When Ursula – not her real name – first asked her manager if she could work from Bali, the initial reaction was surprisingly positive. German in her fifties, she works for a consulting firm in Berlin which advises companies on reducing their environmental impact. Before the pandemic hit, she kept regular hours at the office. As COVID raged, she logged on from her apartment. Now that the virus has subsided, his bosses were encouraging people to return to the office, but they weren’t strict. “They say two days a week would be fine,” she says, “but nobody really cares.” All of his client meetings were still happening virtually, so of course, why not? Go to work in Bali.
But as his request moved up the chain, senior colleagues raised doubts. Would the company be liable if Ursula had an accident at work? What were the tax implications for her and for the company? And how would her colleagues react to the idea of her enjoying a trip to the tropics while they were working in northern Europe? Eventually, Ursula and her employer reached a compromise: she could leave for six weeks, but with a caveat. “They asked me not to tell my colleagues that I was doing this,” she says. “The fact that I am here is not a general ‘Go’ for everyone to work outside the EU.”
Today, Ursula works at Outpost, a coworking space in Ubud, the hippie capital of Bali. 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, announcing plans to launch a special remote work visa.
The allure of Bali is not difficult to understand. The streets of Ubud are lined with ocher brick temples, vegan cafes and bars offering $5 happy hour cocktails. For about $175 a month, Ursula gets an airy, open top-floor office from Outpost, which can accommodate 70 colleagues at a time and overlooks a courtyard with palm trees and a swimming pool. There’s also a peaceful, plant-based restaurant on-site with a counter dedicated to chocolate truffles.
To keep her location unobtrusive from colleagues and clients during video calls, she obscures her equatorial frame with a virtual background showing the company logo. She works German hours — 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. local time — and when on the phone, she uses a soundproof booth to mask the hum of passing scooters and the cries of exotic birds. In the mornings and on weekends, she does yoga and spends time by the ocean.
Ursula is part of a new breed of digital nomad that has been growing since the pandemic: the stealthy telecommuter. “We’ve always seen a few intrepid people who didn’t tell co-workers they were connecting from overseas, but since COVID that’s increased,” says David Abraham, Outpost’s US founder and CEO. Their sneakiness can take different forms. Some work overseas without telling their employer, perhaps because a beach vacation would violate industry or company regulations. Others, like Ursula, are open about it with managers but suspicious with colleagues.
Stan works from Bali for a mobile payment company in Switzerland, where he is from. His co-workers are generally unaware of his location – he never mentions it, uses no social media, and makes Zoom calls from the Balinese hotel where he lives; its white walls could be anywhere. Fortunately, these virtual meetings of 10 or 15 people do not include small talk. He is happy to keep it that way. If they find out, he says, “They might say, oh, he’s leaving again and get jealous.”
The lifestyles of these low-key adventurers, operating under the radar from remote locations, are an enviable mix of sun, sand, and pay. But this cohort also illustrates a dilemma 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?
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Let’s start with requests. The labor market in the rich world is tight. In the United States, there are nearly two job vacancies for every unemployed person, a ratio that is replicated in all OECD countries. Companies around the world are struggling to find the right people to fill vacancies and are working hard to attract new hires and retain existing ones.
Offering to work remotely some or all of the time has become a top employer tactic. “It’s now becoming something that a lot of employees think they’re 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, is, ‘What is the flexibility package?'”
As companies implement back-to-office policies, workers are ready to flex their muscles to protect their freedom. According to a recent survey by Gallup, more than 60% of US employees able to do their jobs remotely say they are extremely likely to switch companies if they are not allowed to.
Ursula’s cabinet is a good example. The mobility he offered her is a key part of his retention strategy, as is his reluctance to enforce his back-to-office rules. “If the advice got tougher,” she says, “people would leave. Nowadays, it is easy to find a job in sustainable development. Sam, an Australian who spent eight years working for a world-renowned health organization in Melbourne, asked his boss if he could work outside Australia. When he was turned down, he took a 12-month sabbatical, but says he has no plans to return to his old job when it’s finished. He is in Bali with his partner, Sarah. Together they run a marketing agency serving Australian clients. Then they plan to go to Mexico.
Carola Frentzen—photo alliance via Getty Images
Freedom, however, comes at a price. The debate on the virtues of remote working has often focused on the relationship of an employee with his employer. Workers want a better work-life balance while their companies want to make sure productivity stays high. But this hides another problem: the relationships between employees.
Rob Hartnett is Vice President of the NeuroLeadership Institute, which studies the neurosciences and social sciences of management, including cognitive biases in the workplace. “One variety is distance bias,” he says. “Distance bias is when I feel like I can’t trust people unless I can look them in the eye. Another is similarity bias. I need to work with people who are like me.
These biases explain why remote work can be a source of conflict in groups even though it satisfies individuals. Will my colleague who left the city for a quieter life in the countryside still work hours? Will the person in Bali come out of the pool and answer my email? “When my colleague is stuck in the office and I’m on the beach,” Mortensen says, “there’s room for tension to build.”
In some ways, Ursula’s discretion seems commendable. She and her company are trying to balance her right to homelessness with her employer’s need to minimize the disruption it might cause. But Mortensen warns against this. On the one hand, it is difficult to get out of it. That might suit 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 explicitly tell people that I don’t trust other employees to handle the situation. If the reason you allowed someone to do this is because they’re a rock star, you’re saying we like that person more than anyone else.
The problems, however, go both ways. Employees hoping to emulate Ursula’s example should have two concerns. First of all, while working away is great in the short term, over time it can erode your reputation. “What they don’t usually count are long-term, collective assets,” Mortensen says. “Working in Bali means that I don’t contribute to the mentoring network in the office, nor to the culture of the organization.”
Second, although the labor market currently favors the employee, this could change quickly. “The pendulums are swinging,” Mortensen says. “Those who flex their remote working muscles need to remember that the same things that make them more mobile also make them more tradable.”
Hanna uses her influence while she has it. She left Hungary for Bali a few months ago, where she manages technology projects for banks and financial institutions. Unlike stealth telecommuters, she told her employer and co-workers where she was. “I’m not good at hiding and not being open,” she says. They were receptive to his search for a more affordable lifestyle. Her rent in Bali is a third of what it was in Budapest, and the massages are so cheap she gets three a week. She knows that goodwill may not last. She plans to be in Bali for six months, and after that, who knows? She will stay with her business as long as it serves her life.