Remote Work Means Anyone Can Take Your Job

Now thousands of people could be competing for your role from around the world.

Image: Mike Kemp/Getty Images

When everyone’s face is milliseconds away on a Zoom call, who cares where their butts are sitting? Remote workers could be anywhere in the world. They are, by default, outsourced.

It really doesn’t matter where you hire from anymore. When you don’t need people within a one-hour commute, you can hire from the next city over, or from around the world. Right now you’ve got the same workers spread out across different locations, but over the next few rounds of hires, those employees will change. You’ll get workers from all over the world.

That’s where the real disruption comes in. If you thought globalization was fun for manufacturing, buckle up. Remote work is about to globalize a bunch of service jobs as well.

The first generation

Let’s say you just started working remotely. Everything probably feels mostly the same, work-wise. The same office crew, just on Zoom. You guys even use the old #lunch Slack channel, sometimes even ordering from the same place. Things will go back to normal soon, right?

Your office, meanwhile, is gathering dust. After the pandemic drags through Q2 and Q3 your company lets the lease run out. You say you’ll get another office when things start to open back up. This is just temporary.

But it’s not. And normal doesn’t mean anything anymore. What you call “normal” is now history. Your office culture has started evolving, and evolution doesn’t go in reverse. Like any evolution, this happens over generations, and the first generation won’t notice anything major. They’ll just be like, “Cool, no more pants.”

But the next generation will definitely notice as remote jobs become outsourced jobs.

The next new hire

Now it’s Q4 of Pandemonia, and there’s still no vaccine. You’ve been able to commute for months, but there’s no office to commute to. Your company looked at leases for a while, but then gave up. Everyone would have to sit two meters apart, which means two times the square feet, which means two times the rent. And it ultimately doesn’t matter, since the work is getting done from home anyway.

Then a team member leaves the company. The ad for her replacement reads:

Job: Manager
Location: Anywhere

The pandemic isn’t just a blip in how we work. For many jobs, it has already completely decoupled work from a location. The longer it goes on, the stronger this decoupling becomes. Long-term remote work breeds new technology, new customs, and entirely new work cultures. After a while, you couldn’t go back even if you wanted to.

Normal is just what you’re used to now. But people will be used to something else.

What globalization did to manufacturing jobs, remote work will do to many service jobs.

The economics of remote work

It’s important to remember that the economic pressures here will be immense. At first, the winners will be workers. They’ll still get paid big city salaries and will be able to move to where the rents are cheaper if they want. Very quickly, however, that dynamic will flip.

Before this pandemic, a remote worker and physical worker offered two very different types of value. You paid a premium for the physical worker because they contributed to the office culture. But work culture has changed, and in terms of value, all hires are on the same footing.

Now, you can either hire someone from San Francisco and subsidize their obscene rent, or you can hire someone from Omaha. You can get the same work done, but cheaper. What would you choose?

It’s not like wages would just go down across the board. For some jobs, they may well go up. (If you’re specialized, you can apply for jobs anywhere. If you’re in demand, your wages and offers will rise.) And beyond just wages, workers may also now be able to move near their parents, or own a big house instead of renting an apartment. It’s the promise of the suburbs without the murder of the commute. Like any big economic change, there’ll be winners and losers, and it’s not exactly clear from the outset who will end up benefiting from the change.

Globalization for service-based economies

What globalization did to manufacturing jobs, remote work will do to many service jobs. Cities won’t just disappear, but — for many jobs — living in any particular city will no longer be required. That changes things. At scale, that changes the world.

It also presents some risks. Globalization did not help everyone — it led to inequalities and labor abuses, as business leaders moved jobs to where the labor was cheaper, to keep the profits for themselves and away from their nations’ tax systems. While overall globalization lifted millions of people out of poverty and enriched lives, it could have been done better — something we should remember the second time around.

The remote future is near

We like to think of history as steady progress, but it’s really a series of violent shocks, each upending old systems in a process of creative destruction. Our culture was slowly trending toward more remote work until suddenly a violent shock made millions of people remote workers at once.

Like the first fish on land, this generation of workers will regularly return to spawn in the ocean, obsessed with a home that no longer exists. The next generation, however, will question the purpose of water at all.

Remote work just outsourced a ton of jobs, though we haven’t noticed yet. We have created jobs that are divorced from location and — over time — those jobs will start to move. Where they’ll go is anybody’s guess (it could be anywhere in the world), but I can tell you this: If you’re working on Wi-Fi at home, that means your job is literally up in the air.