If I lift my eyes from my laptop, I can stare across my hotel’s rooftop infinity pool to the soft tropical blues of the Laccadive Sea. In a minute I might order another one of those excellent Sri Lankan crab curries. And another chilled Lion lager. Meanwhile the weather app on my phone tells me that London is shivering in a succession of bitter storms as the government ‘ends all Covid restrictions’, meaning everyone can go back to catching trains in the freezing fog.
I make no apologies for sounding smug, Being a freelance writer (or self-employed/freelance anything) has many serious downsides — no sick pay, no holiday pay, no pension, no Christmas office party, plus the queasy horror of the January tax bill — but there are two things which have always combined, for me, to make it highly tolerable. These are the lack of that commute and the freedom to work anywhere in the world.
The first is no small thing. When I’m in my own flat, I commute from my bed to my desk. Many is the time I’ve woken at 10 a.m. and smiled at not having to get up three hours earlier to squeeze on to a crowded train to sit in a boring cubicle. But the second is possibly even more precious. I absolutely loathe the British winter. January and February feel like an unjust jail term in a weirdly dank torture chamber. But then, about 20 years ago, I realised that I simply did not have to endure it. I could slip off somewhere nice and sunny and skip the sleet.
I have tended to go to Thailand, but this time I’ve chosen Sri Lanka as the Covid faff is minimal and, right now, it’s insanely cheap. And I mean cheap. My excellent five-star hotel in Colombo, the Marino Beach, is costing me £57 a night. No, really. £57.
It’s this cheapness which has got me thinking. As we have all discovered, many office jobs can be done from home. Everyone can work like I do in my flat, where rush hour consists of slowly shuffling to the Nespresso machine. Now, as restrictions end, it is supposed that nearly everyone will return to the office in some form or another, perhaps for three or four days a week.
But will they? For a start, lots of companies have shed office space, meaning they don’t have room for everyone. What’s more, a lot of people will have deduced what I figured out two decades ago: that if their work can be done from a kitchen table, it can surely also be done from a beach in the tropics where gin and tonics are £2. Why linger in your Brooklyn apartment in freezing January when Belize also has great wifi? Why stay in your frigid semi in Finchley in February when you can set up your Zoom calls under the coconut palms? In other words, multitudes of people can now live the deliciously itinerant life of the digital nomad. (And they will still get the pension, the sick pay and the rest. Damn them.)
Of course, for many, ties with home will be too strong to allow entire months or seasons away from office life. Kids, pets, gardens, colleagues, relatives and so on will prevent lots of people flying south. But many do not have these pressing ties. And for them Working From Paradise will make sense.
It might even add up financially. Sri Lanka today is so inexpensive I have possibly saved money by zipping out to the tropics — and Sri Lanka has benefited too. The Colombo government is desperate for hard currency, with an economy close to default, and its tourist industry is begging for post-Covid visitors. I can feel virtuous even as I slurp sweet Negombo oysters for 50p a pop.
If I am right and Working By The Pool becomes as popular as Working From Home, this has serious implications for big, rich cities with horrible winters. Toronto, Chicago, New York — London, Brussels, Paris — Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin — all of them and many more might become seriously depopulated of relatively mobile people from December to March. It won’t just be the thriller writers migrating to Koh Samui as the wintry darkness closes in, it will be entire neighbourhoods.
This will be great for the economies of poorer sunny countries in the tropics, but you have to wonder what it might do to the already fragile business of Pret A Manger and so many other enterprises reliant on bustling city centres. I guess I’d better make the most of the empty sunbeds here by the rooftop pool, because soon they might be a whole lot busier.