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The COVID-19 pandemic thrust the issue of how and where we work into the spotlight. The adoption of remote and hybrid work increased exponentially as lockdowns necessitated social distancing. But now, as we enter a new phase of the pandemic, the Geography of Work—where work physically takes place—is also entering a new era. The pandemic cemented how millions of people could work productively from any location, but it was built upon a transition that was already years in the making. Having studied companies and the Geography of Work for several years as a professor at the Harvard Business School, I believe Work-from-anywhere (WFA), a form of remote work that offers individuals the flexibility to live where they want to, is a tool that might help countries and regions attract talent and reverse brain drain.
Why embrace Work-from-anywhere?
In the traditional model of organising work, talent (employees) migrated to where work existed. However, that path came with costly frictions, e.g. immigration and dual-career challenges, which left many qualified and able employees unable to work. Technological advances and cultural shifts have changed the landscape. WFA entails migrating work to wherever talent resides.
Work-from-anywhere helps individuals in myriad of ways. Workers can relocate to regions with a lower cost of living, live closer to family and friends or relocate to regions where they can enjoy a better lifestyle, and/or better access to educational and medical facilities. Companies benefit as well, as they are now able to hire talent from anywhere, far beyond the local labour market and without being hindered by immigration constraints. My research has documented that under certain conditions, WFA might also lead to more productive workers, lower real estate costs and fewer carbon emissions, as well as result in a more equitable workforce on the dimensions of gender and disability.
Also on the Forum Network: Globotics and Telemigration: This time, globalisation is different by Richard Baldwin, Professor of International Economics, Graduate Institute
The role of policy makers in making Work-from-anywhere a reality
Policy makers can support the future of Work-from-anywhere by crafting and supporting policy at the international, national and local levels.
Internationally, one of the most effective ways policy makers can impact WFA is through “digital nomad” visas, such as those issued by Germany, Spain, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Estonia, Croatia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Norway, Barbados and others. With digital nomad visas, countries attempt to attract talent by providing the legal right to work for six months to a year, tax benefits, logistical support etc. Where these visas operate on a short-term basis, countries such as Canada have crafted immigration policy to attract and retain WFA talent more permanently. My research with one Canadian company revealed a model of moving talent denied immigration status in other countries to Canada. Working in conjunction with the Canadian government’s Global Talent Stream programme, they secure fast-tracked work permits for talented foreign workers who in many cases work for United States companies, but now live in Canada.
Another example of national policy making can be found in Chile. For the past decade, the government of Chile has been incentivising entrepreneurs to live and start their companies in the country through Start-Up Chile. The programme provides qualified entrepreneurs with a year-long visa, the equivalent of USD 40,000 in equity-free grants and other benefits in exchange for entrepreneurs’ participation in developing Chile’s innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem. While the impact of the programme warrants rigorous academic evaluation, to date Start-Up Chile has supported around 2,200 start-ups and more than 5,000 entrepreneurs from 88 countries.
While digital nomad visas and other national policy can help countries attract global Work-from-anywhere talent, it is also important to protect the rights of domestic remote workers. Portugal’s recently passed legislation offers an example of policy making at the national level. The law protects remote workers by making it illegal for employers to contact them after hours or remotely monitor their work, among other provisions. Creating laws that protect the rights and well-being of remote employees and ensuring equitable pay and benefits, irrespective of where remote workers live within the country, can further foster the Work-from-anywhere movement.
Finally, at the local level, a great example of policy-making comes from the city of Tulsa in the United States. The Tulsa Remote program, funded initially by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, began in 2018 as a way of addressing regional brain drain. The Midwestern city of approximately one million people suffered from a “chicken and egg” problem whereby businesses stayed away because talent was leaving, and talent left because there were no jobs. Tulsa Remote attracted remote workers by paying them USD 10,000 to live in Tulsa for at least a year. Local government officials and community members were involved in the selection process, and programme participants received access to a co-working space with broadband connectivity, assistance with securing housing and guidance in finding local volunteering opportunities. To date, the programme has brought over 1,000 remote workers and their families to live in Tulsa and, in 2021, the state government passed legislation to financially support it. This success has led to several smaller cities in the United States across West Virginia, Kansas, Hawaii, Arkansas, Maine and Vermont experimenting with similar programmes.
With each passing day, companies large and small are adopting Work-from-anywhere for all or many of their workers. Recent examples include PwC, Deloitte, Twitter, Google, Siemens, ITC, Cisco, TCS and countless start-ups all over the world. Globally, countries, states and cities are looking for solutions to address dwindling populations and reversing brain drain. Policy makers can play an important role in ensuring Work-from-anywhere becomes a reality through digital nomad visas; national policies to attract remote workers and remote entrepreneurs; laws to protect the rights and well-being of domestic and foreign remote workers; and policies to move talent from congested, urban centers to smaller cities, towns and rural areas.