When Ursula—not her real name—first asked her manager if she could work from Bali, the initial reaction was surprisingly positive. A German in her early fifties, she works for a consultancy in Berlin that advises businesses on reducing their environmental impact. Before the pandemic struck, she kept regular hours in the office. While COVID raged, she logged in from her apartment. Now that the virus has eased, her bosses were encouraging people to return to the office, but they weren’t being strict. “They say two days a week would be nice,” she says, “but nobody really cares.” All her client meetings were still being conducted virtually, so sure, why not? Go work in Bali.
But as her request ran up the chain, senior colleagues raised doubts. Would the company be liable if Ursula had an accident at work? What were the tax implications both for her and the business? And how would her co-workers respond to the idea of her enjoying a sojourn in the tropics while they labored away in northern Europe? Eventually Ursula and her employer reached a compromise: she could go for six weeks, but with one caveat. “They asked me not to tell colleagues I was doing this,” she says. “Me being here is not a general ‘Go’ for everyone to work outside the EU.”
Today Ursula works at Outpost, a co-working space in Ubud, Bali’s hippy capital. The Indonesian island is one of the world’s most popular destinations for digital nomads, and since the pandemic the government has been trying to attract more of them, advertising its intention to launch a special remote-work visa.
Bali’s appeal is not hard to fathom. Ubud’s streets are lined with temples of ochre brick, vegan cafes, and bars advertising $5 happy-hour cocktails. For around $175 a month Ursula gets a desk on Outpost’s breezy, open-sided top floor, which can accommodate 70 co-workers at a time and overlooks a courtyard complete with palm trees and a swimming pool. There is also a peaceful, plant-filled restaurant on site featuring a dedicated chocolate-truffle counter.
To keep her location discreet from colleagues and clients on video calls, she obscures her equatorial setting with a virtual background showing the company logo. She works German hours—3 p.m. to 11 p.m. local time— and when she’s on the phone she uses a soundproof booth to mask the buzz of passing scooters and the shrieks of exotic birds. In the mornings and at weekends, she does yoga and spends time by the ocean.
Ursula is one of a new breed of digital nomad that has been expanding since the pandemic: the stealth remote worker. “We’ve always seen a few intrepid people who hadn’t told colleagues they were logging on from overseas, but since COVID that’s increased,” says David Abraham, Outpost’s American founder and CEO. Their sneakiness can take different forms. Some are working abroad without telling their employers at all—perhaps because a stint by the beach would violate industry or company regulations. Others, like Ursula, are open about it with managers but cagey with co-workers.
Stan works from Bali for a mobile-payments company in Switzerland, where he is from. His colleagues generally aren’t aware of his location—he never mentions it, doesn’t use any social media, and makes Zoom calls from the Balinese hotel where he lives; its white walls could be anywhere. Luckily, these virtual meetings of 10 or 15 people include no small talk. He’s happy to keep it that way. If they found out, he says, “They might say, oh he’s off again, and get jealous.”
The lifestyles of these discreet adventurers, operating under the radar from far-flung locations, are an enviable mix of sun, sand, and salary. But this cohort also illustrates a quandary facing companies and their employees as they navigate the future of work: how do you balance your employees’ demands for freedom while managing the fallout that freedom can bring?
Let’s start with the demands. The labor market in the rich world is tight. In the U.S., there are nearly two job vacancies for every unemployed person, a ratio that is replicated throughout OECD countries. Companies everywhere are struggling to find the right people to fill vacancies, and are working extra hard to lure new hires and retain existing ones.
The offer of remote work some or all of the time has become one of employers’ key tactics. “This is now becoming something that a lot of employees believe they are entitled to,” says Mark Mortensen, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD business school. “If you ask recruiters anywhere, what’s the most common question you get, almost universally it is, ‘What’s the flexibility package?’”
As companies institute back-to-office policies, workers are willing to flex their muscles to protect their freedom. According to recent polling by Gallup, over 60% of American employees who are able to do their jobs remotely say they are extremely likely to change companies if they aren’t allowed to.
Ursula’s firm is a case in point. The mobility it offered her is a key part of its retention strategy—as is its reluctance to enforce its return-to-office rules. “If the consultancy got stricter,” she says, “people would leave. Right now it’s easy to get a job in sustainability.” Sam, an Australian who spent eight years working for a globally renowned health organization in Melbourne, asked his boss whether he could work outside Australia. When he was turned down, he took a 12-month sabbatical, but says he has no intention of returning to his old job when it’s over. He is in Bali with his partner, Sarah. Together they run a marketing agency serving Australian clients. Next they plan to go to Mexico.
Freedom, though, comes at a cost. The debate about the virtues of remote work has often focused on an employee’s relationship with their employer. Workers want a better balance between work and life while their companies want to ensure that productivity remains high. But this obscures another problem: employees’ relationships with each other.
Rob Hartnett is a vice president at the NeuroLeadership Institute, which studies the neuroscience and social science of management, including cognitive bias in the workplace. “One variety is distance bias,” he says. “Distance bias is when I don’t feel I can trust people unless I can look them in the eye. Similarity bias is another. I need to work with people who are similar to me.”
These biases explain why remote work can be a source of conflict in groups even as it satisfies individuals. Will my colleague who has ditched the city for a calmer life in the country still put in the hours? Will the person in Bali please get out of the pool and answer my email? “When my colleague is stuck in the office and I am on the beach,” Mortensen says, “there is space for tension to creep in.”
In some ways, Ursula’s discretion seems laudable. She and her company are trying to find an equilibrium between her right to roam and her employer’s need to minimize the disruption it might cause. But Mortensen cautions against it. For one thing, it’s hard to pull off. It might be OK for Stan, the Swiss mobile-payments worker, who doesn’t use any social media. But others will find it harder to keep their secret.
Then there are issues of trust and fairness, Mortensen says. “As an employer, you are explicitly telling people I don’t trust other employees to manage the situation. If the reason you allowed one person to do that is because they are a rock star, you are saying we value this person more than others.”
The problems, though, run both ways. Employees hoping to emulate Ursula’s example should have two worries. First, even if working far away is great in the short term, over time it can erode your standing. “What they are not typically counting is long-term and collective goods,” Mortensen says. “Working in Bali means I am not contributing to the network of mentoring in the office, not contributing to the culture of the organization.”
Second, although the job market currently favors the employee, that could change fast. “Pendulums swing,” Mortensen says. “Those who are flexing their remote-work muscles need to remember that the same things that make them more mobile also make them more exchangeable.”
Hanna is using her leverage while she’s got it. She moved to Bali a few months ago from Hungary, where she manages tech projects for banks and financial institutions. Unlike stealth remote workers, she’s told her employer and colleagues where she is. “I am not good at hiding and not being open,” she says. They’ve been receptive to her seeking out a more affordable lifestyle. Her rent in Bali is a third of what it was in Budapest, and massages are so cheap she has three a week. She knows the good will may not last. She’s planning to be in Bali for six months, and after that, who knows? She’ll stay with her company as long as it serves her life.
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