Decentralized Communities: How Remote Work Will Transform Our Social Life

June 28, 2021

The remote work revolution has begun.

Due to the current global pandemic, work from home has been adopted on a mass scale, breaking down cultural and technological barriers. According to a recent McKinsey analysis “more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office.”

Sure, half the workforce today can’t work online, and most people would prefer a hybrid model of office and WFH. But the cat is out of the bag: BCG research shows that the desire for more flexible working conditions, both in terms of location and hours, is not limited to knowledge workers, but it extends to people working in social services, health care, and manufacturing.

Graph showing how many people want to work partially remote (answer: 89%)

Regardless of how fast it will spread across sectors, remote work’s rise to mass adoption is set to radically transform our society. For the first time in history, on a mass scale, humans will be able to make a living independently of their geographical location. Take a moment to let that sink in.

Never before we’ve been able to provide for ourselves independently of our location.

As hunter-gatherers, we depended on the territory for animals and plants. As farmers, we depended on the land to cultivate crops and livestock. As modern workers, we depended on the factory first, and the office later to do our work.

Illustration of how people have been tied to geographical location until remote work happend

Remote work, for the first time in history, decouples work from location. As investor and futurist Balaji Srinivasan says, “technology is enabling us to work from remote locations, without interrupting our ability to work or communicate with existing networks.” Regardless of where you are, in an instant you can talk with your colleagues in Canada, your family in Brazil, and your friends in South Africa. Cyberspace shrinks geography, making our location “completely unimportant”.

To me the point hit home when I co-hosted a webinar from Bali, with my colleagues in Italy, for our audience in the US. There was something magical about it. Everyone knows how great the Internet is, but when its potential is applied to work it hits differently. It takes a while to let it sink in.

Since work is such a big part of our lives, the implications of going remote are significant. Suddenly, you have freedom to choose where you’d like to live and work. Many people will take the opportunity to go nomadic and relocate somewhere different from their office location.

I’ve been witnessing this trend myself. From February to May I lived in Madeira, a Portugues island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. I went there to be somewhere less afflicted by Covid, enjoy nature, and check out the Digital Nomad Village project.

The village of Ponta do Sol in Madeira
Ponta do Sol, Madeira

Many young workers took the opportunity to avoid the strict lockdown in their “work country” and relocate temporarily. They came to try coworking, coliving and to find a community to have a good time with. Their professions ranged from graphic designers, to software engineers, computer scientists, CFOs, startup founders and more. From the conversations I’ve had with them, many couldn’t see themselves going back to their previous lives, saying that, if their company will force them to go back to the office, they would consider changing jobs.

Remote work opened a door that companies won’t be able to close. The appeal of it, however, is not only for young adults who want to explore exotic locations. A friend of mine took the opportunity to spend more time with his partner, closing the gap of an otherwise long-distance relationship. Another spent time with his family in their summer house outside of the city. My friends are not strictly nomads, nor do they identify as such, but effectively they are not living in the same location all the time anymore.

Remote work will continue to fuel a trend of people relocating for medium-long periods of time away from their main residence. Some people will only relocate occasionally for short-periods of time, maintaining strong ties to a certain location. Others will go nomadic all year round, having loose attachments to multiple places.

For better or worse, the rise of remote work and nomadism will deeply affect how we organize our social life, and give rise to decentralized communities.  

Decentralized communities

When work is anchored to an office, you tend to put down roots and build relationships with people in the same area. But when work is not anchored to an office, people start to move around and make new connections.

Remote work will lead to increased global mobility, and local communities will tend to get more dispersed. Some people will relocate to live closer to nature, some to maximize their leisure activities (e.g. skiing, surfing). Some, like me, relocate to meet people who share similar values (e.g. personal growth, mindfulness).

As people experience new places, they will share pictures on social media and tell their friends about it, which will inspire more people to travel, tell their friends, and so forth. As people spend time in different communities and build new connections, they will expand the network of people they care about.

