Henry Villiers’ job as a visual designer for Google has allowed him to become a nomad, who works remotely in some of the most beautiful places in the world.
About three years ago he joined Outsite, a co-living community for remote workers, and with his membership he’s temporarily worked, often two to three months at at time, from home offices in Australia, Costa Rica, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, France, Central America and Mexico. Outsite’s Hawaii lodging came on his radar after COVID-19 hit and most tech companies, including Google, became more insistent that their remote-working employees stay in the U.S.
Villiers, who had visited Hawaii as a tourist in the past, knew the destination would fuel his passion for surfing and that there was “no more diverse location than Hawaii within the U.S.”
Also, Hawaii’s time zone was fairly compatible with San Francisco’s, and despite a surge in COVID-19 cases in late July and September, its infections and positivity rates are now among the best in the nation.
“You can imagine, for me this is as opposite as it gets. I come from a landlocked place in rural Gloucestershire in England where at the moment it gets dark at 3 a.m. and it’s probably raining,” Villiers said from the Outsite space that he shares with three other remote workers in the chilled-out surf town of Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore.
“I’m bowled over by Hawaii’s environment and the beauty. My jaw hits the floor every time I experience it,” he said. “There’s a huge benefit to being able to be out in the ocean and unplugged from everything. It’s a very grounding experience. That’s not something that a cityscape can offer.”
Villiers is just one example of the breadth of temporary residents that a hui of state officials, private companies and business organizations are trying to bring to Hawaii by capitalizing on the growth of remote work spaces and other changes brought by the pandemic.
Zippy’s CEO Jason Higa, who is leading the charge, said the program also seeks to benefit from the perception that Hawaii can provide a safer space to ride out the pandemic. And, of course, there’s the allure of Hawaii’s moderate weather, which is always among the best in the world.
The hui also includes the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism; state Sen. Glenn Wakai, who chairs the state Senate’s Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee; and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, Hawaii Agricultural Foundation, Hawaii Executive Collaborative and others.
The effort, which is still in preliminary stages, is tentatively planning a mid-Novem- er rollout with a website and marketing campaign to draw remote workers, retirees, former Hawaii residents and their families, students who want to take a gap year, and others who are temporarily seeking a safer living environment or a remote-living or working experience.
“This whole thought about remote workers started from discussions with friends whose daughter or son had moved from the mainland. Their kids had been working remotely already and, given the opportunity from their employer, had returned home and continued to work really diligently,” Higa said.
“The acceptability of remote work really spurred this concept, and even the concept of students taking a gap year. It was really a thought of, How much of this potential is there?” he said. “Maybe it would not replace the seven-day visitor to Hawaii, but we thought a six-month visitor would at least help.”
Higa said the hui is working to create networks here that could provide free concierge services for temporary residents ranging from help securing longer-term rental properties or space at timeshares or hotels, to providing food discounts, and referrals for services like medical and banking.
Economic diversification is one rationale for the state and local businesses that are supporting this effort, Wakai said. Leaders see it as a way to temporarily fill hotels, timeshares and other living spaces that have become underutilized during the pandemic, he said.
Additionally, Wakai said it could replace some of the losses that Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy has incurred amid COVID-19 fears and government lockdowns — especially since, even with the Oct. 15 reopening of Hawaii tourism, visitor arrivals to Hawaii aren’t expected to get back to full force for years.
Higa said the hui believes the idea could fill in some of the pukas. After all, he said, one temporary resident staying for six months has the potential to make up for 25 short-term visitors. A 12-month stay from 200,000 temporary residents would be the equivalent of 10 million visitors staying in Hawaii for seven days, he said.
Reversing brain drain by building a community of technologically savvy and creative people, who might choose to make longer-term commitments to living or investing in Hawaii, is another reason that the idea has merit, Wakai said.
Hawaii’s population already had been shrinking before the pandemic, along with 20 other states and the District of Columbia, according to a University of Hawaii Research Organization blog dated Aug. 6.
UHERO reported that between 2018 and 2019 Hawaii experienced a natural increase of 4,130 inhabitants, with international migration adding another 5,014. However, 13,817 more Hawaii residents moved to the mainland than mainland residents moved to Hawaii.
According to UHERO, Hawaii had the highest rate of net out-migration per 1,o0o inhabitants, followed by New York and Illinois.
But the hui working toward a temporary-resident program believes that could change if Hawaii positions itself as an ideal destination to host remote workers. According to Upwork’s Remote Workers on the Move report released Thursday, this year anywhere from 14 million to 23 million Americans (or two to three times as many people as a normal year) were planning to move as a result of remote work. Results also indicated that some 54.7% of people said they were moving beyond daily or weekly commuting distances.
The report, which asked over 20,000 people their moving intentions, “found that the greater ability to work from home post-COVID-19 has increased the likelihood that a significant number of households will move out of the area where they currently live.”
Higa said the temporary-resident program is “potentially a long-term strategy for providing a means for ‘local’ young adults to return to Hawaii to live and raise their family here, while still working for mainland companies.”
Richard Matsui, CEO of kWh Analytics, doesn’t think that’s a stretch. He, wife Christine Guo and baby daughter Maya Matsui temporarily relocated from San Francisco in April to his home island of Oahu, where they are living in a Kakaako condominium.
Since their move the couple have helped as many as 15 others temporarily move to Hawaii.
“Only one city in the U.S. makes Hawaii look cheap by comparison, and that’s San Francisco. It’s also a tough environment to raise kids, and it got even more difficult when the day cares closed,” Matsui said. “We first packed our bags to come here for two months, but we’ve already extended it to more than four months. Hawaii’s just a great place to live and raise kids. Now we’re trying to figure out how to stay.”
Outsite CEO and Founder Emmanuel Guisset also is banking on Hawaii’s expanding potential as a remote work location.
Guisset said Hawaii’s North Shore became a popular Outsite location last year. Given the new dynamics surrounding remote working, he’s looking for additional Hawaii sites in smaller hotels or towers, or other spaces that could be converted into Outsite communities. Daily housekeeping isn’t needed, but Guisset said members typically want access to an individual or shared kitchen and the amenities that they need to conduct business and network.
Outsite offers lifetime memberships for $249 billed once or annual memberships for $149 per year, which allow members to book Outsite living spaces, which offer everything members need to live and work remotely. It’s also open to companies who want to make group bookings to reward employees or host a retreat.
The membership connects Outsite’s worldwide community of remote workers and creatives, who share their skills, tips and tricks through an “ask me anything” program. Curated talks from leaders in the field are offered to help members advance their remote careers. There’s also a support desk and member hangouts.
“Currently, we see a lot of demand for Hawaii,” Guisset said. “Typically, members are willing to pay $2,000 to $4,000 a month if the accommodations are nice. They’ll want to spend a month or three or six in Hawaii, and some will want to move there permanently. Some of them might form new companies and hire local people.”