Indian Professionals Abandon COVID-Scarred Cities to Work From Scenic Towns

Taking a trek in the Himalayan mountains on the weekend or before starting work is not unusual for 28-year-old information technology professional Divyen Jain. It’s a significant change from his life in India’s information technology hub of Bengaluru, where, like millions of others, he was cloistered indoors as “work from home” became the new norm after the COVID-19 pandemic.   
 
“I could not meet friends, there was no life outside home so it was affecting mental stability personally as well as professionally. Good ideas were also not coming,” recalled Jain.   
 
When travel resumed, Jain headed to the northern hill state of Himachal Pradesh to work from a more relaxed, scenic environment. After a week in Bir town, he went to a homestay in Pulga village where, his workstation was often a bench under a fruit-laden tree.    
 
“I can’t explain, I feel happy,” said a rejuvenated Jain as he played with dogs on the property located in an apple orchard.  “Productivity is definitely up. Even at the end of the day I don’t feel stressed at all because every day you get to do lot of other things.”   
 
With good network connections now available across much of India, some professionals are relocating to small hill towns or beaches as the “work from home” norm continues for thousands in the nation’s pandemic-scarred cities.    
 
A group of employees from an information technology company based on the outskirts of New Delhi set up their base in Bir.  Coming with their families for several weeks to a place virtually unscarred by COVID-19 was an easy decision, said the head of the company.     
 
“If you have to work remotely, why not go to a place where you can roam around and not spend your life locked down in one place, where all you can do is go from room to room,” pointed out Gajender Nagar, chief executive officer of Sophos IT Services.   
 
He initially came to Bir for two weeks in September to see if it would be feasible for his team to work from the place that he has frequented since he was young. He returned last month with members along with their families – they plan to stay here for up to two months.   
 
Children can play outdoors and laptops are often taken under a sun umbrella.  Yoga in the morning and a long walk in the hills is the norm after work winds down at 7 pm.   
 
The group ate at a cafe without fear and visited a nearby village to see pottery being crafted on their first weekend. Roaming under a bright blue sky is rejuvenating for this group, which comes from a satellite town on the outskirts of Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities that is shrouded in dismal, grey smog at this time of the year.   
 
“You are out of a cage sort of thing,” laughs Shailender Singh, Vice President at Sophos.  “Here I can move around without a mask. I go out with my son star gazing at night. In Delhi, we cannot spot a single star.” It’s especially important for Singh, who says long hours of inactivity when he was confined to the house led to a health problem.    
 
Himalayan towns that saw business plummet after the pandemic are encouraging the new trend of “workcations” — combining work with a vacation. Hotels and homestays that were locked up for months are seeing an influx of visitors, who are checking in not for just a week but for much longer durations.   
 
Ankush Rana, franchise owner of Zostel hostel in Bir, where the group is staying, said nearly 60% of his property is occupied and the next three months promise to be busy.   
 
The shift in mindsets due to the pandemic could boost the economies of small towns.   “The real estate business of Gurgaon, Bangalore, Mumbai are seeing a lot of “to let” boards. A lot of coworking spaces, office spaces are not that busy,” pointed out Rana. “And the first preference of those moving would be a beach in winters or a nice hamlet in the Himalayas,” according to Rana.   
 
Life in small towns also helps overcome the social disconnect the pandemic has led to in cities. “If I want to step out and take my laptop and sit under the sun, I see different people coming in, saying hi and hello,” according to Singh.  
 
For Jain too, interacting with different people during his stint in Himachal Pradesh has been important.  “You meet strangers, you get to listen to their stories. Amazing and different people you find here, on a daily basis. That is not at all possible in a city,” he gushes.   
 
Some employers say the pandemic has shown that in the future, staff can relocate to smaller towns, whether in the hills, along beaches or elsewhere. “They can have a very good life close to nature, good food, fresh environment, less polluted air,” pointed out Nagar.   
 
And some appear willing to take up such offers. Jain, who works in another company, says when he looks for a job in the future, one of the important considerations for him will be his employer’s willingness to allow him to work away from the city where the company is based for a few months every year.    
 
It remains to be seen if the trend takes hold. But if it does, it could reverse the massive influx into cities that have for long been the mecca for job seekers.
 

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