The move to full remote - A European perspective


While US-based tech companies and workers are bullish about remote work, the move won't happen in Europe, at least not anytime soon.

It’s funny how things can drastically change in an instant. If you were looking at job offers from Silicon Valley startups in 2019, most of them highlighted great office locations and perks like corporate chefs, on-campus gyms, massage therapists and hand-built arcade rooms. Then 2020 happened, and almost every startup CEO realised that maybe their super expensive and fancy office, in the heart of San Francisco, was not that important after all. Remote work had become cool and now seemed the perfect time to escape Silicon Valley sky-high prices and the war on talent.

According to a 2021 study by Venture Capital fund Initialized, more than 40 per cent of surveyed founders now say that the best place to start a company is the “cloud”, instead of the Bay Area.

Without offices, tech professionals can work from the mountains, the beach, or anywhere they want and adapt their work hours. Companies save money on offices and can now tap talents globally, instead of locally. On paper, everybody wins (given the proper management and tools to keep everyone engaged). But I believe that what seems inevitable in America, won’t happen in Europe, at least not anytime soon.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, early estimates from Eurofound suggest that close to 40% of those currently working in the EU began to work remotely full time due to the pandemic. But, for the most part, it’s their first experience with remote work. As of 2019, just 5,4% of employed in the EU-27 usually worked from home – a share that remained relatively constant since 2009. In short, European companies (and, to some extent, workers) have not been bullish on remote work. So, as soon as everything goes back to “normal”, it’s fair to say that most workers will go back to the office, even those who work in the tech industry.

Big cities aren’t doomed

First of all, tech workers are relatively young on average, and young people willcontinue to flock to cities in search of both professional opportunities and a social life, according to urban studies theorist Richard Florida. Unlike the US where there are many exciting cities with few tech companies (Austin, Miami, Denver…), European tech hubs are also the most attractive cities for young people: London, Paris and Berlin. While some smaller cities like Lisbon and Barcelona have recently been attracting young professionals from all over the EU, it’s fair to say that the European megalopoli will continue to attract most young professionals.

The other thing about living in Paris or London is that young professionals live in small apartments that are not comfortable for remote work. Let’s look, for example, at Chloé, a single 28-years old software developer living in Paris, making 3 000€ per month. Because she’s single, she’s not interested in living in Boulogne, Vincennes or any suburban city. She wants to be close to restaurants and bars. So she lives near the centre, and because of the high rent prices, she can only afford a 40m2, 1-bedroom, apartment. With such a “small” apartment, working from home doesn’t make sense. So, when looking for a job, she will prioritise companies with nice offices in Paris centre.

Digital nomadism and full-remote

But it doesn’t mean the situation won’t change in the long term. Because of COVID, most companies now know that they can manage remote workers without too many problems. More and more companies will thus be OK with employees working remotely, partially or fully. With this new arrangement, workers looking for a better quality of life will be moving from big cities and suburbs to smaller cities with a much better environment.

Back to Chloé. Because the company she works for is open to remote work, she will start experimenting with digital nomadism, like working from Lisbon during the whole summer (instead of just taking a 2-week vacation). The more she will get used to it, the more she will prefer the sunnier, more relaxed, Lisbon vibe (with the Paris salary). This arrangement also applies to families looking for better environments to raise their children (and bigger houses), who will undoubtedly abandon the nearby suburbs to more distant and better cities.

Where will we go from here?

Now that the prospect of newly developed vaccines brings talk of a return to “normalcy”, I believe that executives and managers should anticipate the above trends rather than just going back to business as usual. More specifically, here are three things you could do now to prepare your organisation for this (remote) future of work:

1/ Leverage the current remote work situation to establish remote-friendly management practices and tools, so that you will be able to offer partial or full remote work options to all team members if they wish to do so.

2/ Abandon your expensive office for a much smaller (and nicer) one, or rent chairs in a coworking space. The office doesn’t have to be where team members work, but rather the place where they meet, or where they meet with customers and partners. You should also sponsor coworking memberships for your remote employees, so that remote work doesn’t mean alone work. And who knows, maybe your next superstar is sitting next to them in their coworking space.

3/ Start hiring talents remotely, especially developers. Even if your company is in one of the main European tech hubs, there is a long tail of hubs with a high density of developers, like Amsterdam, Lisbon, Zurich or even Athens.