When I voicenote Emma Whitehair, a London PR business owner, she is enjoying a morning coffee in a marina on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast. Waking at dawn to check in with her UK team, by lunchtime she’ll be free to explore. “There’s mountains, dense jungle and amazing beaches,” she says. “It’s warm all year round and the wildlife is epic. I feel like I’m living in Jurassic park.”
Emma packed her bags for Costa Rica last October and hasn’t looked back. “When the UK lockdown got extended and my return flight was cancelled, I knew I didn’t want to go back to London.” A far cry from her old life in Clerkenwell, Emma is one of many women who have maximised WFH opportunities over the last year. With the pandemic forcing offices to shut and the majority of communication now on Zoom and Slack, it begs the question: do we need to live in the places we work in?
It’s not an entirely new idea. “The trend for remote working was already coming into play pre-pandemic, as a younger demographic entered the workforce and working parents demanded more flexibility,” Elaine Carnegie, a workplace consultant and founder of BeingWorks, said. In fact, since 2010, the global remote workforce has grown 400%.
“The pandemic has simply accelerated this,” Elaine added. The Covid work from home experiment has changed both employer and employee attitudes. “Now, we know that remote working is fully possible, companies have had to rethink their flexible working policies,” Elaine noted. While some offices are opening up, remote working in some capacity is here to stay. In one survey of 127 company leaders, more than 80% said they plan to allow remote work at least part-time, even when it’s safe to return to the office. Across the globe, companies are introducing new location-independent policies like Spotify's Work From Anywhere initiative that encourages employees to “work from wherever they do their best thinking and creating.”
Eleri Boyesen found that her tech firm Eleven Hundred Agency was very supportive when she floated moving to Bahrain to join her partner who’d moved for a job. “I always thought it would be ‘cool’ to work and live abroad but Covid really fast-forwarded that,” Eleri explained. Work-wise the adjustment has been pretty easy. “I work three hours ahead of my colleagues but my clients have always been worldwide so it’s not too different.”
Growing a business abroad can also be easier, as Clementine Baig discovered when she moved to Ericeira in Portugal last March. From the old fisherman town turned hippy surf spot, she’s been working on Mabel, a health service helping women during pre and post-pregnancy. Both the slower pace of life and cheaper living costs have been beneficial. “While the sun and the beaches are great, what you really get living somewhere like this is time,” Clementine remarked. “Time to be creative, time to experiment and time spent outdoors in a different mental space.”
It’s not all plain sailing, though. Time difference and dodgy Wi-Fi are the biggest complaints of remote workers but also being separated from friends and family. “I miss my friends, that’s the hardest part,” Emma said. Moving somewhere long-term means you have time to build a new community but for those on the road or trying a digital nomadic lifestyle, it can be harder.
Around the world, co-living situations are trying to bridge this gap. Emma spends her time hopping between Selina locations, a chain of grown-up hostels with co-working facilities. “It’s much cheaper than London rent,” she said. During the pandemic, a lonely time for many, these spaces have thrived. “It’s honestly like a family. I love being surrounded by different people with different views, experiences and ideas,” Saskia Hadley, a photographer based at the Caribbean’s first remote work village, Umaya Village in Belize. “Something about paying through the teeth to live in a concrete jungle back home without access to friends or family in the pandemic didn't feel right,” she added.
Bureaucracy can also be a headache. Often, once you spend more than half the year in another country you’re liable to pay tax which means extra paperwork and costs. This is before you take into account the current need for covid tests and health forms. Similarly, most countries require visas for those looking to stay beyond either three or six months (since Brexit, you can only spend three months a year in Europe without applying for documentation). In some parts of the world this is getting easier with countries introducing remote-work programmes and digital nomad visas to boost their economies and claw back money lost via tourism. These schemes allow travelers working and earning to stay longer than tourists. Barbados, Croatia and Portugal are just some of the growing list of countries getting in on the action.
Of course, with ever-evolving variants and the UK’s constantly changing travel traffic light system, imminent travel still feels a little uncertain. While it’s no longer illegal to leave the UK, it's worth bearing in mind that returning currently involves costly covid tests and periods of quarantine (though if you’re packing your bags for the long haul, this will prove to be less of an issue). For some, it’s a leap worth making.
Ali Olivier, a Barcelona-based Life Coach specialising in helping people relocate, shares her three key tips…
Whether it's a better work-life balance or access to nature, your ‘why’ will guide you to the most fulfilling location and show you how to invest your time once there.
Find groups that practice a hobby you love. This gives you joy on a regular basis and an opportunity to meet those you truly connect with.
While it can feel like a big decision, remember you can always choose again. View moving back home as an experience not a failure. Take that heavy emotional weight off your shoulders.