Remote work is changing how and where we work. This goes well beyond merely selling products online or conducting business meetings via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. Instead, it is workflow management systems allowing people to work on project documents irrespective of where they are. Doctors can now ‘see’ patients via tele-health, while augmented reality makes remote work possible in machine maintenance and repair.

If locations are not the deciding factor anymore, people don’t have to go where the jobs are, or firms where they find workers. What might sound trivial has huge practical implications.

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Companies can tap into larger labour pools than ever, and hire specialists previously unavailable in certain locations. Just like the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms, companies can reduce office space through a hybrid form of remote and in-office work, which in turn will impact commuting. Congested roads might thus become a slightly less regular occurrence in our lives.

Similarly, people looking for work have a far wider radius of potential employers to look at. Even a new type of employee, the so-called ‘digital nomad’, is emerging. Highly-skilled, sought-after specialists who combine living in attractive places with working remotely.

These developments obviously also have implications for countries. Government policy and e-preparedness can suddenly put you back on the map. Some European countries were quick to accommodate these trends with dedicated immigration regimes to welcome digital nomads and remote-only firms. 

Take for instance Germany with the ‘Freiberufler’ visa, the Czech ‘zivnostenske opravneni’ or the Portuguese equivalent. Estonia, far ahead of the crowd, had introduced an e-residency programme as early as 2014 and followed up with a digital nomad visa in 2020.

This is probably doing more for reversing rural depopulation than most economic policy measures of the past 20 years. Cities like Brescia in Italy, not to mention the more out-of-the-way countryside, can become vibrant locations again. Affordable housing, and the beauty of the nearby Lake Garda or Lake Iseo, are as much a location factor in Brescia now, as is the proximity to the next factory.  

Remote work could have an impact analogous to how the revolution in supply chains and the emergence of smart factories is changing the logic of labour-seeking foreign direct investment. We might see dwindling numbers of greenfield projects in IT or research and development if remote-only firms catch on. At any rate we are heading for a paradigm-shift.

Martin Kaspar is head of business development at a German mittelstand company in the automotive industry.

E-mail: martin.georg.kaspar@googlemail.com

This article first appeared in the August/September 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.