Even more than the average person, Daniel dislikes video calls with the boss. That’s understandable, because Daniel is hiding a big, complicated secret: He doesn’t live in Birmingham, England, like his entire company believes that he does. In reality, for the past two years, he has been living 5,600 miles away—in Chiangmai, Thailand.
Considering the many differences between the two countries, the on-camera meetings can be more than a little difficult to navigate. For one thing, it’s often night in one country when it’s day time in the other, just as it’s often cold in Birmingham and hot in Thailand. Hoping to downplay the countries’ differences, Daniel sometimes faces the difficult choice of keeping a loud fan running or sweating while his boss is “freezing his ass off in England.” Hiding the truth becomes even harder during extreme weather events in Thailand. “It's difficult when there's a tropical thunderstorm outside,” Daniel admitted. He’s learned a few hacks along the way—like constantly checking the weather in Birmingham so he isn’t caught off guard when someone asks about the rain there—but the amount of work can get tiring.
“It’s quite hard to keep up the facade all the time,” he said.
Two-plus years into the pandemic, companies all around the world are starting to ask—and sometimes demand—that their employees return to the office. In response, many employees have resisted, citing reduced commute times, better work-life balance, and a greater ability to concentrate at home.
But for an unknown number of people, there is another reason as well: They can’t come in, because they secretly don’t live in the same state or even country anymore.
The issue is larger than it may seem, and many companies are struggling to deal with “employees relocating themselves to 'nicer' places to work without letting the business know,” said Robby Wogan, the CEO of global mobility company MoveAssist. One survey performed on behalf of the HR company Topia found that as many as 40 percent of HR professionals had recently discovered that employees were working outside their home state or country, and that only 46 percent were “very confident” they know where most of their workers are, down from 60 percent just last year.
That uncertainty appears justified. In the same survey, 66 percent of the 1,500 full-time employees surveyed in the U.S. and U.S. said they did not tell human resources about all the dates they worked outside of their state or country, and 94 percent said they believe they should be able to work wherever they want if their work gets done.
Some companies have found out their employees were abroad by accident, including one San Francisco-based tech startup that asked employees to update their addresses so they could send out new sweatshirts, only to find “dozens of people in locations they shouldn’t be,” according to Steve Black, the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Topia, which helps companies deploy and manage employees around the world.
That sort of accidental discovery has become common especially among managers who discover that employees have, for example, “actually been in Italy for the last three months,” said Black. Already, he added, some companies have moved to lay off employees who refused to come back home after the company discovered they were working abroad.
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When he first left the country, Matt, another digital nomad, didn’t feel the need to hide his international travels from his boss.
He was tired of paying “an absurd amount” in rent for his apartment in Manhattan and decided to head to Europe early in the pandemic, first flying into the U.K. and then entering by train into France, where he was able to convince immigration authorities that he was a U.K. resident by flashing a London address on his bank’s website in lieu of actual documents. “They were fine with that,” said Matt, who requested we use a pseudonym to identify for reasons that will become increasingly obvious below.
All was fine between Matt and his company back home until he asked for help getting a visa to stay in Europe. The company denied the request and told him to return home immediately.
But Matt was not ready to return, so he began an elaborate plot to stay abroad. He purchased a plane ticket, emailed it to his boss as proof he was coming back to the U.S., and told his co-workers he planned to live in a state far from the rest of them, which he believed would buy him time to fly home in the event of a work emergency. “Then I immediately canceled the ticket and just proceeded to stay in Europe,” Matt said. After waiting a while, he asked the company for a letter of employment verification, saying he needed it for a housing application. The company agreed and Matt got his visa.
Once Matt began secretly living in Europe, he spent extensive amounts of time creating an online system to hide his location. At first, he employed a simple VPN, only to realize his work system would often override it, causing the possibility of detection. So he figured out a way to run a “virtual environment” inside his computer that would trick his work system and later bought a portable travel router that provided additional security. To add even more protection, he would meticulously cycle through various VPNs based around the world every day, in Los Angeles and Brazil and South Africa. Doing so, he believed, would provide cover in the off chance his actual location was ever exposed.
“I tried to build up patterns of plausible deniability,” said Matt. “This also meant that if I ever fucked up and forgot to put one on—or was in a situation where I couldn't run one for whatever reason—it wouldn't look that weird.”
Like Daniel, Zoom calls proved difficult for Matt. To avoid any issues, he always makes sure to have a well-lit, “boring white background” with absolutely no windows in sight.
Mostly, however, he just tries to keep his camera off, which he has found to be easier to get away with recently as people tired of Zoom calls, even if they weren’t constructing an elaborate lie in order to secretly live abroad.
Stories like Daniel’s and Matt’s are, of course, the stuff of nightmares to employers. Black, the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Topia, said the “massive overnight shift” to remote work has become a challenge for many companies, not least because it’s so hard to tell where people are these days. “The risk is now at a scale that's 5x, 10x whatever it was for the organization,” said Black. Wogan, the CEO at MoveAssist, similarly said that many HR departments are “scrambling” to figure out how to bend to their employees’ remote desires without exposing themselves to compliance issues.
As companies push to get their employees to return to the office, many bosses have cited increased productivity, in-person mentorship or office camaraderie as primary reasons for doing so. But experts told Motherboard that most companies are primarily concerned about issues like potential tax implications.
“If an employee is in the wrong place long enough, it can have real tax implications for the company as well as the individual,” said Black, who added that many companies fear accidentally establishing a taxable presence in a foreign country.
Some government-affiliated agencies are sorting through the issues as well. In the U.K., the Office of Tax Simplification is conducting a survey to better understand the potential tax and social security effects for both employers and employees when people live outside of the country—and to get a better sense of how widespread the practice has become.
Counter to the stereotype of the jet-setting digital nomad, Daniel didn’t move to Thailand to work from the beach. In England, he had a good, steady job as a civil engineer. But during the pandemic, his partner informed him that she wanted to move home to Thailand with their child. Not wanting to lose his family, he moved as well. In Thailand, however, the only proper job he could get was a gig teaching English, which didn’t pay enough for him to raise a family. So he snagged a job working in technical support for a startup back home.
Daniel isn’t sure how long he can keep up the ruse. Though it’s a remote company, Daniel’s boss has begun regularly pressuring him to make the drive down to London to spend time with his co-workers. “I use my child as an excuse or just say I can’t make that date,” he said, but that can only work for so long. If he does get found out, he expects to be punished. “I probably broke a lot of rules,” he said. But he won’t leave his child and partner in Thailand if asked. He’ll just figure something else out.
Matt would also quit if he was ever told again that he needs to move back home and come into the office. The pandemic has simply shifted his work priorities. “I used to be very career driven,” he said. Now, he just wants to live abroad.
While he didn’t plan to become a digital nomad, Daniel has enjoyed becoming one, and is hardly alone. Chiangmai is the “the digital nomad capital of the world,” Daniel said. “All the youngest people below 40 here, they're all doing it. Everyone's working online. Some of them are allowed. But a lot of them aren’t.”
Over the past two years, Daniel has also come to see his decision as morally acceptable, if legally questionable. In Thailand, he has access to high-speed internet, and he signs onto work on time and does his job well, just as he would in England.
“I don't see anything wrong with it to be honest, and I think everyone should be doing this,” he said. “I don't see the problem with it at all.”