Remote Work Is Reversing the Brain Drain
Like millions of people who work from home, Abbie Sheppard usually begins her workday with a video conference call. As far as the other people in the meeting can tell, Sheppard, who works for a tech company based in Chicago, appears to be Zooming in from a typical home office. But she’s nowhere near Illinois. She’s on the island of Bermuda, 650 miles off the Atlantic coast, in a cottage with a direct view of the ocean outside her window.
“If I didn’t tell people I was in Bermuda, they wouldn’t know,” said Sheppard, who works as the Chief of Staff for Operations for Cameo, an app that lets fans pay celebrities to record personalized messages. “All my work is on this laptop. As long as I have that, I can be wherever I want.”
She was an early applicant to participate in a visa program built specifically for remote workers. The “Work From Bermuda” certificate, which started in August 2020, allows people to work from the island legally for up to a year so long as they aren’t employed by a Bermuda-based company.
Sheppard, 24, lives and works from Bermuda’s Warick parish, in a home with a large balcony that overlooks the sea. She often begins mornings with a run on the beach, and spends weekends cycling across the island and boating with friends over the crystal clear Atlantic.
Since the Industrial Revolution, people have flocked to affluent countries and cities for economic opportunities — remote work could reverse this trend and revitalize rural economies.
Beyond the scenery outside, her work life is the same as if she were in an apartment or co-working space in the United States. As an employee of a growing tech start-up, she works 12-hour days, mostly filled with back-to-back Zoom calls. She has never met her boss in person or the new employees who joined the company since the pandemic began.
Bermuda isn’t the only country to enact a “digital nomad visa.” Countries on nearly every continent are embracing these visas in hopes of attracting gainfully employed workers looking for a change of scenery. Visas are available in countries as far-flung as Estonia, Barbados, Iceland, Costa Rica, the United Arab Emirates and dozens of other nations. For the countries that participate, the scheme is a win-win: They can draw well-paid workers who will pour money into the local economy without the risk of taking job opportunities from locals.
The rapidly growing interest in remote work, which was accelerated by COVID-19 lockdowns, is upending traditional geographical restrictions. Remote work will not only forever change how people think about employment — it’s a driving factor behind modern migration. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, people have flocked to affluent countries and cities for economic opportunities — remote work could reverse this trend and revitalize rural economies.
Back to the office? Not quite.
While workers in the past may have been drawn by in-office perks meant to keep employees in the building as long as possible, the era of the “office-as-home,” where people base the core of their lives, is coming to an end, said Jess Drucker, a former digital nomad who assists workers looking to live abroad.
“Nobody wants a ping-pong table anymore. That’s gone. Nobody wants a keg of beer. That’s not a perk people are looking for,” said Drucker, who authored the book, How to Move Abroad. “People are looking for two or three days remote, at least.”
Nobody wants a ping-pong table anymore. That’s gone. Nobody wants a keg of beer. That’s not a perk people are looking for.
Jess Drucker former digital nomad
And big companies are taking notice: Facebook, Google, IBM, and Ford all announced plans to let their employees either work fully remote or take a hybrid approach — some days in the office, some days outside — even after the threat of the pandemic thaws. The Baby Boomer-accepted notion of being tied to one city, fifty weeks a year with just a two-week vacation available for travel now seems downright archaic. The new generation of workers is tech-savvy and internationally-minded. They value personal freedom to live where they want, and they’ll seek out companies that offer those benefits.
This shift in workplace mentality is shaping how countries compete for tourists and residents. An American who can work remotely may find better lifestyle opportunities abroad than at home, giving countries incentives to attract talent in ways they never could before.
Joshua Sheats, a financial advisor and host of the Radical Personal Finance podcast, works while traveling with his family of six, most recently throughout Latin America and will soon move to Europe. With his laptop and a microphone, he works from office spaces or, as was the case when they crossed the U.S. a few years ago, a fifth-wheel RV. He sees little incentive in the U.S. that would draw him to work there anymore.
“Countries are competing with each other for residents,” Sheats said. “You’ve had the big legacy brand countries like the United States that have traditionally had a lot of immigrants coming, but I don’t think that’s going to continue. It’s hard for me to see why an educated high-level immigrant would want to move to the United States, compared to other places that are trying to attract that same immigrant.”
“Globally, we are in the biggest talent shortage in human history…Everybody’s fighting for the same brains.”
Karoli Hindriks founder of Jobbatical
And the competition is growing. With the supply of highly skilled talent becoming harder to find, cities and countries around the world are starting to take innovative approaches to entice these workers.
User experience is part of what may help draw new talent, said Karoli Hindriks, founder of Jobbatical, an Estonia-based company that helps employees navigate the process of working abroad. That may include things like monetary incentives, education opportunities, or digital infrastructure like high-speed Internet.
“Globally, we are in the biggest talent shortage in human history,” Hindriks said. “Countries should be really creative and flexible in accommodating them. Everybody’s fighting for the same brains. We’re talking about highly skilled people who would bring money and knowledge.”
These programs come at a time of massive population shifts. Since COVID, the number of workers who’ve gone full remote has tripled, which has allowed many workers in the United States to consider moving out of high-cost living areas. New York and California experienced some of the highest levels of population decline during that time. In 2020 alone, California’s population dropped by more than 182,000 people while around 100,000 left New York. Meanwhile, from 2010-2019, states with the largest population growth included Utah, Idaho, Texas, North Dakota, Nevada and Colorado.
No More Legal Gray Area
One way countries are luring top talent is by making it easier for them to reside in the country legally — like Sheppard’s arrangement with Bermuda — without needing to go through the hassle of finding a local company to sponsor their stay or worrying about renewing their short-term tourist visas.
