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Workers Are Moving First, Asking Questions Later. What Happens When Offices Reopen?

Companies will need to be careful how heavy-handed they are in ordering workers back to their cubicles. "The good news is you could get everybody back in the office," says HR consultant David Lewis. "The bad news is ... not everybody is going to come back."
Thomas Barwick
Getty Images
Companies will need to be careful how heavy-handed they are in ordering workers back to their cubicles. "The good news is you could get everybody back in the office," says HR consultant David Lewis. "The bad news is ... not everybody is going to come back."

Kate Ray and her husband, David, had just moved into a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Denver last March.

"It was brilliant for about two days," she recalls. The high-rise building offered floor-to-ceiling windows, a gorgeous roof deck and an outdoor pool.

Then the pandemic arrived, and their jobs went remote. "The pool closed within like 48 hours of us moving in," says Ray, 34. "The gym closed. All of the amenities closed."

In November, sewage water started flowing into their apartment from the unit above. That made life even more unpleasant, but it had an upside: They were allowed to break their lease.

With the freedom to move, they quickly bought a house — sight unseen — just outside Duluth, Minn., where Ray, who was now pregnant, has family.

They told their employers at first the move was temporary – just through her maternity leave. They didn't mention that they had bought a home in Minnesota.

"I think we both had fear of what that would mean for our employment conditions," she explains, "but also because we couldn't really admit to ourselves, I think, the level of commitment that we were making and the level of crazy life changes that were happening."

"Not everybody is going to come back"

They're not alone in making big moves during the pandemic. With millions of Americans suddenly working remotely, some took the unprecedented opportunity to shift their lives in a new direction — crossing their fingers that when it's safe to go back to the office, they won't have to.

David Lewis is the CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Connecticut. Many of his clients have seen employees suddenly move out of state, and they've just rolled with it.

"It wasn't frowned upon as much as it probably would have been prior to COVID — and now I think that day of reckoning is coming," he says.

He predicts that more than half of companies that can allow remote work will continue to, at least part time. And companies should think hard before being heavy-handed in ordering people back to the office from wherever they are now, he says. "The good news is you could get everybody back in the office," he says. "The bad news is ... not everybody is going to come back."

When it comes to those workers who have already moved, Lewis says it depends who those workers are.

"If they're valued employees and they're productive ones, and they have continued to be productive while working in this COVID world, chances are organizations are going to allow them to continue to do that."

That seems to be the case for the Rays. Now that they're hundreds of miles from Denver, their employers have hinted that they can probably keep working remotely.

Hoping to be fully remote forever

In Chicago, Renee, 38, was feeling similarly stuck in her high-rise condo when the pandemic arrived. She asked to go by her middle name so that she doesn't complicate her employment status.

Her job at a market research firm went remote, and most of her boyfriend's dog-walking clients no longer needed him. For months, the couple would only leave their River North condo for a 6 a.m. walk.

Renee had long dreamed of moving to Seattle. As the pandemic dragged on, she sought approval from her employer to relocate temporarily to Washington state. After initial pushback, she ended up with a new manager who had no problem with her moving.

So after holding a Zoom wedding in October, the newlyweds packed up some belongings and their cat, Bagel, and headed to Seattle.

They're now staying in a series of monthlong rentals.

Renee has not missed the Chicago winter, and she loves having easier access to nature. "In Seattle, you have all of these beautiful parks," she says. "You can drive into the mountains in 30 minutes and get these amazing hikes in."

There are tradeoffs. One upside: Washington doesn't have a state income tax. A downside: The couple now pays double for housing, since they still have the mortgage on their Chicago condo. They're not ready to sell that yet, in part because she doesn't know if or when she'll have to return to the office.

She knows a lot of her colleagues want to be back in the office at least part time. But for her, the goal is to be fully remote forever.

For employers, moves bring costs and benefits

APwC survey of 1,200 U.S. office workers currently working remotely found that when the pandemic recedes, 29% want to work remotely five days a week. And 55% said they'd like to be remote at least three days a week.

Company leaders are a bit less enthusiastic. A parallel survey of executives found that 68% believe workers should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain company culture, and 65% believe the office is "very important" to increasing employee productivity.

Bhushan Sethi leads PwC's workforce strategy practice. He says that whether companies allow significant remote work will depend on what industry they're in, the size of their real estate footprint, and whether they have a lot of young workers to train.

But there are some big potential upsides for employers to remote work. Companies can hire talent in places they couldn't before, Sethi says.

And offering remote jobs can mean gaining — or losing — an edge in attracting and retaining talent. Lewis predicts a big bump in the number of job listings touting that a position can be at least partly remote.

"Jumping off of a ledge without a parachute"

While some workers have moved across the country, others have relocated within the very-long-commute range.

One of them is Benji, 34, who moved with his partner and daughter from downtown Detroit to Lansing, Mich., in August. He asked that his last name not be used in order to not complicate his job situation.

He and his partner signed a two-year lease, even though Benji's employer, a large health insurance company, hasn't given him permission to work remotely permanently.

"Oh, it felt totally risky," he says, laughing. "It felt like I was jumping off of a ledge without a parachute."

In Lansing, he enjoys the proximity to his family, a cheaper cost of living and the local schools for his daughter. "When there's not a deadly virus, it is a fun town," he says.

He takes inspiration from the digital nomads he follows on YouTube and travel blogs. They seem to enjoy a sense of freedom and possibility in their lives that he hadn't been feeling in his own work life, he says.

"They're living in Bali and working on a laptop with a hot spot in their bikini — and I was honestly jealous," he says. "Moving from Detroit to Lansing is about the closest I was going to get to that kind of jet-setting lifestyle."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.