Remote work 2.0 — when WFH really means 'work from anywhere'

Many companies have embraced a work-from-home model, but most aren’t prepared for what comes next. Here’s what to expect and how to get ready.

Tech Spotlight   >   The Future of Work [Computerworld]   >   Digital nomad's beach tent and laptop.

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 rumored 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% increase in LinkedIn job posts referencing flexible work between 2016 and 2018. Remote work itself in the US rose by 173% 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%) 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% 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%.

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 fiber-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 realize 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.

Some American states like Vermont; cities like Tulsa, OK; and regions like northwest Arkansas will actually pay people up to $10,000 to move there, as long as you have income from a different state.

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.

On top of what stays the same, a host of legal issues arise for remote workers. For example, reasonable accommodations in the employee’s home to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act fall on the employer.

And if employees are working in other cities, states, or countries, the laws in their locations normally have to be adhered to as well. Wait, cities? That’s right. Some large cities have unique legal requirements for hiring, leave, and other issues.

Employee handbooks, privacy policies, and other documents need addenda taking local requirements and laws into account.

Some national governments assert primacy in labor and employment law, even for US residents living in that country and working for a US company. Germany, for example, may require approval by a local works council (a kind of small-scale, company-specific alternative to a labor union) for any changes to your company’s employment policy.

Significant tax implications. As with hiring and employment law, the new world of extremely remote work comes with major tax implications, according to Nelson. Employing workers in different states could require state tax withholdings in those states.

Data privacy considerations. Employees abroad will be generating, storing and transmitting data, and that data may come under the jurisdiction of the country or zone where the employee is living and working.

Potential costs for office space and equipment. You’ll need to revisit expense reimbursement for office supplies, office equipment, etc., which (depending on location) may even be required by law — California Labor Code Section 2802 is one major example.

New categories of employees going remote. We tend to think of certain classes of employees or executives staying in the office while others work remotely. But in the new world of remote work, all assumptions are off the table. IT staff, HR leaders, executives, and others may be working from home along with everyone else.

Security. Here’s the big one. Remote employee security is a much bigger deal when more people are working from home and many are in other states and countries. Left on their own, employees may abandon best security practices. Physical security to company computers and data can’t be assumed. Cybercriminals are actively targeting the new opportunity of the mass migration to remote work.

Communication. The LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report found that the biggest challenges with remote work are team bonding, collaboration, and work oversight.

Casual, spontaneous face-to-face “water cooler” conversations may appear needless and frivolous but in fact help employees bond, make work more enjoyable, lead to valuable work ideas, prevent loneliness, and contribute to understanding management’s objectives.

The widespread impulse to embrace videoconferencing as the solution to the loss of in-person interaction turned out to be problematic. Video-chat exhaustion (“Zoom fatigue”) is very real, and it’s not sustainable to keep employees on video calls for hours each day. Having employees scattered around the world in multiple time zones also forces a reconsideration of how meetings work.

Without in-person communication, managers and co-workers alike need to embrace a new style of communication, one that’s more explicit and specific, and simultaneously more flexible and compassionate. Direction from managers to employees may look more like specifying a job for a consultant, with detailed, measurable outcomes, deadlines, and expectations spelled out. At the same time, it may look more like a negotiation, to make sure employees are not made to feel pressured to do more than they can. And frequent quick check-ins from managers and among co-workers can help workers feel connected and keep projects on track.

The new imperative to focus on employee health. While some employees automatically thrive in a remote work scenario, others suffer. Loneliness, a sense of isolation, and insecurity plague many employees thrust into a remote role. It’s important for all companies to accept and take action on this new reality in a variety of ways — everything from informal check-ins and virtual coffee klatches to employee resource groups and well-being programs.

How to get started preparing for the new remote work

Allowing employees to work remotely used to be optional. Now, it’s far less so for most organizations. Just as employers felt compelled to embrace the flex-work movement in order to hire and retain the best employees, successful companies will embrace remote work and extremely remote work for the same reason. Now is the time to lay the groundwork.

  • Assemble a team of leaders (employees, consultants, or both) that includes experts in remote work and international work matters, accounting, and tax law. If you have large numbers of employees moving abroad, consider bringing in an expert in outbound immigration matters. Focus on the creation or re-creation of policies and practices that lower your tax burden and tackle the complexities of employing people in other states and countries and that enable your company to comply with all the necessary laws and regulations.
  • Assume that you will be changing literally every policy, including your employee handbook, remote work policy, security policies, and others.
  • Revisit your compensation policy and standards. You may need to pay people less or more based on location, changing roles, and other factors, and shift around budgets to match the new reality.
  • Reconsider cloud solutions where in the past you may not have. With a hybrid employee model (with in-house, remote, extremely remote, and flex employees across most divisions of the company) you’ll be more likely to benefit from a hybrid cloud model, cloud applications, and other tools that will enable the flexibility and security for the new era.
  • Revisit the efficacy of your communication tools. Business communication is a fast-moving sector, and the ideal tools for gluing together a large hybrid organization do not yet exist. Look for new and emerging approaches to communication and collaboration over the coming year or two.
  • Reconsider your budgeting assumptions as spending shifts from office infrastructure and business travel to home infrastructure, training, security, and other IT. Bake in flexibility everywhere you can.
  • Focus on a new management style within the organization that favors over-communication, employee wellbeing, and flexibility.

Years ago, I managed to continue work in multiple locations in an extremely remote Central American jungle, connecting through whatever random network I could find, and my employers had no idea where I was. That’s the future for all of us: Assume your employees could be literally anywhere.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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