Remote Workers Are Making Permanent Moves. What Happens When Offices Reopen? As the pandemic stretched on, some employees moved hundreds of miles from the offices they're supposed to return to once it's safe. Will their bosses really make them come back?

Workers Are Moving First, Asking Questions Later. What Happens When Offices Reopen?

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Many people moved to a new place when they started working from home during the pandemic, but not everyone cleared their moves with the bosses first. NPR's Laurel Wamsley has more.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Kate Ray and her husband had just moved into a one-bedroom in Denver last March. The apartment had floor-to-ceiling windows, a gorgeous roof deck, and it was really convenient to their jobs.

KATE RAY: It was brilliant for about two days.

WAMSLEY: And then, well, the pandemic.

RAY: The pool closed within, like, 48 hours of us moving in. The gym closed. All of the amenities closed.

WAMSLEY: They felt trapped, and they hated the constant negotiations at the elevators. A few months later, wastewater started flowing into their apartment from the unit above. It was gross, but it allowed them to break their lease.

RAY: We purchased a house in Cloquet, Minn., sight unseen, got some movers, moved into the house that we have now.

WAMSLEY: Ray has family in northern Minnesota, and she's now pregnant. The couple told their employers at first that it was just temporary, through her maternity leave.

RAY: We kind of withheld information about having purchased a house, for example. I think we both had fear of what that would mean for our employment conditions, but also because we couldn't really admit to ourselves, I think, the level of commitment that we were making and the level of crazy life changes that were happening and quickly.

WAMSLEY: They're not alone in jumping first, asking permission later. Some remote workers have moved to new states to be with long-distance partners. Some suddenly had the freedom to live in a warmer climate or a mountain town. David Lewis is the CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Connecticut. He says many of his clients have seen employees suddenly buy homes out of state, and they've just rolled with it.

DAVID LEWIS: It wasn't frowned upon as much as it probably would have been prior to COVID. And now I think that day of reckoning is coming.

WAMSLEY: He predicts that more than half of companies that can allow remote work will continue to, at least part time. And he says companies will have to think hard about being heavy-handed in ordering people back into the office from wherever they are.

LEWIS: The good news is you could get everybody back in the office; the bad news is not everybody is going to come back.

WAMSLEY: And it also comes down to who these workers are.

LEWIS: If they're valued employees and they're productive ones and they have continued to be productive while working in this COVID world, chances are organizations are going to allow them to continue to do that.

WAMSLEY: That seems to be the case for Ray and her husband. Now that they're across the country, their employers have hinted that they can probably keep working remotely. And other workers aren't making such drastic moves, like Benji, who moved with his partner and daughter from downtown Detroit to Lansing, Mich., in August. They signed a two-year lease, even though his employer, a large health insurance company, hasn't given him permission to work remotely on a permanent basis. Did that feel risky?

BENJI: Oh, it felt totally risky (laughter). It felt like I was jumping off of a ledge without a parachute.

WAMSLEY: Benji asked that his last name not be used in order to protect his job. In Lansing, he likes the proximity to family, cheaper cost of living and the local schools for his daughter.

BENJI: And when there isn't a deadly virus, it is a fun town.

WAMSLEY: If he does have to go back to the office, instead of a 12-minute bike ride, he'll have an hour-and-40-minute drive each way. He says the move was a way to find a silver lining amid the pandemic and to take a cue from the digital nomads he watches on YouTube.

BENJI: They're living in Bali and working on a laptop with a hot spot in their bikini, and I was honestly jealous (laughter). So moving from Detroit to Lansing is about the closest that I was going to get to that kind of jet-setting lifestyle (laughter).

WAMSLEY: He admires the freedom and possibility they seem to have in their lives, and he wanted a bit of that for himself.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.

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