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Can everyone be a digital nomad after the containment?

If for some the containment is a bad remake of Groundhog Day, for others, this period of forced distancing sounded like a sweet moment of pause, far from the usual professional preoccupations. Among them, there is a share of neo-teleworkers who are discovering a new way of life, where work is no longer correlated to a fixed office, where schedules become flexible, and where the time saved is reinvested in activities deemed more beneficial for personal well-being. While not everyone is of course equal when it comes to teleworking, if only because of the conditions under which it is practised, and the very possibility of being able to do so, we nevertheless wanted to know what this crisis revealed about our attachment to our workplace, and the prospects it opened up for the notion of professional mobility. Will we always need to go to work in an office? Will we see a rise in digital nomadism? To find out, we based our research on a French study of  people whose confinement has prompted them to rethink their professional mobility, and we are sharing some exchange with experts on the subject, including sociologist Jean Viard, CNRS research director at the Political Research Center at Sciences Po Paris.

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Big cities are more and more ignored

  • The possibility of no longer living close to one’s place of work

If there’s one thing people have discovered with containment, it’s that it was indeed possible to work remotely, sometimes for the better. “I’ve been telling myself for some time now that in 3-4 years, I’d like to move from Paris,” analyses Jeanne, event manager. “But working in the event industry, I always thought that this would necessarily involve a change of job. But during the containment, we were forced to rethink our job, we do more events online, I do more and more strategy and less and less operational work… and I’m starting to think that I could actually totally come to Paris one or two days a month, and the rest of the time work remotely.”

According to Jean Viard, Jeanne would not be the only one in this case. According to the sociologist, this unprecedented experiment in the use of mass teleworking reinforces weak signals, which, if they were already present before the crisis, are now on the way to becoming unavoidable. And among them, the aspiration to live outside the cities: “More than 60% of Parisian executives dream of living in a small town or in the countryside, one or two hours from the metropolis. The movement has been around for a while: people are leaving the cities, Paris is losing an average of 10,000 inhabitants a year, and rural populations are growing faster than urban populations. But now we are witnessing a digital divide. It had already entered people’s lives, but we are now moving towards a true digital society, where we will be able to hold remote meetings and broadcasts without having to travel…”.

“The movement has been around for a while: people are leaving the cities, Paris is losing an average of 10,000 people a year, and rural populations are growing faster than urban populations. “Jean Viard, sociologist

While many French people already dreamed of living more in contact with nature, this imposed teleworking period makes this possibility more and more concrete. Laure, a print journalist currently confined in Brittany, is increasingly projecting herself into this model: “I’ve always lived in Paris, and I’ve reached saturation point. When I see my friends who live outside the metropolises, we don’t have the same quality of life. With confinement, I consume less, and I realize that I don’t miss it… and I think that the price to pay for living in a big city is perhaps too high compared to the benefits. Gradually, you realize that you’re too far away from nature. Besides, from Brittany, it only takes me 2h15 to get to Paris: is it worth living there all week? »

And when we know that the benefits of nature on productivity and concentration are well established, this should also give companies food for thought… which have everything to gain from saving office space.

A workplace that becomes multiple

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  • The necessary maintenance of the social bond

While the office as a fixed workplace seems less and less necessary, working from home is not a panacea for everyone. Indeed, for Aurore Flipo, a sociologist specialising in issues of mobility and social stratification, working from home is far from obvious, and the distinction between professional and personal space remains important: “I am not sure that the importance of the workplace will disappear as a result of this crisis” explains the researcher. “I’m not sure that the importance of the workplace is going to disappear in the wake of this crisis,” she says. “But one major disadvantage of teleworking is the absence, or near-absence, of social ties. Hence the multiplication of cowork places, which rework the boundary between personal and professional life and make it possible to maintain social ties.” A vision shared by Nathanaël Mathieu, co-founder of the Néo-nomade platform. “Home-based work may develop, but coworking spaces still have a bright future ahead of them, if only because we need to socialize,” he corroborates in an interview with Usbek & Rica magazine. “We’re not going to disuse our workspaces overnight, it’s going to have to be done in a form of balance.”

