A brave new world to live and work in

by Sarah Firisen

I’ve telecommuted from home for many years now. Before COVID-19, I would rarely turn my camera on when I was on video chats. And if I did, I’d make sure to put makeup on and look somewhat professional and put together from at least the waist up. But since lockdown started in March, I now turn my camera on for almost every video call and I don’t bother to put makeup on or to change my clothes from whatever ratty t-shirt I happen to be wearing. And I don’t care. I sit in my armchair au natural, secure in the knowledge that everyone I’m on calls with is likely dressed casually and taking the call from some room in their home. We’ve seen each other badly in need of haircuts. Then, in some cases, with bad haircuts that we did ourselves or let family members do to us. And we’ve grown familiar with each other’s living spaces, pets, and sometimes family members. I know the view outside of one colleague’s window, the clock on the wall behind another and I always admire the piece of art behind my colleague in Austin. Except for the occasional vacation house rental for a week or two, we’ve all been working out of our homes, living a more lockdown, limited version of the work-life we lived before. It made sense to stay put while lockdown was at its peak. But as it eases up, at least in some places, and while its clear that office life isn’t going back to normal anytime soon, is there a different, new way to live and work?

I know that what I’m writing about here is a luxury that many people in America, let alone the rest of the world don’t have. COVID-19 has laid bare what it means for some people to have the privilege to work from home, or from anywhere in fact, while others have no choice but to go to a place of work, even when doing so is a health risk. However, more people are now working from home, perhaps permanently, than ever before. This is true in professions and for companies where it had rarely been an option before. Just last month, JPMorgan announced a modified return to the office that will rotate employees between working from home and onsite, perhaps permanently, “At JPMorgan, the move is seen as a way to give employees flexibility that didn’t exist before the pandemic proved that people could be effective away from the office. The firm’s traders and bankers are on a roll this year, notching record trading results and maintaining the bank’s standing atop the investment banking fee tables.”

I’ve written before about the great social experiment in mass remote working that corporate America has been thrust into over the past 7 months. It seems that many employees prefer this arrangement, “the line between the weekend and weekday has blurred. For some, every day feels like a weekday, marked with household chores, looking after kids, and not much recreation. Others, who are working remotely, see every day as a Saturday, with endless opportunities for fun”  Moreover, employee productivity is up. For many companies, there have been enormous savings from lack of business travel and reduced real estate costs. We now know that, for the most part, we do have the technology infrastructure to support remote working at scale. This convergence of technology, employee productivity, and increased profitability for companies means that, for many people, some version of our current home office life will continue indefinitely.

So then the question left is, where should this home office be? We used to live in high priced cities like New York at least partly for proximity to our offices. If this proximity isn’t a factor, why stay? And this a question that a lot of people have been asking themselves. The initial lockdown led a lot of people to flee cities like New York for vacation homes or to stay with extended family. But many aren’t planning to come back. But why go to the suburbs or even to another state? If you can work from anywhere, then how adventurous could you be? With many schools continuing to either be totally online or at least giving that option to parents, what could a different way of living look like?

This is a question that I’d been pondering even before COVID-19 changed everything. In a year, I’ll have both kids in college. Neither one of them has any love for New York City where I live and don’t care if I move away. They don’t know where they want to settle, so at this point, I could go anywhere. I don’t have elderly parents tethering me to any locale and in a few years, my boyfriend will retire. He’s from a Caribbean Island and intends to move back there and build a house. Pre-COVID, my tentative plans were to be somewhere in the US where the cost of living is cheaper and where I could get direct flights back and forth to the Caribbean. I used to do a lot of business travel and felt I needed a significant base in the US.  Now I’m not sure my business travel will ever go back to what it was. My company has made it clear that we’re going to be a mostly remote workforce for the foreseeable future. I’ve long done all my bill-paying and general financial housekeeping from my phone so I definitely don’t need a mailbox in the US. So why not move to the Caribbean island and work from there full-time? In fact, there are places in the world encouraging international workers to do just this, “[Barbados Prime Minister] recently announced plans to introduce a ‘12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp’ which would allow visitors to stay on the island for up to a year. The hope is that these relaxed rules will encourage people to stay longer and maybe even finish out their work-from-home days on the beach. “

And now other countries have got in on the act. Estonia, Bermuda, Georgia were some of the first to see a way to make up for lost tourist dollars by encouraging a new class of visa that would allow remote workers to live abroad while working remotely. I suspect that this is just the beginning. It may be a long time before tourism is back to what it used to be. For countries in the Caribbean that are so reliant on tourists and particularly on cruise ships, it may be even longer. But with this new model, they can have wealthy Americans living there, spending US dollars but not actually taking local jobs. Given the concerns about the environmental impact of tourism particularly from cruise ships, this could become more than a stopgap economic policy for some countries.

And if moving to another country isn’t for you, what about a work-from-home situation where home is mobile? “Kibbo is a new entry in the booming business of American life in vans. It rents vans to its members and also creates communities for them to engage with. It plans to start with five wilderness locations in which its vans can park….These locations — you could call them campsites? Or … trailer parks? — have a central hub, or clubhouse, designed to feel like a co-living space. There will be Wi-Fi, bathrooms, a kitchen with shared food.” Members lease these mobile homes complete with all-access membership to its sites for starting at $1,500 a month. This is definitely less than renting an apartment in New York City!

There are practicalities to be considered before any of these alternative living arrangements are undertaken. But some of these are considerations even if you continue to shelter-in-place at your vacation house, “Even before the pandemic, conflicting state tax rules were creating issues for the increasing number of people who were working remotely.“ How will you get your medical and dental care? What are the other implications of not having a permanent base in your country? What are the implications medically, financially, socially, professionally? The Caribbean time zone is close enough to the US that it makes sense for me. But could I move to Estonia for a year and not have my teammates suffer?

Even with these considerations, there is something here that is going to appeal to an increasing number of people. It’s no longer a given that to be a white-collar professional means to be rooted in one spot, probably near a major city. Of course, there are bigger questions about what this means for our cities. What does it mean for the remaining workers who don’t have the luxury of such a choice? What does it mean for the tax base of cities? What does it mean for the real-estate market? Much of this is already being felt in New York, “Demand for office space has slumped. Lease signings in the first eight months of the year were about half of what they were a year earlier. That is putting the office market on track for a 20-year low for the full year. …At stake is New York’s financial health and its status as the world’s corporate headquarters.“ The knock-on effects of continued broad telecommuting are likely to be significant, even if people continue to live in cities. But if they don’t, these effects will be pervasive throughout the local economy and felt for a long-time to come. It’s one thing for small Caribbean islands to have the opportunity to reimagine their economies and adapt for the new normal, but how do major US cities adapt? I guess time will tell.