To Move or Not to Move: Is the Global Pandemic Helping or Hurting?

By: Corey Schultz, Unsettled Global Experience Leader

Recently, my girlfriend Sarah and I began a search for our new “place”. Fueled by timely opportunity and maybe a little COVID cabin fever, we informed our landlord a few months ago that we wouldn’t be re-signing our lease agreement in May. To which he eventually said, “Whatever, I don’t care. Tell me again in April.”

And thus, our fates were sealed. Pretty much. 

Like a lot of couples, place is a value intrinsically woven into the fabric of our relationship. Sarah and I first met as Peace Corps volunteers in Botswana, then we fell in love on a scooter in Vietnam. Two years ago, we found an apartment together in Memphis, TN so she could teach ESL and pursue a Master’s degree. While I, a Global Experience Leader with Unsettled, a plastic bag in the wind, appreciated Memphis because it’s a sneaky great airport. And I really like BBQ. 

Fast forward to today. Both of our careers are almost completely online for the first time. I’m leading monthly virtual retreats for Unsettled’s Lifestyle Incubator (more on that later…). And in Sarah’s school district, they’re issuing tablets, laptops, and mobile hotspots to every student in preparation for 100% virtual learning to start the year. She’ll be teaching from home.

“Unprecedented” would be an understatement to describe the fever dream of a year 2020 has been so far. And like many of you, we still have a lot of questions about how this online working life goes: Do we have enough bandwidth to support both of us online full time? Our apartment is so tiny, what happens when both of us are on calls at the same time? Why are we still paying for two vehicles if no one is commuting? If home is now our office, what are we supposed to do at night? How about weekends? Is everything still closed?

Eventually, this flurry of questions snowballed into one pretty big one: 

Do we even need to keep paying to live in a city? Why does that matter now?

And we’re not alone. This month, Zillow, Google, Reuters, Twitter, Salesforce, Facebook, Microsoft, Spotify, Hitachi and many, many other major employers have extended work-from-home options through the rest of the year, and in some cases, indefinitely. And, like Sarah and I, it seems like many of those newly remote workers are also taking the time to reanalyze their investment in an overpriced city. In Silicon Valley, America’s real estate juggernaut and de facto trend forecaster, apartment prices continue to fall amid the pandemic.

And, like, duh…

Imagine nearing your third hour of a meeting that should have only been 30 minutes, and Jeffery just had to remind Karen for the sixteenth time today that she needs to unmute her god damn microphone before she starts talking! Now imagine that all this is happening in your combination living room/kitchen space, in a city whose benefits you can’t enjoy. In those moments aren’t we all mentally retreating into our “happy places”? Don’t we imagine ourselves calling in to work every day from a beach hammock? Or maybe fantasize about a shabby chic cabin in the mountains?

I know I do.

And now, the temptation seems even greater, as picture-perfect countries from Barbados to Estonia are offering visa programs for remote workers, which allow you to stay in the country for six to twelve months at a time without needing to reapply (which is normally the biggest pain in the ass for all digital nomads and expats). Plus the cost of living in many of those countries is likely half of what you’re paying now. Seriously. Look it up.

Yet, so long as we can afford it, many of us continue to cling to our cramped little apartments where our oven and sofa is somehow the same convertible piece of furniture.

So, what the hell? Why aren’t more people trading-in their asphalt streets for pine needles? What is stopping us? According to Richard Florida, author of Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, a big reason for staying put is the security we find in our personal and professional networks. It’s always terrible to lose a job, even worse to suffer a breakup with a significant other,” Florida writes. “It’s exponentially easier to get back on your feet when your location has a vibrant economy with lots of jobs to choose from, or a lot of eligible single people in your age range to date.” 

Conventional wisdom tells us that when it comes to choosing where to live, like most other things in life, we can’t have it all. If we move for our careers, we will give up the joy of being near our families and friends or in a place that inspires us. If we choose to stay close to family and friends, we may be leaving money or inspiration on the table. And if we choose some sexy beach for our daily commute, neither our friends nor our jobs will want anything to do with us. 

But that was before the days of a global pandemic.

