The Covid-19 crisis has opened senior leaders’ minds to the idea of adopting WFA for all or part of their workforces. In addition to TCS, companies including Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Siemens, and State Bank of India have announced that they will make remote work permanent even after a vaccine is available. Another organization I’ve studied is BRAC, one of the world’s largest NGOs, which is headquartered in Bangladesh. Forced into remote work this year, it is deciding what work model to adopt for the long term.
If your organization is considering a WFA program, transition, or launch, this blog can provide a guide.
A Short History of Remote Work
A large-scale transition from traditional, colocated work to remote work arguably began with the adoption of work-from-home (WFH) policies in the 1970s, as soaring gasoline prices caused by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo made commuting more expensive. Those policies allowed people to eschew physical offices in favor of their homes, coworking spaces, or other community locations, such as coffee shops and public libraries, for occasional days, on a regular part-time basis, or full-time, with the expectation that they would come into the office periodically. Workers were often also given control over their schedules, allowing them to make time for school pickups, errands, or midday exercise without being seen as shirking. They saved time by commuting less and tended to take fewer sick days.
Millennials were excited by the idea of traveling the world while still employed.
Most companies that offer WFH or WFA options keep some workers—at the USPTO it’s trainees and administrators—at one or more offices. In other words, they are hybrid-remote operations. But the experiment with all-remote work forced by Covid-19 has caused some of these organizations to strategically move toward majority-remote, with fewer than 50% of employees colocated in physical offices. TCS, for example, which employs close to 418,000 people who were traditionally located either on campuses or at client sites around the world, has decided to adopt a 25/25 model: Employees will spend only 25% of their working hours in the office, and at no point will the company have more than 25% of workers colocated. TCS plans to complete this transition in five years.
Exploring the Benefits
I’ve spent the past five years studying the practices and productivity trends of WFA companies. The upsides—for individuals, companies, and society—are clear. Let me outline them.
One striking finding is how greatly workers benefit from these arrangements. Many told me that they regard the freedom to live anywhere in the world as an important plus. For those in dual-career situations, it eases the pain of looking for two jobs in a single location
Some cited a better quality of life. “WFA has allowed my children to see their grandparents on a regular basis and play with their cousins,” I heard from another USPTO employee. “Being closer to family has improved my overall happiness.” Others talked about proximity to medical care for children, accommodating their partners, and the ability to enjoy warmer weather, prettier views, and greater recreational opportunities. Millennials in particular seemed captivated by the idea that WFA would allow them to become “digital nomads,” traveling the world while still employed. Before the pandemic-related restrictions, some companies, such as Remote Year, were aiming to facilitate that lifestyle, and some countries, such as Estonia and Barbados, have created a new class of employment visa for such workers. As one patent examiner said, “Participation in [WFA] is outstanding for work/life balance. I live in my favorite part of the country…I have more time to relax.”
WFA also helps knowledge workers deal with immigration issues and other restrictions on their ability to secure good jobs. William Kerr, Susie Ma, and I recently studied MobSquad, whose coworking spaces in Halifax, Calgary, and other cities enable talented knowledge workers to bypass the onerous U.S. visa and green card system and instead obtain fast-track work permits from Canada’s Global Talent Stream. Thus they can continue serving companies and clients in the United States and other countries while living and paying taxes in Canada.
My research also uncovered ample organizational benefits from WFA programs. For example, they increase employee engagement—an important metric of success for any company. In 2013, a year after it instituted work from anywhere, the USPTO was ranked highest on the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey.
Workers are not only happier but also more productive. When Cirrus Foroughi, Barbara Larson, and I evaluated the USPTO’s transition from WFH to WFA, the timing of which happened at random for workers who’d chosen that path, we found that WFA boosted individual productivity by 4.4%, as measured by the number of patents examined each month. The switch also led examiners to exert greater effort. Of course, further research is needed to determine whether WFA generates similar benefits for workers performing different tasks in other team structures and organizations.
Work-from-anywhere may reverse the brain drain that can plague emerging markets.
Finally, WFA can reduce attrition. Some USPTO workers explained that because they loved their preferred locales but also recognized the limited job opportunities there, they were motivated to work harder and stay longer with the Patent Office. Leaders at GitLab, too, pointed to employee retention as a positive outcome of the company’s decision to be all-remote. The net benefit, they believe, including the productivity increases and property cost savings they’ve seen, equals $18,000 a year for each worker.
WFA organizations have the potential to reverse the brain drain that often plagues emerging markets, small towns, and rural locations. In fact, Tulsa Remote was established to attract diverse, energetic, community-minded newcomers to a city still healing from historic race riots a century ago.
Remote work helps the environment as well. In 2018 Americans’ commute time averaged 27.1 minutes each way, or about 4.5 hours a week. Eliminating that commute—particularly in places where most people commute by car—generates a significant reduction in emissions. The USPTO estimates that in 2015 its remote workers drove 84 million fewer miles than if they had been traveling to headquarters, reducing carbon emissions by more than 44,000 tons.
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Is This Right for Your Organization?
Of course, WFA may not be possible at this time for some organizations, such as manufacturing companies—though that could change with advances in 3D printing, automation, digital twins, and other technologies. However, with the right strategy, organizational processes, technologies, and—most important—leadership, many more companies, teams, and functions than one might have thought could go all or mostly remote.