work didn’t exist in a vacuum. It was part of a larger trend toward the rise of flexible work, where many computer-using professionals found themselves working at times off-site and after-hours.
The importance of flex work became well established in the past five years. LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2019 report found a 78 per cent increase in LinkedIn job posts referencing flexible work between 2016 and 2018. Remote work itself in the US rose by 173 per cent between 2005 and 2018, according to March 2020 data from Global Workplace Analytics. Flex work and remote work are part of the same phenomenon.
But when the pandemic hit, what had been a slow trend became an overnight one. And large-scale remote work appears to be here to stay.
The numbers tell a compelling story. A report from AngelList and Buffer published last February found that nearly all (98 per cent) of the 3,500 global remote workers it surveyed would prefer to work remotely, at least part-time, for the rest of their working lives.
Employees who work remotely prefer it so much that 29 per cent would quit if they had to go back to the office, according to a recent survey by LiveCareer. Owl Labs found in its 2020 State of Remote Work US report that allowing remote work reduces employee turnover on average by 25 per cent.
Don’t look now, but tomorrow’s remote work won’t look even remotely similar to today’s. It’s time for businesses of all sizes, C-suite executives, and IT professionals to understand the consequential and surprising future of remote work.
After the rush to remote work, what comes next?
What flex work and remote work have in common is that they both emerged in the context of a historically new reality - a digital technology-enabled disconnection between work and location, and between work and time. The pandemic work-from-home trend proved once and for all that work doesn’t always need to be done in an office or during office hours.
This decoupling coincides with several other trends that will fundamentally change the nature of remote work. These trends are:
- A reduced desirability of cities because of the pandemic and fears of future pandemics
- A reduced desirability of cities because of a decades-long rise in the cost of urban living
- A reduction in the cost of solar energy, which is now the cheapest form of energy, according to the International Energy Agency
- The coming revolution in satellite internet
- The rise of ride-sharing companies like Uber and home-sharing companies like Airbnb
- The global rise in incentives designed to lure remote workers
Because of the confluence of these trends, remote workers will increasingly become extremely remote workers, choosing to live in rural or wilderness locations, in nomadic scenarios where they don’t live in any one place, or even in just one country.
The digital nomad movement
In 1997, a Hitachi executive named Tsugio Makimoto predicted that in the future, mobile technology would enable people to go anywhere in the world and keep working, enjoying the benefits of a New York salary and a Chiang Mai cost of living.
In fact, it didn’t really work out that way. The overwhelming majority of digital nomads today aren’t regular full-time salaried employees. They tend to be freelancers and entrepreneurs, working in a narrow range of jobs — mainly software development, graphic and web design, and marketing.
I myself turned into a digital nomad after my Guatemala experiment, and I’ve been living and working nomadically and mostly abroad since then. Like most digital nomads, I don’t work for a company. I’m an entrepreneur and freelancer.
What happens next is that digital nomadism will go mainstream: Full-time employees in a wide range of job types will go in large numbers where they really haven’t before — into the countryside and out of the country.
During the pandemic, millions of employees have experienced the unhappy combination of working at home, supervising their children’s remote schooling, and rarely leaving the house for months on end— all the while paying a premium for access to office buildings and schools they can’t currently go to.
The inevitable thought process occurs: I really can work from home. If I’m working from home, why am I paying so much for my home to be here in this expensive, crowded place? I could live anywhere.
While pandemics and high costs will push professionals away from cities, other forces will pull them away from cities.
Satellite internet services like SpaceX’s Starlink and low-cost solar means that living in remote or rural areas — and, eventually, in other countries where fast internet connectivity has been hard to come by — finally becomes feasible and desirable. For the first time ever, people will be able to live “off the grid” in small rural towns or in other remote locations while enjoying close to fibre-quality internet connections at low cost.
Governments, strapped for cash and seizing the remote work opportunity, are re-writing their visa requirements to attract traveling professionals. They realise that a digital nomad essentially takes a salary from a foreign country and spends it locally (without taking a job from a local).
Countries like Croatia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic are on the forefront of this movement and are particularly attractive because their visas grant entry into the European Union and, in Estonia and the Czech Republic, also bypass the stringent Schengen Area rules. (Croatia is part of the EU but not the Schengen Area.) Elsewhere in the world, countries as diverse as Australia, Dubai, Costa Rica, and Thailand are also introducing visas aimed at remote workers.
The current model, where remote workers live and work within commuting distance to the office, will be replaced by a new model of many remote workers living far away.
And that’s a bigger challenge than it sounds.
How extremely remote work changes everything
Companies facing the new world of remote work should not assume that it’s just like the old world but with more people doing it. It’s a new situation, with more employees and more types of employees living farther away. Here are the issues you’ll be grappling with in the new world of extremely remote work:
Vastly more complex HR — hiring, benefits and more. An employee working full time from home already adds complexity. Hiring in other states and countries sounds great until you consider that you have to comply with the tax, employment, and leave requirements — including meal breaks, overtime, vacation pay, and other issues — where each employee is based, not just where the company is based.
If you have employees in 30 states, you have to comply with the law in those 30 states. International hiring amplifies that complexity.
New pay issues. Different companies differ on whether to change the pay of employees who transition to remote work. The idea goes that a salary often takes into consideration the high cost of living in an expensive or premium area, but if people move to a place with a lower cost of living, they don’t need the same compensation. Employees may not see it that way.
A new world of legal issues. When employees move to remote work status, or when remote workers are out of state or international, the legal complexities can add up, according to Scott M. Nelson, a partner at the Houston law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth and an expert in remote work law. For starters, most employment laws still apply to remote workers: workers’ compensation, discrimination, wage law, overtime issues — these don’t change when employees are working remotely.
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