There’s been immense chatter about ‘work from home’ and ‘work from office’ setups. The core argument for WFH evangelists has been proximity to loved ones, clean environment, low cost of living, ability to freely travel among others. Team WFO believes in workplace collaboration, lack of a social life, and discipline. Most employers have found themselves advocating for the WFO team as it directly impacts workplace productivity in their opinion, whereas a majority of employees appreciate the flexibility that WFH offers. This dynamic, however, appears to now be shifting.
COVID-19 ushered in the era of remote work, prompting a mass exodus of urban professionals from bustling Tier 1 cities to the more tranquil surroundings of Tier 2 and 3 cities. Now, as normalcy has resumed, employees are packing their bags and returning to the familiar hustle and bustle of the metropolises. And surprisingly, not just because employers want them back!
As someone who ran a completely remote company, I noticed this trend recently when one of my employees shifted back to Bangalore from Jamshedpur, his home town, where he’d moved back during COVID-19. On asking him his rationale for moving back, he mentioned his lack of compatibility with his parents being a core factor for this decision.
Traditionally, In India, upward mobility has meant climbing the tiers—moving from a Tier 1 city to international destinations or progressing from Tier 2 or 3 cities to the major urban hubs like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. The work-from-home revolution during the pandemic disrupted this progression. With the ability to perform their Tier 1 city jobs from anywhere with a stable internet connection, employees started seeking the comfort of their hometowns.
This migration was fuelled by various factors:
1. Escaping Overpriced Rents and Subpar Infrastructure
Tier 1 cities in India are infamous for their exorbitant rents and infrastructure that just doesn’t justify the cost. The allure of more affordable living spaces and continuously improving urban amenities in Tier 2 and 3 cities became a compelling reason for professionals to relocate.
2. Breaking Free from Hectic Commutes
The chaotic traffic that tier 1 cities are infamous for, and lengthy commutes were a daily source of stress for many employees. The prospect of working remotely eliminated this.
3. Prioritising Proximity with Family
COVID helped put into perspective the importance of proximity to family. The ability to be near loved ones without sacrificing professional growth became a key factor in choosing where to live and work.
The newfound quest for personal freedom
This shift of people with jobs and stronger spending power to smaller cities had led to the creation of an underserved market, one that wanted urban amenities in these cities. That gap, however, was quickly filled by restaurants, pubs, gyms, D2C brands etc.
32-year-old Raghav who works with a large Indian bank remembers leaving for his hometown in Haryana thinking I just want to spend more time with my ageing parents, nothing else matters. A couple months later, he felt settled in his hometown as new cafes, bars, and other amenities opened in the city. Today, Raghav has moved back to Mumbai and travels to meet his family every few months like pre-COVID times.
A major reason to move base again despite the glowing benefits of living at home? The clash of lifestyles and the quest for personal freedom.
Rakshit, who returned to Bangalore from Gwalior, too found this compatibility a challenge. He says ‘My parents just don’t understand the concept of personal space. It reached a point where our relationship started getting affected and I just needed to escape.’ A friend who has a remote job with a large venture capital fund based in Singapore agrees with Rakshit ‘Although I moved to Bangalore for network effects, and being close to the tech circuit, I don’t need to be here. Working with family around is chaotic, now I feel more focused and plus I am only an hour hour long flight away’
There are some that are finding middle grounds in this hybrid work environment. ‘Everytime I’m out late with friends, it’d become an issue at home," Sonali, who had moved back to her hometown to work from home, says. ‘Now, every few weeks I travel for 2 weeks to Noida and work from here. I’ve told my parents this is how the office works now. It has allowed me peace of mind, freedom, and also the ability to stay close to family.’
Rakshit and Sonali are one of the many that are now finding their way back to the same exorbitant rents and heavy traffic. In a culture, where it is acceptable for children to move cities for career growth, the notion of living in proximity to family is becoming a complex matter. Parents, surprisingly, seem more at ease with their children pursuing careers abroad, seeing them once a year, rather than having them just a few kilometers away while desiring their own space.
Implications of this unique upward mobility
While data and reports by consulting firms suggest that tier-2 and 3 cities are seeing an influx of the remote work population, the stickiness to those cities is questionable. These reports discount for softer factors around personal space that impact overall employee wellbeing. My conversations highlight what’s about to come, the great return of major remote employees to tier-1 cities.
This coming back has far reaching implications on startups and their bottom line. Tier 2 and 3 economies that saw an influx of capital, D2C brands that saw their order volumes pump, e-commerce brands that saw a surge in orders, they’re all going to have to reevaluate their tier-2 India thesis.
Companies, especially those that focus on employee well-being, must recognize the nuanced dynamics of evolving familial relationships. Acknowledging employees' preferences and the rationale behind them is critical in shaping remote and hybrid policies. Balancing the delicate interplay of personal and professional aspirations will truly define the success of workplaces.