“Home-based work may develop, but coworking spaces still have a bright future ahead of them, if only because we need to socialize” Nathanaël Mathieu, co-founder of the Néo-nomade platform

“Rather than investing domestic space, the workplace would reinvent itself in a fragmented form, with variable spaces ranging from coworking space to the home, to the corner café. Physical distance can give a certain hindsight on a subject, but it also has its limits,” observes Laure, the journalist. “The teleworking experience scares me less nowadays, in the sense that I am less afraid of being isolated than before. But for concentration, it’s sometimes complicated. Your “home” becomes your workplace. It is important to have dedicated places.”  Aurore Flipo agrees: “Generally, it has been observed that teleworkers tend to work more and longer than when they are in an office, and it is sometimes difficult for some of them to stop. The right to disconnection must be guaranteed, to ensure that work does not interfere with rest time,” she explains. Indeed, to be effective, telework needs to be carried out under adequate conditions, which allow the private and professional to be separated, even when at home. This is not necessarily obvious for those who have children to manage, who live in shared flats, or who simply do not have enough space to set up a workstation. The two spaces can then find themselves mixed up, and concentration, as Laure notes, is affected.

  • An emancipation of the workplace that has its limits

Although working from home is not as simple as it seems, the need to “go to the office” has nevertheless been called into question in the face of the crisis. But what about the professions that have no choice but to go to work? As far as they are concerned, priority should be given to proximity, according to Jean Viard. “It seems to me that it is very possible, following the crisis, that people may think that it is normal to give priority to proximity between home and work for professions that make cities go round, and have no other choice than to go to a specific workplace.” The sociologist believes that this crisis could be an opportunity to review social housing policy and rethink the allocation of social housing according to proximity to the workplace. “Social housing policy has always been based on income, not geography,” he explains. “But the idea that social allocation becomes spatial allocation is a real issue. A nurse who has to go to Necker every day should be allocated social housing nearby.”

Conversely, the figure of the “digital nomad”, who has no ties and roams the world, “computer under his arm”, should remain marginal after the crisis. “It’s a minority who will realise that they can be digital nomads,” says Jean Viard. This concerns jobs where you have to know your employees well. If you know someone, you can communicate very easily by Skype etc. But if you’ve never met them before, it’s more complicated because at a distance you don’t have all the cultural codes. In my opinion, this will only concern small populations, who will decide to push nomadism further. “A reflection that echoes the work of sociologist Aurore Flipo: “We notice that teleworking is rather popular among employees, a few days a week.” 

A recent survey conducted by the real estate consulting group Colliers International among employees in 25 countries shows that 71% of respondents who had never worked remotely before the crisis would now like to work remotely one day a week.

  • An illusory return to normal

If two months of containment are insufficient to see the real emergence of new modes of sustainable professional mobility, a “return to normal”, with a majority of employees going to a fixed workplace every day, seems difficult to pursue. The challenge will then be to imagine new, healthy and sustainable ways of teleworking. “For the time being, companies and public employers have mainly reacted urgently to telework, but the decontainment will also mark the beginning of a longer-term reflection on an organisation that favours telework” Aurore Flipo believes. “This may indeed be necessary for a long time, according to recent statements by the government, which indicated that telework should be favoured after the crisis. It will therefore inevitably be necessary for the urgent reactions adopted in companies to be replaced by real strategies,” the researcher explains.

Long-term strategies that will necessarily lead employees to rethink their ways of getting around, by shortening travel times and promoting mobility that is more in line with their new lifestyles.

  • A crisis that will awaken ecological awareness

“There are going to be new expectations: people are going to be afraid of public transport, so we’re going to use bicycles, walking and cars more,” predicts Jean Viard. According to the sociologist, rethinking time by encouraging teleworking will then make it possible to rethink space: soft mobility will be encouraged, bicycle paths and pavements will be widened, car-bike relays on the outskirts of towns will allow those who come from further away to cycle the last few kilometres… A reduction in travel that would encourage a greener economic recovery, another major concern of this crisis.

"There are going to be new expectations: people are going to be afraid of public transport, so we're going to use bicycles, walking and cars more," says Jean Viard.

For it is also one of the great lessons of this period of containment: everywhere pollution rates are falling, animals are returning to areas they had deserted… and people are becoming more aware every day of their impact on nature. “With the advent of containment, our relationship with nature is changing,” explains naturalist Grégoire Loïs in a recent interview on Enlarge Your Paris. 

These long days, free of travel time and social interaction, encourage contemplation. But outside, it’s springtime, in other words the rush and effervescence of reproduction in the form of seeds, larvae, eggs… A permanent spectacle! In normal times, it is difficult to pay attention to it. “This unprecedented situation leads to a tightening of the bonds that unite us to the wild, which are particularly strained in our societies,” he adds. Another argument for accelerating the migration of city dwellers to the countryside, revaluing teleworking and rethinking our modes of travel? Time will tell.