The trend was already there to free oneself from the physical constraints of a job to work from anywhere: across the country, on the other side of the planet, even while traveling as a digital nomad. But if this flexibility was confined to freelance roles and to startups and tech companies looking to attract the best profiles, the widespread use of telecommuting due to the pandemic has reshuffled the cards of work.
The appeal of digital nomadism
With the spread of 3 and 4G, coworking spaces, and coffee shops with wifi, working from anywhere has never been so easy. From a family cottage on a lake, an island paradise in Thailand, or on the road in a camper van, you choose your setting… as long as your job allows you to. In fact, more and more freelancers have joined the great community of digital nomads, making the world their office in order to combine work and pleasure.
Likewise, many startups and Tech companies, inspired by the trend in Silicon Valley, have made their working conditions more flexible for their employees who want it in order to attract the best profiles – as well as to reduce the rent of their offices. Companies like Automatic, Buffer, or Todoist are leading the way by hiring hundreds of digital nomads around the world.
Digital nomad communities have flourished all around the world, usually in countries where the cost of living is more affordable than that of the country of origin. According to the Lonely Planet, the Lisbon Digital Nomads Facebook group gathers nearly 19,000 members, and arranges weekly meetups for networking, socializing, eating…
But this urge for freedom only concerned a handful of happy few two years ago, until the pandemic came along…
The “Great Resignation” and the new expectations of the workers
You may have heard about this trend called the “Great Resignation” or the “Big Quit” by some economists: a record number of people have been voluntarily leaving their jobs in response to COVID-19. Indeed, more than 38 million people left their jobs in 2021 in the US, including 40 percent who had not found another job when they took the plunge (source: Le Monde [FR]). This trend started out in the US and quickly spread to other Western countries. Many of these resignations took place in the retail and hospitality sectors, with employees opting out of difficult, low-wage jobs. As a consequence, many companies have found difficulties to recruit, leaving millions of jobs unfilled.
So, why were (and are) people suddenly quitting their jobs without securing another one? One general theory is that the pandemic has triggered a fundamental shift in the relationship between workers and bosses. Indeed, employers and employees have had to be extremely flexible during the pandemic, in particular in terms of work environments and hours. This has allowed for new realities at work that used to be unthinkable. Workers have realized that flexibility and freedom at work were worth fighting for – or quitting their job if they couldn’t get it.
The Great Resignation sparks optimism for workers: a hope to improve their working conditions and to find more meaning at work. Derek Thompson, a writer for The Atlantic, wrote: “The Great Resignation, is literally, great. For workers, that is.” However, it is not so great news for businesses as resignations lead to high turnover costs and business disruptions.
The pandemic, on a global level, has given people the opportunity to reflect on what’s important to them. What if the important thing was to live more simply, surrounded by your loved ones, in a healthy and resourcing environment?
Are we facing an urban exodus?
With the pandemic, has the explosion of telecommuting opened the door to an urban exodus? If some media believed it in the heart of the containment, the movement is not so marked. Certainly, if for some years, some large metropolises have been regularly losing inhabitants, this trend has accelerated with the health crisis. This is the case of Paris, which has recorded a decrease of 6,000 schoolchildren at the beginning of the school year 2021, compared to an average of 2,500 each year for the last 10 years, according to franceinfo [FR]. Similarly, New York State lost 319,020 people between July 2020 and July 2021, according to statistics provided by the Times Union.
In a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll, it was established that approximately 40% of all people living in urban cities consider leaving the city for environments that are less crowded. Behind this wish is the desire for more space, for an environment closer to nature, for a simpler way of life – even if it means giving up certain activities that can only be found in the cities.
This is exactly what prompted my wife and me to move from our apartment in Toulouse to a house in the countryside. This change allows us to reconnect with nature – and to discover the joys of growing our own vegetables. I still return to Toulouse once or twice a month for work and to keep in touch with friends. Fortunately, the train network allows me to reach the city in an hour without adding too much to my carbon footprint…
For all that, the expansion of remote work has not caused the expected mass exodus.
More than a will to move, the pandemic and The Great Resignation have hailed a new golden age for worker power. “After providing security, an increasing number of people are now demanding ‘good work’, [that is]:
- providing a sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose
- allowing an element of autonomy and control over one’s work
- encouraging and supporting good health, including a work-life balance with genuine flexibility
- providing realistic scope for growth with a prospect of getting better
- providing the ability to fulfill human basic needs
- balancing that power between workers and employers, giving that sense of feeling valued and respected
- fair and decent with safe working conditions”
The coming years will be decisive for the future of work.
Header picture by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash