How Workers Fared When Moving To Work Remotely During Covid
In 2020 much of the working world shifted to remote working as lockdown measures forced many workplaces to shut down. The transition prompted many to wonder whether remote working would come to predominate, and if so, whether people would leave cities and choose to work in cheaper, greener, and calmer places instead.
People who made this shift are referred to as “e-changers”, as they kept their work in the cities but performed it remotely from elsewhere. Research from RMIT University explores how this transition affected some popular destinations for e-changers across Australia, and indeed how those individuals found the experience both at the time and as the circumstances around the pandemic evolved.
“Despite a significant proportion of the Australian population living in large coastal cities, many areas outside these urban centers are growing at a rapid rate,” the researchers explain. “With housing costs rising in metropolitan areas and city employers offering more flexibility in relation to remote work, significant numbers of urban-based households are making or have made the shift to regional and coastal communities.”
Making the best of it
For instance, one of those the researchers spoke to was a librarian in a large university in Melbourne. The very nature of the work meant a lot of face-to-face time, but they relocated to a coastal town two hours from the library. This changed to a fully remote existence, but the lack of commuting afforded the librarian the chance to engage more in their hobby of surfing.
This is an example of one of three distinct types of e-changers identified during the research, each of which was defined by their different stages of life.
- The first group was older couples who had been planning a change in their lifestyle for some time, perhaps in anticipation of pending retirement.
- The second group was younger people, whether single or in a couple, who were primarily motivated by a desire to live closer to nature, such as mountains or beaches.
- The final group was the largest and consisted of families with dependent children. For them, the key motivation was to live in a larger, yet more affordable, home that gave adequate space for their children while also allowing them access to the outdoors.
The outcome for each of these groups was understandably different when the researchers spoke to them a year on. For instance, while the first group usually appreciated the access to nature and the calmness of their new lives, they often ended up adopting a form of hybrid working, which meant a long commute into the city a few times a week.
These commutes helped them to retain access to the vibrancy of the city, while also ensuring that they maintained good relationships with colleagues, but the commutes nonetheless took their toll.
For those in the second group, the move often proved a temporary one, with a return to the city driven in large part by the commitment they felt towards their career and the need to be close to their workplace.
The final group was generally the happiest and had fewer regrets about their move. Indeed, many revealed that they couldn’t imagine returning to the city. The flexibility of working remotely was viewed as invaluable to their life, whether due to greater leisure time, caring responsibilities, or simply a better work-life balance.
While this group did have a few gripes, such as access to things such as airports, they were nonetheless happy with their choice and believe that more and more will think in the same way.
“As we transition into a post-COVID era, it is unclear to what extent e-change will remain as popular as it has recently become<" the authors conclude. "While the acceptance of remote work is likely to be retained to some degree, more people may return to offices in the cities to perform their work."
A lasting change?
So what is the future likely to have in store? In the decade prior to the pandemic, we saw remote work jobs grow by around 400%, which meant that there were around 4 million remote workers in the United States alone. Research from the University of Chicago estimates that we could potentially see a third of the 255 million desk jobs globally performed remotely by 2030.
This trend is set against a global talent shortage, with 40% of workers actively considering changing their jobs. This isn’t a case of workers not wanting to work but more that employers are not providing what workers want. Indeed, some Gartner estimates suggest up to 40% of employees could quit if they’re forced to work on-site by their employer.
The Australian research highlights that it’s very difficult to draw firm conclusions across a diverse workforce, and so the key seems to be to avoid imposing blanket policies and instead give people the flexibility and autonomy to choose when and where they work.
The availability of portable computing, robust internet connectivity, and digital collaboration software has meant that remote working is more accessible than ever before. At a time when companies are bleeding talent, it’s perhaps something to consider when trying to boost both recruitment and retention.