By Alice Kantor and Paulina Cachero
John spent the winter of 2020 shoveling snow off his Philadelphia front porch. Or at least that’s what he told his boss he was doing.
The tech consultant was actually traveling the world, going to Lebanon, Dubai, Vietnam, Canada and Australia. He kept doing it even when he started a new job last year with an employer who believes he lives and works in Houston.
John (not his real name) uses a VPN to disguise where he lives, works US hours, uses virtual Zoom backgrounds and watches the Houston weather so he can drop cues about his supposed location. To keep up the facade, the 30-year-old flew to Houston in May to pick up a laptop his new company sent to the home address he gave them — actually a friend’s house — before heading back to Dubai.
John is one of many “stealth workers” who are lying to their bosses about their location. Bloomberg agreed to keep their real names private because they were concerned about being fired from their jobs. They’re driven by the high cost of living in large US cities, the flexibility of remote work and a desire for better work-life balance. They know they risk losing their jobs if they get caught, but they say it’s worth it.
“People want the freedom to work from anywhere, and they don’t stop just because their bosses try to get them back in the office,” said David Abraham, co-founder of Bali-based coworking company Outpost.
The pandemic upended work culture, giving many employees the opportunity to work from home for the first time. For some, not being tethered to an office meant they could move to a different city or even a new country. Suddenly it was possible to work, say, from Portugal for a company based in New York, and at least 30 nations have started offering digital-nomad visas since 2020.
As life returns to normal and many employers tell workers to go back to the office, there’s growing pushback from those who don’t want to give up their remote-work lifestyle. About 66% of employees don’t tell their employer every time they work from outside their home state or country, according to a survey from global mobility company Topia, and a growing number of workers say they would rather quit than be forced back into the office.
Chris, a New Yorker living with his parents, spends about seven months of the year abroad, something his US-based company doesn’t know.
The 29-year-old software engineer for a large media company started traveling in late 2020. He went to Cancun in Mexico before heading to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Greece, Turkey, South Africa and Israel. His $130,000 yearly salary, and lack of rent payments, allow him to fly around and enjoy $25-a-night stays in Airbnbs.
Chris is aware he risks losing his job — something that’s already happened to a friend and a friend of a friend — but he said it’s worth it. He wants to travel now rather than when he’s older and in worse shape.
“Since the pandemic, people feel like they have more entitlement over their own lives,” said Outpost’s Abraham. “They don’t want their bosses telling them where to work. As long as the job gets done, they say: ‘What’s the difference?’”
This laissez-faire attitude clashes with how most employers feel about digital nomads. While some companies still offer flexibility — Salesforce Inc. and Spotify Technology SA have announced work-from-anywhere policies — many others have told workers they must return to the office at least a few days a week.
Working abroad comes with a raft of tax and immigration issues, some of which can affect companies’ bottom lines, said Chantel Rowe, vice president of product management at Topia. Firms may be on the hook for additional taxes if employees spend a certain amount of time — usually more than half the year — in another country. They also face fines if employees work abroad without the proper work permit.
To avoid that risk, along with cybersecurity and safety concerns, many firms prohibit employees from working abroad.
“I definitely feel like the Covid free pass is running out,” Rowe said. “Companies are saying: ‘We’ve got big problems to deal with, without having tax and immigration authorities cracking down on us.’”
Employees don’t feel remorseful about lying about where they work. Many say their location shouldn’t be decided by their companies to start with. And there’s pressure on companies looking to retain talent: About 41% of employees say flexibility to work from home is a reason to change jobs, according to the Topia survey.
Kate, a Warsaw-based marketing consultant, saves up to travel the world whenever she can. The 31-year-old American spent a month in Kenya, two in Cape Town and one in Nigeria in the past year, all while working from Airbnbs.
She goes to extremes to convince her bosses she’s in Poland, waking up at 2 a.m. for a call while attending a wedding in the Caribbean, and taking a Zoom meeting from a Jeep on her way to a safari. The Los Angeles-born employee said she doesn’t tell her bosses where she is because she’s worried they’ll think she’s slacking off, which she says isn’t true.
“People were stuck at home during the pandemic and had no choice,” said Shaun Prime, chief executive officer of community travel company Remote Year. “Now they want to travel, immerse themselves in an experience and have a better life.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.