Can Brazil’s remote workers thrive outside big cities?
By Raphael Tsavkko Garcia22nd January 2021The pandemic has led many to swap urban living and working for more rural environments. But what happens when you try to do it in a developing nation?
Leonardo de Azevedo decided to move to the countryside with his wife and two small children in May. The family ended up in a rural area, Lumiar, near the city of Nova Friburgo, about 150km (93mi) from the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, where Azevedo works in the public prosecutor’s office. The idea was to get closer to nature, allow the children more freedom and seek greater security against the pandemic.
But the region had no broadband internet, leaving him dependent on mobile internet that came with speed and data limits. And, when his son had an accident and had to go to A&E, “we found out that in Nova Friburgo no service accepted our health plan”; they were forced to travel back to Rio de Janeiro for treatment.
Azevedo knew that the infrastructure of a smaller city was not going to match Rio de Janeiro, but his family were “going crazy” holed up in an apartment during the pandemic. Moving, the family decided, was worth the challenge; having identified a “place to run away” to, they filled the car with food and took the leap.
They are not alone. Reports are emerging across the globe of workers shifting from big cities to smaller hubs as Covid-19 normalises remote work. Most attention has focused on the US or Europe, where smaller cities generally have the facilities to welcome new residents and allow them to work while enjoying a better environment.
Yet in Brazil and other developing countries, the reality of such a move can be far from a simple transition to an easier lifestyle. Smaller cities often lack basic infrastructure to accommodate the new arrivals, making for a complicated adjustment.
The global trend?
Given how rapidly shifts have occurred, it’s too early to pin down the exact extent to which professionals are migrating out of major cities. But there’s evidence that many want to: in August, for example, 50% of 7,000 adults surveyed in Japan said they would prefer to not live in Tokyo post-pandemic. In the US, 50% of more than 2,000 working adults surveyed said they would consider moving to a place with a commute of 45 minutes or longer. In fact, the OECD’s biennial Job Creation and Local Economic Development study released in August predicts that urbanisation could screech to a standstill, as “the increased use of teleworking in the future may slow down or even start to reduce such concentration”.
Leonardo de Azevedo and his family left Rio de Janeiro for the countryside in May (Credit: Leonardo de Azevedo)
But in developing countries, the best resources may be concentrated in major cities, leaving smaller hubs ill-equipped for an influx of new remote workers. “The main thing is certainly infrastructure, and this can also mean features outside of IT reliability and speed. I would also see safety, mobility, housing, schooling, health care as major issues,” says Werner Eichhorst, a professor at Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics who studies the future of labour.
In Brazil, there’s currently a clear shift of mostly liberal professionals and workers employed by big companies to home working, says Ana Carla Fonseca, CEO at Garimpo de Soluções, a consultancy focusing on development and the creative economy. It’s hard to estimate numbers because the trend is very recent, but it’s a phenomenon led by profession and a generally high socio-economic level.
This is feeding into a trend that already existed of people moving to the countryside, explains Daniela Libório, a lawyer and professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, where she coordinates the Urban Environment Research Group. This migration has become more visible and consistent since the pandemic, she says: “It is a trend and irreversible.”
In fact, both Fonseca and Libório are taking the leap themselves, moving out of São Paulo to smaller cities within 100km of the state capital. Libório says she found it hard to find a house, because properties were being purchased or rented quickly throughout the region by people wanting to leave major hubs.
The many roadblocks
Yet these smaller cities may well not be ready for new residents. Arthur Whitacker, professor at the São Paulo State University (UNESP), explains that while workers have been moving to smaller Brazilian cities since the 1990s, “there has been no improvement in infrastructure, equipment and public services in most of the cities that have received this type of migration”.
[If] there has been a strong storm, the internet stops working – Daniela Libório
A core need for remote work is reliable internet and even larger Brazilian cities face issues with low speed, lag and untrustworthy (and expensive) connections. While some smaller cities – especially in the state of São Paulo and in some states in the Northeast – have achieved good connectivity because small start-ups have introduced fibre, much needs to be done in rural areas and places further away from centres, according to data from CETIC (Regional Centre for the Development of Information Society).
“Where I have spent these months, the internet does not work well, it is unstable, low data flow and mainly subject to nature issues. [If] there has been a strong storm, the internet stops working and sometimes it takes hours to get back,” says Libório.
Transport between smaller and larger cities can be far from ideal – a potential issue for workers needing to travel occasionally to a city-based HQ. “Moving to a small town means that you will have to have a car, something that in big centres we are already rethinking, so I believe the issue of mobility is a very serious one,” says Libório.
Gated communities like these are common in Brazil, but can overburden local infrastructure (Credit: Alamy)
Then there’s housing itself. In Brazil there is a strong gated-community culture: bubbles with good security and internal facilities like grocery shops, gyms and hairdressers that isolate residents from their external environment. Yet there are issues in terms of how these complexes impact on host cities. “It’s a huge burden of infrastructure demand for cities, especially smaller ones,” says Fonseca. These are large enterprises that often rely on things like water treatment systems, sewage or even the electricity network that were not designed to cope with such high localised demand. In many smaller cities, Libório notes, “the electric grid is of poor quality and it only ends up in some way hindering remote or internet access”.
Moreover, the influx of new residents in general tends to put pressure on public services like education and health that small cities struggle to alleviate – as evidenced by Azevedo’s problem finding a medical centre to treat his son.
Winners and losers
Typically when high-earning remote workers move to less developed areas, it has a significant economic and cultural effect – something that’s especially true in developing countries. “Earlier experiences with digital nomads in some places in Southeast Asia and expats in general, worldwide, rather point to the expat bubble experience with a more self-contained, high-expenditure lifestyle that generates income for local economies, but also to price increases – in particular, regarding housing,” says Eichhorst at the Institute of Labor Economics.
One difference in developing countries is that there are fewer wealthy suburbs, something “common in the US and not so common in Brazil”, says Diana Moreira, a professor economics at the University of California, Davis. “This implies that relocations are likely to be temporary, as the infrastructure in those places often do not have the supply of services including internet, poor sewerage, and good quality schools for a permanent move.”
Many of the workers relocating out of Brazil’s major hubs are selecting places where some infrastructure is already in place, however, something that Maria Encarnação Sposito, a professor at UNESP, suggests could lead to “cities that will ‘win’ and cities that will ‘lose’”. Where improvements are seen, “they can occur selectively; well-equipped areas become better equipped and other sectors of the city remain in deficit”, she says.
Eichhorst emphasises that we’re still in the early stages of understanding this shift, and it’s too early to tell how it might play out. Yet there’s plenty of evidence suggesting people want to move if they can.
For Kaue Chinelatto, a banking sector worker who relocated with his family to a housing complex with leisure facilities in Boituva, about 100km from São Paulo, the challenges of his new environment were not enough to dissuade him. Like Azevedo, he expected fewer facilities and services than he was used to in São Paulo. His internet connection is worse, and he’s found it hard to find supermarkets with the same range of products as in the capital. But he says he’s now living in a healthier environment, in a bigger house in an area with a much lower cost of living – and he says some local services are adapting to new residents. “The city’s delivery services are adjusting quickly,” he notes.