Illustration of a map: before people were living near each other, after they are distributed globally

Remote work will result in a shift from centralized, stationary social networks to decentralized, mobile social networks. We are not going to live most of our life in the same place anymore, with most of our friends and family in one place.

Is this a good or a bad thing? The way I see it, it is inevitable. In my case, my family is in Italy, a dear friend is in Amsterdam, another is in London. My sister is currently nomadic, my partner travels with me, and my other friends are spread around the world. Even if I wanted to “settle down” and have all my friends and family clustered together, I couldn’t. I believe this will increasingly be the case for other people too.

On a psychological and social level, this will have two important consequences. Firstly, it will impact how we form and maintain relationships. Secondly, it will impact how we shape our self-image and make decisions.

Relationships

Research has shown extensively that long-term relationships are fundamental for our mental wellbeing. In a centralized community, relationships are easier to build and maintain: since you’re close to your friends and family, you can meet often and spend a lot of time together. Over time, the connection grows stronger, as well as your sense of belonging to the community.

However, when people become more mobile and communities disperse, proximity is lost. The distance from your loved ones, even if temporary, can challenge your relationships.

A girl reflects near a window with mountains in the background
Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado

Moreover, as people travel, they enter new social networks and form new relationships. At first, that’s exciting. Who doesn’t want an injection of novelty in their social life? But that excitement usually fades away: forming new meaningful relationships is not trivial, it requires a lot of intention, time and energy.

Just like a mobile lifestyle can lead to beautiful encounters and new relationships, it can also lead to loneliness, isolation and the loss of that sense of community one had “back home”. Many people will find themselves unstably standing between weakening long-term friendships and exciting yet-not-mature-enough new connections.

Ultimately, people will need to learn how to intentionally nurture existing relationships and integrate new ones, both online and offline. Personally, I’ve been using a mix of audio messages, video calls, and spending quality time in real life whenever possible. So far, it has been working well.

Self-image

Our self-image, or identity, is what informs our behavior, and it is built upon what we think people in our community think and expect of us. When your community is centralized and sedentary, your self-identity is highly influenced and shaped by the local culture.

This can be a blessing and a curse: on one hand, if we like our culture, meeting what people expect from us can feel reassuring; on the other hand, if we don’t agree with the status quo, we might struggle with cultural pressures (e.g. buy a house, get married, make kids).

Up until now, we mostly lived in a single place, building our self-image based on the local culture and the expectations of a single social network. But what happens when remote work makes our network more fluid and diverse?

Let’s say each year you live six months in your home country, with your family and longtime friends, and the other six in Mexico surrounded by an international community of mixed backgrounds. In this case, who’s approval will you seek? Your parents, who want you to get married and buy a house, or the community, who encourage you to start a business and travel the world?

Personally, if I was “forced” to stay in my hometown for work I would not be here, writing this article. Travelling and joining different communities, like in Ubud or Lisbon, has deeply shaped how I see myself and what I value in life. Back home, I would never be able to take a sabbatical to work on my career as a creator. I would feel constantly “out of place”, having to justify myself. But since in my travels I made friends who value creativity and entrepreneurship, I feel comfortable with my decision.

Ultimately, I believe decentralized communities will help some people to free themselves of their previous self-image and feel empowered to live as they choose to. Others instead won’t be able to deal with the doubt and confusion, and will go back to their previous environment and familiar identity. Overall, new subcultures and ways of living will emerge, loosening the grip of tradition on how people choose to live.

Final thoughts

To conclude, remote work is here to stay. As it increasingly decouples work from location, people will be able to relocate to new places and adopt more mobile lifestyles. Social networks, which used to be centralized and stationary, will become more fluid and dispersed.

In order to embrace change without losing structure, we will need to adopt more open, mobile and dynamic lifestyles; slowly pushing the boundaries of what we are comfortable with. That could mean learning how to better work remotely, living for a month in a new place, or making space for new friendships. Furthermore, it will be particularly useful to learn the art of relationships, and let go of any rigid idea of who we are and what we want to do with our life.

The remote work revolution will bless us with plenty of freedom. If we’re able to master it, the quality of our life will increase dramatically.

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