In the November-December 2020 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Professor Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury writes that the pandemic lockdowns have triggered two major questions for many organizations:
- Are all-remote or majority-remote organizations the future of knowledge work?
- Is work from anywhere (WFA) here to stay?
Dr. Choudhury notes the various benefits that WFA offers to companies and their employees. For instance, companies can reduce or eliminate real estate costs, hire and use talent globally while mitigating immigration issues, and enjoy productivity gains. Employees get geographic flexibility (live where they prefer to live), eliminate long commutes, and report a better work/life balance.
There are concerns about WFA, however. Companies want to know how WFA affects various aspects of business, such as communication, including brainstorming and problem-solving; knowledge sharing; socialization, camaraderie, and mentoring; performance evaluation and compensation; and data security and regulation.
In order to understand how leaders can capture the upside of WFA, Professor Choudhury has studied several companies that have embraced an all- or majority-remote business model. These companies include the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Tulsa Remote, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), GitLab, Zapier, and MobSquad. Companies that have announced an increased WFA model since the pandemic include Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Siemens, and the State Bank of India.
Research has shown performance benefits, even prior to the pandemic. Dr. Choudhury cites a 2015 study by Nicholas Bloom and coauthors who found that when employees opted into work-from-home policies, their productivity increased by 13 percent. When the same workers were given a choice between remaining home and returning to the office nine months later, those who chose to remain home were 22 percent more productive than they were prior to the experiment.
Professor Choudhury writes that he has studied the practices and productivity of WFA employees for the past five years. The upsides are clear.
Individuals value the freedom to live anywhere in the world and continue to work for their employer. For those in dual-career situations, having at least one spouse with a WFA job makes it easier to have both spouses employed. Others cite a better quality of life by being able to live closer to parents and grandparents.
The ability to enjoy warmer weather and greater recreational opportunities are cited as benefits as well. Cost of living is another benefit when individuals are allowed to work from anywhere. One example is the disparity of renting a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, California ($4,128/month) versus Tulsa, Oklahoma ($675/month).
Companies adopting WFA have noticed increased employee engagement. In 2013, a year after it implemented WFA, the USPTO was ranked highest on the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey. As noted earlier, workers utilizing WFA are more productive. Fewer in-office employees means smaller space requirements and reduced real estate costs.
WFA also expands a company’s potential talent pool as workers from a wider area are included in a search that does not require a move. WFA also reduces employee attrition.
Society also benefits from a wider adoption of WFA, writes Dr. Choudhury. Tulsa Remote was created to attract WFA employees by offering $10,000 to WFA employees of major companies. From 2019 to 2020, there were 10,000 applications for 250 slots offering the relocation bonus. Talented newcomers of various ethnicities are making the city more multicultural and reducing the brain drain. Remote work helps the environment as well by significantly reducing emissions.
Professor Choudhury writes that companies considering WFA must find a way to get comfortable with asynchronous communication such as utilizing a Slack channel, a customized intracompany portal, or a shared Google document in which distributed employees write their questions and comments and trust others to respond at their first opportunity. GitLab calls this process blameless problem-solving. Dr. Choudhury states that employees are more likely to share early-stage ideas, plans, and documents and spend less time polishing up work that they might feel obligated to do for synchronous meetings.
Knowledge sharing is another concern by companies. Dr. Choudhury writes that the companies that he has studied solve this issue with transparent and easily accessible documentation. He further argues that senior managers must set an example by codifying knowledge and freely sharing information while explaining that this is a necessary trade-off for geographic flexibility.
Companies concerned about impacting socialization and camaraderie rely on technology to facilitate virtual water cooler meetings and planned randomized interactions where someone in the company schedules groups of employees to chat online.
Some companies use artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) tools to pair up remote colleagues for weekly chats. Temporary collocation events can also be utilized to improve the socialization of WFA employees.
While WFA may not be possible for some companies, such as fast-food restaurants or manufacturing companies, Professor Choudhury does not rule it out with future advances in technology. He concludes that the biggest barrier to making WFA work is management. If all senior leaders are working from an office, workers are drawn to that office to get face time. But if leaders support synchronous and asynchronous communication, brainstorming, and problem-solving and set an example by becoming WFA employees themselves, all-remote organizations may indeed emerge as the future of work.
While Dr. Choudhury studies corporations, some of his analysis can apply to colleges and universities as well. There are certain students and faculty who desire an on-campus experience, but there are others who are content to study and teach from home because of family or other obligations.
I tend to agree with those who believe that the pandemic has accelerated changes in work and education. Those companies (and universities) that are quick to adopt may find themselves increasing their profile, employee satisfaction, and customer (student) satisfaction.
Change is happening daily during this pandemic, and much of it is observable. I plan to continue to watch.