Today, Coronavirus has accelerated virtual spaces in a bunch of different ways. Social media seems to be improving; Zoom has become a household name that even grandma knows how to use; Cloud Clubbing is a thing in China; Virtual dinner parties and virtual trivia nights are popping up all over; And check out how these doctors are blowing off steam. So much of how we connect with and support one another is moving online.  

About this time a year ago, during one of our team meetings, someone on the Unsettled team first pitched the idea of a Virtual Retreat. And, honestly, I was skeptical. As the Experience Leader for over a dozen retreats in five separate countries, I couldn’t fully imagine how an online experience could begin to compare to the possibility and adventure inherent in communal travel. “What’s so unsettling about your computer?” I wondered.

But just last week, Unsettled said farewell to its sixth virtual Lifestyle Incubator group since the first retreat launched back in November, and I can not overstate how wrong I was about the value that can be created online.

During the online Incubator month, groups from across the world work together to find clarity on what’s next in their lives. In fact, “should I move?”, or “where should I move?” are some of the most common questions participants choose to explore during the retreat. 

What’s really incredible to me is that in our four years of hosting retreats across the world, Unsettled has amassed a community of creatives and entrepreneurs, professionals and artists, executives, founders, and deep thinkers. And no matter the place — be it Bali or Barcelona or your own damn living room — they seem to have the limitless capacity to transfigure inspiration.

Plus, with our two newest virtual programs, Unsettled’s Global Passport and Mindfulness for Remote Work, it’s clear to me that virtual networks are more valuable than ever. As our online network continues to expand exponentially, I’ve been witness to authentic connections, powerful opportunities, and meaningful growth.

Like all of us, Sarah and I had previously found security in our local professional networks, like Jen’s older brother’s former roommate’s friend from high school who’s looking to hire a new graphic designer. But recently, we’ve both spent considerable time attempting to redistribute that security into virtual and global networks, like Unsettled. And we’re beginning to see significant returns on our investments, in both personal and professional ways. 

For me, the relationships I’ve developed through the Lifestyle Incubator are equal in depth to any that I’ve made on a live retreat. And I am routinely surprised by how eagerly our community challenges, supports, and inspires one another. Sarah’s journey into virtual spaces, on the other hand, has been led more specifically by her studies and career. As an alumnae of both Teach for America and Peace Corps, she has chosen to amplify her participation in these virtual alumni networks, hosting and attending virtual happy hours and professional development workshops. 

But most importantly, through these networks, we are in virtually (Ha! Pun intended!) continuous contact with friends and professionals who share our passions and values. Our sense of identity and belonging remains as strong as ever, and our requests for help, advice, or inspiration are answered almost instantly. In addition to these genuine personal connections, it is not an unreasonable stretch of the imagination to believe that our time spent in front of webcams or on Slack may in fact lead to some pretty powerful professional opportunities too.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a Zoom call will ever replace the human need for physical contact. I love a good hug! Unsettled remains unequivocally a travel and lifestyle company — our community is defined by our need for connection to one another and to the world. But, from what I’ve observed through my experience building global communities, virtual connection is not an alternative to in-person connection, but rather an extension of it. Our alumni continue to connect locally for coffees and hikes and even dates! The only difference now is that it doesn’t take a plane ticket to join us. All you need is a laptop and an appetite for the unknown.

For Sarah and I, these online communities — the ones in which many of us have found comfort during the bleak months of quarantine — are now an inseparable component of our journey to discover our “place” without the risk of losing out on professional opportunities and personal relationships. They have changed completely how we interpret the function of place in our lives and our careers. They have exposed the frailty of the tethers that bind us to our offices and lease agreements and country clubs.

Right now, while so many people seem to be sitting on their hands, waiting for things to return to normal, some of us are recognizing the opportunity to make some of these “new normals” work for us. Now is a time to take inventory, to experiment, to redesign the components of our lives over which we’d previously had little choice, like where we can live and still feel connected.

So, consider this your invitation to ask yourself what’s holding you back from living your best life, in a place you’ve always dreamt of? Are those restrictions as real today as they were six months ago? What’s newly possible for you in the face of these global changes and where might they take you? Find out today.

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