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Ultra remote working – what if your Zoom beach background was real?

Posted: 31/05/2022

As we move into a post-pandemic world, there is one area of pandemic life that many employees don’t want to leave behind - agile or hybrid working. But is it here to stay, or is this only the tip of the iceberg?

Contrary to some naysayers, many say the Covid-19 lockdowns proved that most jobs could be performed as efficiently from non-office locations; for most of us, that meant our home. Most of us agree that returning full-time to the office seems unnecessary. Those who want to can; those who don’t, well, to put it bluntly, just won’t return. That is why 42% of companies have implemented a remote working policy, with the percentage growing daily.

The concept of ‘work life’ has evolved from the industrial era as being a place we visited every day for a fixed number of hours to a series of activities we do, possibly from different desks or offices and which are activities which we blend and often intertwine with our ‘non-work life’. This blending of our personal lives with work has been creeping in since long before the pandemic but has been supercharged in the last 2.5 years. But have employers been slow to see it, react to it, and embrace it?

Every generation has a different attitude or expectation of working life. Many surveys suggest that the new workforce wants, along with meaningful work, ultra-flexibility and significant control over how and, importantly, where they do their work. It was estimated that 1.9 million workers were anticipated to work abroad during 2019, pre-pandemic, so this trend has been in the making for a while. These numbers emphasise that early adopters, both companies and individuals, can and are taking measures to facilitate working from abroad.

Employers are struggling with these demands, as recruitment and retention are both expensive and disruptive if unsuccessful. Most employers have now implemented some form of flexibility, tweaked ‘flexible working’ and ‘home working’ policies, and conjured up ‘remote working’ policies. Some are working; many are not. Some are causing outrage, and no one wants to get this wrong. We have seen how quick others are to point out the issues with competitors’ policies and how a seemingly sensible approach can quickly lead to extremely bad press.

The reality is we (employees and employers) are in an unknown world. Employers are now enticing, or some may say placating, employees with work from home forever policies. This involves a trade-off between the saving that can be realised from downsizing office space and the potential loss of culture, engagement and perhaps the management of their employees. Take HSBC cutting 40% of its global office space, and Lloyds reducing offices by 20%.

Practical obstacles can be overcome, and legal and regulatory hurdles can be simplified. Compliance issues are not new, and laws and regulatory requirements do not have to be insurmountable when managed efficiently.

Current trends and predictions

But working predominately from home is only the start of a new movement. Remote working and ultra-remote working are all growing trends. If you can work remotely from Cornwall, why not Athens or Hawaii? As borders reopen and restrictions lift, you or your team members may be looking beyond borders and considering ultra-remote working. To build your case to HR, you could refer them to Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, who recently announced that AirBnB employees could work remotely from anywhere in the world after successfully piloting the policy himself.

Cross border remote working is already commonplace in multinational companies, and as Chesky and other advocates show us, it can work seamlessly despite the legal and practical obstacles. So why are employers more likely to answer an overseas remote working request with an automatic ‘no’ rather than a ‘why not’?

Practical obstacles: the theory

The main issue identified by Chesky was the ‘administrative headache’ caused by navigating employment, tax law and practical considerations. HR is busy. That’s probably an understatement. Knowing that even looking into it will, undoubtedly, be time-consuming, the instinct is to say ‘no’ and cite heavy hitting reasons, cross-jurisdictional legal and employment issues, immigration requirements, data transfer and protection, compliance issues (FCA/PRA/SRA), international tax implications and, as a catch-all, conflicting global employment and tax benefits schemes, as potentially justified reasons for refusing the request.

You and your employer will need to work out what ‘working locally but living abroad’ will entail. Tax is complex enough in one jurisdiction; navigating two sets of procedures will not be easy, but it can be done. A word of warning, however: if you work from abroad for a prolonged period, there is a risk that this will create a permanent tax establishment for your employer, attracting additional corporation tax duties; but there are thresholds to explore. It may not be easy, but it can be done. Many specialist companies are being set up to deal specifically with these issues so outsourcing is an option.

