Welcome To A Remote-First Working World. Here’s What’s New Around Here.
A glimpse into how profoundly a fully remote workforce could change the world as we know it
Right now, there’s a significant debate going on about whether remote or hybrid work is going to be the ‘way’ of the future.
While the differences might seem trivial at first glance (go into the office one versus zero days a week), when you think about them, they’re actually massively significant.
So much so, in fact, that I think it’s fair to say that a leap from a hybrid-first to remote-first world would actually be every bit as significant as the jump from an office-dominated environment to a home-based one.
We’re not talking about another incremental shift in a forward and more trendy direction. We’re talking about a logarithmic one.
It’s the difference between a working arrangement that could rearchitect our countries versus one that could rearchitect our world.
To be more specific:
While hybrid work environments will allow employees to unhitch themselves from living within the geographical radius that represents whatever a reasonable periodic commute looks like (for most workers, that’s probably up to one hour travelling time), fully remote working means that employees can unhitch themselves entirely from any job-related geographical constraints at all.
An example, even if an obvious one:
Most London-based professionals would find themselves precluded from working a hybrid job that required them to be on-site in New York even once a week.
Vanishingly few companies would want to fit the bill of a weekly airfare and few workers are making enough money to justify the cost.
But legal and bureaucratic considerations aside — those pesky things called taxes and laws — there’s literally nothing stopping a professional in Dublin from telecommuting to an office in Aukland so long as he’s either never expected to be on site or only to be there at some negligibly significant interval (ideas about what this might constitute will vary, but I’d like to submit six months as a benchmark). Or vice versa. Think about that for a moment.
If hybrid proves to be more than just a stopgap on the way to a remote-first world — and I’ll put my cards on the table, I’m very much hoping that’s going to be the case — then we can expect to transition to a working world (or just a world!) that looks fairly radically different to the one we know today.
Here are just a few of the things that might be different.
Towns Will Become Trendy Places In Which To Live
As professionals quickly realize that they no longer need to live within a reasonable commute of their office — at least the periodic one that most hybrid gigs will implicitly demand — a significant amount of people may turn their sights towards other places in their country of residence in which they might wish to live.
Naturally, emigration will be an attractive option for many and the world of digital nomadism will continue to flourish.
But it’s also predictable that the majority of people are likely not going to wish to leave the country of their birth solely because it’s now possible to do so while keeping a job.
At least not permanently.
And many of the digital nomads will likely return to where their roots are. All in all, I think that intra-country population redistribution is the more likely migration pattern to expect.
As commercial spaces are abandoned and then re-zoned — because who wants to rent an office space when the team needs to meet one day a week!? — professionals will move out of expensive cities and take advantage of a geographical arbitrage opportunity that may quickly vanish (this aspect of the remote working picture remains undecided; namely, should compensation be tied to cost of living).
A professional who once lived in New York can slash their cost of living by moving to upstate New York and capitalize on this migration almost tomorrow.
Assuming their salary isn’t negatively corrected for cost of living, that means a higher real income that can be realized as soon as this professional can pack his or her bags. Towns and villages — once perhaps thought of as Sleepyvilles for those uninterested in the rat race — are suddenly cast as hip alternatives to megacities and monotonous suburbia. We’ve arrived at an entirely different world.
It becomes cool to live in what were only recently considered second rate towns. They have craft pubs and the other trappings of affluent culture. Young professionals are flocking there. And this thing called the internet is keeping everybody connected — and, apparently, employed. The full potential of a networking technology that’s been around for decades has finally been realized.
Digital Working Relationships Will Become The Norm
Right now, we live in a world in which the expectation for working relationships is that they should be maintained on a face to face basis. Like any massive change, this is being rebut at only a gradual pace.
However, if remote working becomes the norm rather than the exception, then it stands to reason that the majority of working relationships between colleagues will be conducted over Zoom and email. Digital means won’t be supplementary modes of communication to meeting in person. They’ll supplant them as the norm.
In the short term, this will feel stilted and unfulfilling and slightly awkward for all involved. For the philanders of this world, that will mean no more late night hookups in abandoned conference rooms. I guess sexting or seedy off-the-calendar Zoom “one to ones” will have to be the tactic of choice.
For the sake of transparency, let me put it out there that even after five years of remote working (at least in part) I still struggle with the idea of feeling like I know people whom I’ve only met digitally. I once had a local client for two years whom I never met and it pained me. I insisted on a cursory coffee meeting and it pained me a lot less.
Slowly — perhaps — society will become accustomed to this new reality.
Colleagues are those people in distant countries that we talk to on Zoom. Friends are those whom we meet at the grocery store or when we’re out on our walk. One group is seen in pixels and the other with the eye. This dichotomy could have pretty profound effects.
Some of us will meet at the pub to share war stories about Zoom calls and micromanagement-by-email. The difference will be that those doing so won’t be freelancers and digital nomads and those charting what are still considered somewhat unconventional employment paths. Those people will be the norm. Working remotely is conventional. Perhaps those poor sods still stuck working for hybrid organizations will be considered the odd ones out.
The Asynchronous Communication Revolution Will Only Continue To Pick Up Pace
As society begins to explore and appreciate the many advantages of remote working, we’ll see continued pushback against synchronous forms of communication and the societal expectation for hyper-responsiveness in general. There’s only so long that most people can withstand a calendar packed full of Zoom meetings, you know.
We’re already seeing the first seedlings of this revolution in bloom as platforms dedicated to connecting colleagues via voice notes and video recordings come to market.
I predict that this market will mushroom in coming years. This is also a trend that I fullheartedly support.
Organizational Culture And Mission Will Become Key Differentiators Between Companies
If remote work really becomes the norm, then we’re perhaps about to enter into an era that could be considered the era of meritocracy. Or at least of a radical population distribution led by the mass untethering of employees from their place of employment.
This could revolutionize the workforce to no less an extent than the advent of mechanization did during the Industrial Revolution.
If career advancement in conventional office-bound organizations is determined by some mixture of talent and skill at navigating internal politics, those who rise to the fore of remote first organizations might be the most productive team members.
Whether that is desirable or not is another question entirely.
If productivity is all we are gauged by, then don’t we risk becoming a workforce full of boring worker bee automatons? But it will mean that organizations will be able to take a radically different approach when it comes to recruiting the best talent.
What will this mean for employees?
If they can work for just about anybody from anywhere then their calculus for where to work will involve more factors than simply whatever workplace places the most.
What might be considered nice to haves in a geographically-circumscribed labor market (organization mission, culture) will become critical differentiators in the era of the remote-first world.
A transition towards hybrid workplaces will profoundly change how humans interface with their countries and their tax jurisdictions.
But a shift in the direction of fully remote working environments will do nothing less than rearchitect how humans settle and engage with the planet.
It’s a massive difference.
And though the above dynamics might now seem far off, they could be (much) closer than many of us currently anticipate.