SOCIETY

Pandemic, rapid rise of remote working drives many Greeks back home

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The first thought she had when the airplane landed in July was that this was the first time in seven years that she was coming back home without having booked a return flight. Just a few weeks earlier, Elena Patra and her partner had given up their respective jobs as a dietician and lawyer in Brussels.

They had been thinking about coming back to Greece for several months before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily put their plans on hold over concerns about the instability caused by the health crisis. “The thought that ultimately won the day, though, was that you need to start building at some point,” Patra, 29, told Kathimerini. They realized they had taken the big step in that direction on the day her partner left his job. “He said: ‘That’s it. We’re going back.’”

Official data have shown that around half a million Greeks moved abroad over the course of the 2009-19 crisis that crippled the economy, most in search of better jobs and career prospects. The global health crisis is now becoming the reason for some to come back.

“For many people who were thinking about returning, the pandemic served as a trigger, it motivated them,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a professor of political science and Gladstone fellow at the University of Oxford in the UK.

For others who may not have been thinking about coming back anytime soon or ever, the health crisis was “a kind of barometer,” added Kalyvas. “It compelled them to look at their lives from a different point of view, to attach greater importance to things like quality of life. Anything related to health tends to change our priorities.”

Being far away from his parents is the main reason why Giorgos Malliaros decided to return from Budapest in the spring. “I returned to Greece because of the lockdown, because I was working from home and was afraid that if the borders closed, I would not be able to get here fast if it became necessary,” he told Kathimerini.

His plan was to stay in Greece for a few months and then return to Budapest in September, where he worked at a consultancy firm that deals in European Union subsidies. But the combination of a girlfriend here, fear of another lockdown, a desire to be close to his parents at least until a vaccination against the coronavirus becomes available, and a new job, tipped the scales. He resigned from his job in Budapest and is now settled in the northern port city on Thessaloniki.

“I don’t feel as though I’m done with my career abroad, but, oddly enough, I am quite happy,” says the 30-year-old.

Dimitris Porichis, 33, worked as an executive at a Swedish bank in London. He had been living in the English capital since September 2012, hoping for conditions in Greece to improve so he could get a good job and come back to a country where he could hope to achieve a better balance between his career and his personal life, something he felt was missing in London. The pandemic and a good job offer provided the push he needed to return. “I thought that if something were to happen to me, I’d rather it happen at home,” he said, adding that he also wanted to be near his parents.

“My long-term plan had always been to come back to Greece,” said Vyronas Antoniadis. He also returned in the spring, from London – where he’d lived for eight years until his recent resignation as a software engineer at Bloomberg – with a suitcase full of winter clothes to spend the lockdown close to his girlfriend and his family.

A few days later, he happened to hear of an interesting opening at a new startup, Seafair. He interviewed for the job by phone and felt instant relief when he got it. “It made me think that this whole thing could work,” he remembered, saying that the decision not to return to London was made that much easier.

“I had already been in Greece for two months – which was quite a long time – and stood to gain so much,” said the 26-year-old, referring to the better quality of life he enjoys here – from the weather to the food – and being close to his girlfriend and parents.

Nikos Dallas, 55, belongs to the second category of people described by Professor Kalyvas, those who started to rethink their priorities and what they wanted from life as a result of the pandemic.

He left Greece in 2017 for economic reasons and settled in London, which he loved in the first year before it started to get him down.

“If my colleagues were working and I had no one to go out with, I could spend four days in my room, not to mention the madness of having to share accommodation with three or four people,” he told Kathimerini over the telephone.

Dallas started out as a receptionist at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in the district of Bloomsbury before working up to duty manager. When the coronavirus hit and the hotel started letting staff go or reducing their hours – as was the case for him – because of low occupancy, Dallas decided to resign and return to Greece, temporarily. “The signs and all my instincts were telling me, ‘Leave now,’” he said. “The decision to come back was as easy as the decision to leave for London in the first place was hard.”

Life in London is not as it was before the pandemic, says Dallas, adding that he will probably spend longer than originally planned after getting a taste of the life in Greece again.

“There comes a point where you choose a better quality of life even with a smaller income,” he said. “I’m staying because my life will not be better over there. Here I have the opportunity to exercise, go fishing, see my family and friends, do things I cannot do there.”

It is hard to estimate how many Greeks have returned since the spring, said Kevin Featherstone, professor of Modern Greek studies and head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, via email. Nevertheless, the explosion of teleworking prompted by the health crisis has contributed to making Greece an attractive destination for people who have the option of working from home, be they Greek or foreign, he added.

“The coronavirus has brought a lot of changes, harsh ones and good ones, and has shown that having a physical presence is not necessary,” observed Maria Kalafati, cofounder of The Cube, a co-working space in central Athens.

Ali Tehrani, 28, is founder and chief executive of Astroscreen, a London-based startup, and decided to move to Athens in August after he started working entirely from home. “The weather, the proximity to the Mediterranean, the compatible time difference with the UK and the cost of living” were all reasons that contributed to his decision, he said, adding that Greece also “appeared to be handling the pandemic quite well” at the time.

The health crisis may have been a factor that contributed to some returns, notes George Pagoulatos, general director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), “but the new reality of teleworking will have more permanent characteristics and will give this country a powerful advantage.”

“I believe that we will see more and more people living in Greece and working abroad,” he added.

Kalyvas also believes that the changing working environment will facilitate a more mobile mentality, “the idea that you’re here one day and gone again the next.”

“I’m not ruling out the possibility of moving abroad again,” said Georgia Theodoraki, who returned to Greece after speaking to Kathimerini from London, where she worked at Bonhams auction house before getting a job in Athens as curator of a private collection.

After five years in the British capital, she was not entirely sure of what the move would bring, but knew she was happy about the prospect. “I know that I’m going to be back with my family, my people,” she said.