by Sarah Firisen
I recently started a new job. The process of looking and interviewing for this job was unlike any other I’ve been through because I now live on the Caribbean island of Grenada. I moved here during the height of the pandemic when everyone was working from home. When I told my plans to the company I was working for then, their only comment was that I needed to stay domiciled in the US, which I have. But now that we’ve all gone back to some kind of post-COVID normalcy (even if variants are still coming at us hard and fast), I wasn’t sure how to approach a new company with my slightly unusual living situation. My initial thoughts were that I get through a first interview before bringing it up, but that seemed not only disingenuous but also pointless; they were going to have a problem with it, or they weren’t. Putting off the reveal was just a waste of everyone’s time. And so, I mostly led with this news. Amazingly, no one cared.
I work in sales in the technology start-up space, and I realize that this niche of corporate life is perhaps not representative. However, it’s still interesting that not one of the companies I interviewed with even took a beat over my location. The company I finally accepted an offer from, BusinessOptix, is split between the UK and Kansas in the US. The client I’ll be managing is mainly in New York City, so as long as I was in the same time zone as them and could get back to NYC quickly, it wasn’t an issue.
In a couple of weeks, I’m running a workshop in New York where I’ll meet some of my new colleagues for the first time. This is a meeting I’ve been pushing for, because, as much as I am a huge advocate (and beneficiary) of remote work, there are also times when you just need to be in the same room as people sitting across a table for a bunch of hours, then breaking bread and drinking some wine together. I’m far from the only person trying to find that perfect balance of in-person and virtual.
Back in September 2020 (which seems like a lifetime ago), when lockdowns were still in place in many cities, we were all wearing masks in public, and many people weren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, I first pondered the future of work. I wrote about the distrust, which it now seems was unnecessary, that so many employers have always had about the productivity of remote workers. I talked about who seemed to be corporate winners of this new normal, technology companies and makers of sweatpants, and who would be the losers, high-end city real estate, and the ecosystem that surrounded it.
A few months later, companies were starting to flirt with the idea that if productivity was up and office expenses were down, perhaps they didn’t care where people worked. Then, the question I pondered, at least partly based on my own Grenada plans, was, where might this home office be? At the time, some countries had started offering digital nomad visas, and now this list has grown significantly. These visas make perfect sense for countries like Grenada, which is on this list. Americans, Brits, and Canadians (to name a few), living in Grenada, spending money here, but not taking local jobs is a win/win. Indeed, this seems to be evolving to the point where some startups are developing co-working spaces in these foreign locales. This article does call into question how easy it is to be productive when the sun and sea become irresistible. Perhaps my situation isn’t the norm; I’ve never had trouble motivating myself to work remotely, and I just find that a lovely view of boats bobbing in the bay makes me happier, not less incentivized to work. And knowing I can take a refreshing dip in the pool or sea at the end of the day is enough for me.
By March of this year, it seemed that, while a few companies were insisting that workers come back to the office at least for a few days a week, they were in the minority. If nothing else, many companies were starting to acknowledge that, even if they wanted employees back, it wasn’t so easy to enforce, “Finance employees who couldn’t imagine working from home before the pandemic are now reluctant to return to the office. Their bosses can’t figure out how to bring them back.” My question then was, how do we innovate the future of office life? Specifically, what technology can we bring to bear to make the time we spend in the office as collaborative and productive as possible?
This reluctance on the part of many employees to return to the office seems to have become entrenched, “It’s kind of a Wizard of Oz thing,” Mr. Kime said. In other words, his team realized that there was no all-powerful being forcing their attendance; there was only a man behind a curtain (or Zoom screen). “ It seems that companies might have been overly optimistic about how ready and willing their employees would be to return to the office, “When asked in early 2021 about the share of their workers who would be back in the office five days a week in the future, executives said 50 percent; now that percentage is down to 20, according to a recent survey from the consulting firm Gartner.”
What’s interesting is that there are starting to be murmurs that at least some of the reasons that we’ve stated for why we need to come back to the office may not even be true, “Only one in six people feel strongly connected at work, with on-site employees the least connected of all, according to a study Tuesday from consulting firm Accenture Plc. Some 22% of fully remote workers say they feel “not connected,” while the share for those in the office is nearly double.” This is one study, and there’s a lot to unpack, but if there’s any truth to it, then the argument that employees should be physically together somewhat falls apart. Indeed, there have already been other studies done that have indicated that women and people of color feel they’re working with more of a level playing field when working remotely.
As this article points out, the benefits of allowing remote work don’t just accrue to the employees, “Employers seem to be benefiting from the trend…tech companies, by letting people work outside their home offices, can “truly access lost Einsteins all across the country.” Or, indeed, across the world. It will be interesting to see this play out long term; what will this do to salaries, for example, as US tech workers now compete on a more even playing field with cheaper workers across the globe? While there has always been outsourcing to countries like India, the new remote work normal could drive this at scale.
PwC has fully embraced this new model in a radical departure from the traditionally rigid office culture previously enforced by the Big 4 accounting firms. It sees this as a new way to engage with its workforce and help with hiring and retention, “At PwC, our work model includes three ways of working: virtual, in-person, and flex (a hybrid of in-person and virtual). You can live anywhere in the continental US and work for PwC. For professionals who select a virtual role, they’ll primarily work virtually, unless they have to be in the office or at a client site for key events.” However, “Location does factor, however, into PwC employees’ pay, Seals-Coffield said. Employees who opt to work virtually full-time from a lower-cost location would see their pay decrease.” So again, there is a compensation impact. How this shakes out over the long term remains to be seen. And perhaps many people will decide that a drop in compensation is worth it in order to be able to live wherever they want, including areas with a lower cost of living, not have to commute, and just enjoy greater work/life balance.
Airbnb has taken the PwC idea to the next level, “You can move anywhere in the country you work in and your compensation won’t change.” They’ve also told their employees, “you can live and work in over 170 countries for up to 90 days a year in each location. Everyone will still need a permanent address for tax and payroll purposes.” Of course, the idea of encouraging a digital nomadic lifestyle is totally in line with Airbnb’s brand and is a brilliant bit of marketing. Indeed, I’ve recently become friends with a woman from New York who runs her own tech business and has spent the last few months living and working in Grenada, moving from one Airbnb to another.
Something that I’ve encountered since moving to Grenada is families, some with quite young children, who have chosen to live on yachts traveling the world. One family has been doing this while both parents work remotely. They have fascinating stories to tell, and their children seem to have only benefited from the education and experiences that world travel brings. This has made me realize that the benefits of being digital nomads don’t have to be only reaped by the young and childless. This lifestyle clearly isn’t for everyone. But what this increasing trend towards acceptance and even encouragement of remote workers means is that, for those of us who do want more flexibility in where we live and work, there doesn’t have to be a compromise in the kind of jobs we’re able to get hired for.