Rise of remote work and digital nomads in age of Covid-19

“The factory of the future will have two employees: a man and a dog. The man’s job will be to feed the dog. The dog’s job will be to prevent the man from touching the equipment.”

This prediction was made by Warren Bennis, an expert on the principles of effective leadership, who died in 2014 at the age of 89.

The post-Covid-19 world is one where this vision of the world is materialising at an ever-faster pace. But I would add to this quote. The factory of the future would not need its exceedingly few employees to be on location most of the time.

Instead, they’ll be called in only to troubleshoot, do something novel or set up something new. Otherwise, most of them will be supervising the factory and keeping a tab on its vitals via its suite of sensors and cameras – something that can be done remotely.

Such a change in work profiles will create two main trends – automation efforts will accelerate leading to precipitous losses of on-site jobs, and jobs that are largely location-independent will be favoured and given preference.

The statistics bear this out. According to a RAND Corporation study: “Workers whose jobs allowed flexibility in working from home in February had substantially better employment outcomes in May. Of those whose jobs allowed telecommuting in February, only 6% had lost their jobs by May, while among those who could not telecommute in February, 25% had lost their jobs by May.”

Upwork, the world’s largest freelancing platform reflects this trend as well, with Covid-19 boosting its standing. Its Gross Services Volume (GSV) rose to US$582 million in the second quarter (Q2) of 2020, an increase of 12% over Q2 of 2019. Its revenue grew in tandem to US$87.5 million, a 19% increase over Q2 of 2019.

All this points to one thing: In the fast-approaching world of the future, the ability to work remotely is a superpower.

Pashmina Binwani of KL embraces the life of a digital nomad, travelling the world.

And this is a superpower that Malaysian Pashmina Binwani has honed as a travel writer and public relations consultant. She runs a popular travel and adventure blog called The Gone Goat where she takes us on vicarious journeys to far-off lands which she has traversed both on foot and on her trusty bicycle.

Having spent the earlier part of her career at conventional nine-to-five jobs, Pashmina savours the fact that she gets to travel the world while being able to provide value to her readers and clients no matter where she is.

Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns might have brought her international travels to a screeching halt but that has barely dampened the Kuala Lumpur-native’s spirits as she’s using this opportunity in disguise to explore her own backyard and regale her readers about it. She also does freelance public relations consultancy for SMEs and NGOs so there’s plenty of work to keep her busy.

Similarly, Marco Ferrarese, a Penang-based freelance travel writer is unconstrained by geography. He has written for major publications such as The Guardian, Nikkei Asian Review, BBC Travel, South China Morning Post, and CNN Travel, to name a few, and has even penned a Malaysian bestseller titled Nazi Goreng, which is a coming of age story of a young Kedahan skinhead.

Tragically, he lost both his parents to Covid-19 in Italy at the end of March. His career has also taken a major blow, for while he used to write six to 10 freelance articles before Covid-19, he now only receives requests for one or two a month. However he says that this turn in fortunes has given him a chance to concentrate on his Penang travel blog, Penang Insider, so it’s not all bad news.

Being a remote worker myself, I see its immense potential. Prior to the lockdown, I would only visit my office once every month or so and would otherwise work from home. It’s better on the wallet, saves precious commuting time, and allows me a certain flexibility and autonomy that’s impossible to put a price tag on.

And being in the startup scene, this is a trend I see all around me. My good friend and ex-college mate Nabil Jalil is the founder and CEO of Blackgrid SEO, the top-ranked SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) agency in Los Angeles, California. He runs it successfully while largely being based out of Kuala Lumpur.

Nabil Jalil’s office is in Los Angeles but he mostly operates out of KL.

He says that Covid-19 has supercharged his business. “Business has improved tremendously, there are a lot of inquiries and there’s definitely been an increase in sales as a lot more companies understand the urgency and importance of starting their digital marketing efforts to stay relevant moving forward.”

Another sign of the changing times is the fact that large multinationals are now more comfortable having their employees work from home. This shifts the focus from optics – who comes to work early, who goes back late, who is glued to the desk, who takes frequent coffee breaks – and forces employers to gauge actual work completed, which is the only metric that should matter at the end of the day.

Even here in Malaysia, many more employers are currently allowing at least some of their staff to work from home due to the need for physical distancing. I know of people whose office is in Kuala Lumpur, but who are now working out of their family homes in other towns.

But many of my friends who now have such arrangements complain about the fact that work has entirely overtaken life. As painful as it may be currently, I would contend that this is part of its growing pains and once this method of work becomes more mainstream, there will be processes in place to ensure life isn’t entirely overrun by work.

In addition to large corporations, tourism-dependent nations such as Estonia, Georgia and Barbados realise the opportunities remote working opens up and are now offering digital nomad visas to those who can bring their work with them to set up shop in these countries.

Bermuda’s premier David Burt writes: “No need to be trapped in your apartment in a densely populated city with the accompanying restrictions and high risk of infection. Come spend the year with us working or coding on the water.”

Now, that’s a good pitch.

All-in-all, remote working makes all the sense in the world for knowledge workers. It’s unfortunate that it took a calamity like Covid-19 to accelerate its adoption, especially in Malaysia, but I’m glad that we are finally heading in that direction.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

CLICK HERE FOR OUR LIVE UPDATE OF THE COVID-19 SITUATION IN MALAYSIA