In short, allowing employees to work overseas requires taking early, prudent and at least initially extensive local legal and tax advice. Where only a few employees wish to work out of a particular jurisdiction, an employer could be forgiven for thinking that it is simply not worth the hassle. But consider the bigger picture. What if offering this level of flexibility extends your candidate reach and retains your employees? The financial savings could quickly outweigh the cost of advice, any additional benefits, tax exposure, retraining and recruitment fees.

Practical obstacles: the reality

But it’s not all about the money. There are also practical, cultural, and governance obstacles to working abroad: team oversight and supervision become more complicated, where you can’t simply pop your head around a desk once a week. You may well have experienced these challenges when managing your team. Time zone differences may make coordinating team meetings more difficult and may result in some employees working outside normal working hours.

Managers need to be alive to this risk and implement strategies to address it. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, similar issues arose with remote working during lockdowns and solutions were found, proving that the barriers to international remote working are far from impossible. For example, organisations and management demonstrated creativity with solutions to maintain team morale amid lockdowns (think Zoom quizzes, movie night packages, virtual cocktail masterclasses), showing that relationship management is possible outside the office. We have probably moved on from virtual team karaoke, but there is a whole industry now dedicated to engaging a virtual workforce. Perhaps even the metaverse could solve many of our 2D virtual team management issues.

The tech solutions that carried us through the pandemic will continue evolving as we return to work. The developers behind products like Zoom and Slack are already working on virtual reality conferencing products and Holoportation devices, which may remove the need for physical presence in meetings entirely. The rise of virtual communication channels has continued post-lockdowns and has been seen to have improved inter-office regional and international connectivity. Our increased dependence on these new technologies has informed predictions that mobile work tools, online applications and virtual reality conferencing will become the preferred methods of communication over face-to-face meetings.

Even small tech applications can help navigate smaller practicality issues: an app called ‘Every Time Zone’ coordinates team calendars and organises group meetings around time zones, working hours and appointments. Growing R&D in new apps and virtual conferencing products that facilitate international remote working is a clear sign of the new reality of work and the direction of travel for the workplace.

The development of technology tools for communication has encouraged companies such as Airbnb to expand their searches for new, fully-remote talent. Tech solutions such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have helped the company

How are other companies doing it?

Many companies successfully implemented temporary working arrangements for remote overseas workers during the lockdown periods. The EU quickly implemented legislation to minimise the red tape, allowing this with limited legal and tax risks for companies.

Some companies (the large ones, for now) have now begun to implement overseas working policies: PwC has announced it will permit staff to work remotely from eight countries, including the US and India, for up to eight weeks, and Revolut has created a ‘digital nomad programme’ allowing staff to work anywhere in the world for up to two months at a time.

Airbnb is also open sourcing its international remote working policy and working with governments to implement special remote working visas, offering a valuable blueprint for navigating foreign regulatory landscapes. 

So what is stopping you?

Remote working will be a permanent feature of workplaces in the future. Taking this one step further, global working should be perceived as ‘another facet of managing a network of international talent across borders through a combination of traditional international moves, remote working, and rotation across functions’. Senior executives who can lead by example and encourage best practice remote working will lead their companies ahead of the game.

The pandemic brought workforce agility, and employers realise that backtracking on workplace flexibility for the sake of custom or tradition is both counterproductive and inefficient. We have proved that cross-border remote working is possible and, as remote working becomes the new normal, working from home from abroad looks set to be the new agile working trend. Maybe it is time for you to consider embracing that trend.

Technology will continue to connect hybrid workforces as agile working trends develop. The flexibility offered by hybrid working arrangements means employees have different office attendance schedules, and many employees are still choosing to work predominately from home. Technology is now well positioned to allow anyone who doesn’t need to be in the office to work ultra-remotely. All that is standing in the way is red tape and mindset. Yes, you are closer than ever to your beach background being real, not a Zoom stock image.

If you would like some advice on managing your ultra remote aspirations, contact Ruby Dinsmore.

This article was co-written with Miranda Robertson, knowledge paralegal.

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP