Flexible working was the buzzword of the noughties: the response to getting the work life balance amended. It started with slight changes to work hours to fit in with child care arrangements but also became a means to allow employees to have more ‘free time’. Initiatives such as working longer hours Monday to Thursday to get time away from the office on Friday were provided by a few companies.
Then the digital work revolution started. Major improvements in IT infrastructure at mainstream companies started to allow greater work flexibility and the concept of working from home grew in popularity. Employers, who trusted their employees, allowed at least partial home working, and often found that productivity not only remained constant but in many cases actually improved. Employees found a better work life balance as the daily commute time was instantly saved and suddenly the need to ‘wait in for the plumber’ no longer meant ‘taking a day off work’
From this remote working has taken off. Employees who never go to the company office and instead work permanently from home or another location (e.g. coffee shops or co-working spaces). This has led to ever increasing flexibility and freedom; where work and private life blend into one. And out of this, the concept offered by Remote Year, We Roam, Remote Experience and others have taken off: companies that enable remote workers to join together as a community to travel the world. These different programmes all tend to operate on the same basis in that each month is spent in a different location with the programme organisers providing accommodation, a workspace with reliable internet connection, transport between destinations and community based activities while in each destination. The programmes are great at enabling people to travel and work at the same time. But is it sustainable?
I am currently one of the participants in Remote Year and therefore have the opportunity of seeing how the concept works from the inside, at a time when it is still relatively new and still developing. The original Remote Year group left in May 2015 and completed the programme in May 2016, just as my programme, the 4th from Remote Year, started. Remote Year has changed significantly during this time. The original group were plagued with issues of the unknown including poor internet connection and substandard accommodation. But Remote Year is expanding and improving the quality of provisions and experience. The accommodation and work spaces in all of the eight cities I’ve visited so far has been excellent. During the eight months I can see that Remote Year is thinking much more about the ‘local experience’ and the hiring of local city managers to provide an experience that is not just based on partying or sightseeing. Be it local food tours or volunteering at various local charities I feel as if I am experiencing the cities in greater depth than I would if I was visiting as a tourist.
In the global context the participants on Remote Year and other similar organisations are the lucky few. Remote Year is not cheap. We are people who have well paid jobs that can be undertaken while sitting behind a computer. There are currently not many people in the world who fit this bill. But we are not the super-rich. We tend to be people who would rather spend our hard-earned cash on experience rather than consumer products or people who have made a choice not to have a family or pursue the standard route of acquiring a house with the inevitable mortgage. But we are not all the same – every one of us has a different background and set of values that are important to us in our lives. For some this is an exciting year and we will return to our respective countries on completion of the programme. For others this is a permanent change in lifestyle.
Remote Year is expanding very quickly. Currently eight different programmes have started over the space of a year and a half but during 2017 there is a desire to start an additional 12 programmes. The costs remain the same but as companies become used to the concept, and it has been proved to work, remote working becomes a reality for more and more people.
Participants are predominantly from the US with a smaller component from Europe/Australia/New Zealand and an even smaller component from the rest of the world. I believe there are several reasons for this. The first is that Remote Year, and several of the other companies are American in origin which advertise significantly more in the US. The second reason I can see is due to the different working conditions between the US and Europe. European employees have significantly more annual leave than their American counterparts meaning that travel to far-off destinations is easier in the time available. In addition, the concept of a ‘gap year’ after school or university is relatively common for many Europeans and employers do not hold this delay in starting work as a hindrance. Whereas in the US the gap year is still relatively rare and there is a perception that this could affect employability.
US and European employees have one major advantage over employees from the remainder of the world and that is the level of the wages paid in each respective country. There are of course exceptions but the average number of people who have the ability to even consider a programme such as Remote Year will differ from country to country. At present, participants on Remote Year are paid in dollars, pounds or euros by their employer back in their home country but spend their money in local countries where the cost of living is often significantly cheaper.
But can this continue? Will we be able to continue to be employed in a country that we rarely visit? Will we be able to continue using resources and infrastructure in countries without paying local taxes? At present I believe we are in a golden age for remote working where the privileged few can make full benefit of the system. But as time goes by what will stop an employer in the UK or the US employing a remote worker based in India, Cambodia or Brazil? The person is not moving to the UK or the US but will essentially be employed by that UK/US company. Over the last few months we have heard significant amounts about manufacturing jobs migrating from the US and Europe to places like China, Mexico and India. Much has been said about the ‘liberal elite’ not understanding what globalisation has meant for manufacturing jobs as ‘their, manly service related, jobs’ are not affected. Is the expansion of remote working the first step to globalisation of many service related jobs? Will this globalisation cause a stagnation or even reduction in wages in the US/Europe, just as has been observed with the migration of manufacturing jobs?
My thoughts are that migration of many jobs that can be undertaken remotely is likely to occur over the next decade and I’ve already observed this first hand. Migration of basic accounting jobs, preparation of engineering drawings or engineering design is already migrating to places such as India, where there is a highly educated workforce who do not demand the same salary as employees in the US and Europe.
But it is not all doom and gloom. We need to take a step back and think about what skill sets Americans and Europeans have that are not as prevalent in other countries. I believe that the main attribute we get from a US/European education is the ability to critically think and question everything that is put in front of us. To understand the ‘what if’ scenarios and develop working strategies for our clients. The education system in many other countries is based on understanding ‘how to do something’ encouraging students/employees to follow a set of rules but not to ‘think outside the box’. Critical thinking is what leads to entrepreneurs, people who see a different way of solving a problem or have a concept for a new product.
In recent years there has been much comparison of education systems in US/Europe with those in Asia. These comparisons are normally done on the basis of ‘what a student knows’ but it rarely looks at how the student has the ability to think critically. Critical thinking is what US/European universities are great at teaching and I believe that the ability to critical think will yield greater salaries in the future. Remote working is set to continue but to command the premium wages will require this ability. It is therefore important that we continue to educate our workforce to question what is around them and not to just follow the rules that have been laid down by the previous generation.