It’s causing a huge problem for their employers. If Facebook suddenly has 5,000 employees all over the world working remotely illegally, that’s a huge risk.
Karoli Hindriks founder of Jobbatical
The terms of digital nomad visas vary from country to country. Some require high incomes, like the “Global Citizen Certificate” in the Cayman Islands, where workers must show an annual pay of at least $100,000. A one-year “Barbados Welcome Stamp” costs up to $3,000 per family. To be considered for Costa Rica’s two-year “Rentista” visa, applicants need to show an income of $2,500 a month or make a $60,000 deposit in a bank based in the country. Other visas are more accessible, like in Mauritius, an African island nation east of Madagascar, where the one-year “Premium Visa” is free.
Digital nomads have been working from countries abroad for years, but often do so outside of official channels. Working while traveling internationally often occurs in legal gray areas. While self-employed contractors or freelancers generally work without issue, the increase of employees from corporations who do not obtain the proper work visa before living abroad could cause headaches for those companies, said Hindricks.
“It’s causing a huge problem for their employers. If Facebook suddenly has 5,000 employees all over the world working remotely illegally, that’s a huge risk,” Hindriks, who pitched the idea for Estonia’s digital nomad visa in 2016, said. “There’s no legal ground to work for a company located outside of the country where you’re working.”
The new visas, Hindricks said, are governments’ ways of catching up to building a framework to meet already longstanding cultural trends.
“Imagine a situation where cars are invented and they’re just cruising through the grass and the forest and then the government starts to ask, should we build roads? That’s what has happened with digital nomads,” she said. “We have had millions of people working like that, but there’s no legal way to do it.”
Countries aren’t the only entities hoping to lure remote workers — landlocked American towns, traditionally lacking the glitz and glamour of coastal elite cities — are now competing with coastal cities for talent. Within the U.S., cities are offering financial perks, including giveaways of thousands of dollars in cash. Organizations in metropolitan areas in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, and West Virginia are shelling out five-figure relocation package offers to pull in fresh batches of new residents.
That’s how David Bizzaro, an Emmy-award-winning puppeteer from Brooklyn wound up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his wife earlier this year. Tulsa Remote, Oklahoma’s privately-funded program, offers workers $10,000 to move to Tulsa. So far, it has successfully drawn hundreds of people to The Sooner State over the past year.
Can this model scale to a large number of small towns in America and even beyond?
Raj Choudhury a professor of business at Harvard University
Bizzaro had been working on the PBS show Sesame Street in 2020, but found himself out of work when the pandemic lockdowns began. He arrived in Tulsa to find a community of hundreds of other transplants from all over the country. As part of the program’s benefits package, Bizzaro and the others were given a free year-long subscription to a downtown co-working space, access to a network of other participants and alumni through the program’s Slack channel, and local help with finding places to live. Both he and his wife, Cassandra, have family in Oklahoma, and she was able to continue working her New York-based job remotely.
They found Tulsa to be a surprisingly dynamic and exciting city, with more diversity than they had expected before they made the move.
“It’s a culture shock for sure,” Bizzaro, whose mother migrated to the U.S. from El Salvador, said. “But I’m surprised at how much of an artistic family is here. And there are some rad pupuserias out here.”
The Bizzaros bought a large home in a forested area near town, where the couple pays the same price for their mortgage that they spent to rent a one-bedroom apartment in New York. It’s big enough to include a studio space, where David makes a living building puppets for television shows.
“I don’t have to be in New York or LA to build puppets for a TV show. I can be here and then put them in a box and ship them,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”
It’s really about the reversal of brain drain. That for decades, small towns have bled talent, have lost talent to the large coastal cities, emerging markets have lost all their elites to the West.
Raj Choudhury a professor of business at Harvard University
While remote employees benefit from the flexibility and lower cost of living, local communities that implement the programs can also reap rewards.
“You are bringing a diverse set of remote workers who are contributing to the community, but then you’re also attracting new property tax. You are attracting new state income tax, you are attracting new sales tax,” Raj Choudhury, a professor of business at Harvard University who studies the future of work, told The Cold Call podcast.
Choudhury said that in Tulsa, the community earned an additional $4,000 per remote worker in tax receipts each year.
“There’s a multiplier effect on the economic side,” he said. “There’s a multiplier effect on the social side, and this could really change the talent pool in Tulsa in a conceivable way.”
For Tulsa Remote, community integration is a key goal. It allows community members to decide who gets approved for the program based on evidence of “pro-social contributions.” For example, will the new remote worker be likely to volunteer with the homeless shelter or work with the local high school?
Many other small towns have looked to implement similar programs — so the question, according to Choudhury, becomes “can this model scale to large number of small towns in America and even beyond?”
“It’s really about the reversal of brain drain. That for decades, small towns have bled talent, have lost talent to the large coastal cities, emerging markets have lost all their elites to the West. And I feel this is a great way of reversing the talent flows,” Choudhury said. “I don’t see personally this as a loss for the Silicon Valleys of the world. I really feel it’s giving a way for people to self-select where they want to live. So if you love San Francisco, New York, good for you, but if you want to raise a young family in a more affordable place, now you have a choice. So I really see this as a win-win for large cities and smaller towns.”
Between international digital nomads scattered across the globe and Americans relocating to cities they may have previously overlooked, the priorities and motivations guiding workers have changed. These transitions could have huge implications on how governments — at least those that wish to draw top talent to their shores — operate in decades to come.
“There’s going to be a huge shift,” said Drucker, the former digital nomad who assists workers looking to live abroad.
“The barriers have been broken.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled David Bizzaro’s surname. It has been corrected.