Before 2020 a movement was brewing within knowledge-work organizations. Personal technology and digital connectivity had advanced so far and so fast that people had begun to ask, “Do we really need to be together, in an office, to do our work?” We got our answer during the pandemic lockdowns. We learned that a great many of us don’t in fact need to be colocated with colleagues on-site to do our jobs. Individuals, teams, entire workforces, can perform well while being entirely distributed—and they have. So now we face new questions: Are all-remote or majority-remote organizations the future of knowledge work? Is work from anywhere (WFA) here to stay?Without question, the model offers notable benefits to companies and their employees. Organizations can reduce or eliminate real estate costs, hire and use talent globally while mitigating immigration issues, and, research indicates, perhaps enjoy productivity gains. Workers get geographic flexibility (that is, live where they prefer to), eliminate commutes, and report better work/life balance. However, concerns persist regarding how WFA affects communication, including brainstorming and problem-solving; knowledge sharing; socialization, camaraderie, and mentoring; performance evaluation and compensation; and data security and regulation.
To better understand how leaders can capture the upside of WFA while overcoming the challenges and avoiding negative outcomes, I’ve studied several companies that have embraced all- or majority-remote models. They include the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO (which has several thousand WFA workers); Tulsa Remote; Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS (a global IT services company that has announced a plan to be 75% remote by 2025); GitLab (the world’s largest all-remote company, with 1,300 employees); Zapier (a workflow automation company with more than 300 employees, none of them colocated, around the United States and in 23 other countries); and MobSquad (a Canadian start-up that employs WFA workers).
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 article 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.
Thanks to the advent of personal computers, the internet, email, broadband connectivity, laptops, cell phones, cloud computing, and videotelephony, the adoption of WFH increased in the 2000s. As the researchers Ravi S. Gajendran and David A. Harrison note in a 2007 article, this trend was accelerated by the need to comply with, for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and mandates of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.Research has shown performance benefits. A 2015 study by Nicholas Bloom and coauthors found that when employees opted in to WFH policies, their productivity increased by 13%. When, nine months later, the same workers were given a choice between remaining at home and returning to the office, those who chose the former saw even further improvements: They were 22% more productive than they had been before the experiment. This suggests that people should probably determine for themselves the situation (home or office) that fits them best.
In recent years many companies have allowed more employees to work from home. It’s true that several prominent corporations, including Yahoo and IBM, had reversed course before the pandemic, asking their employees to resume colocated work in a bid to spur more-effective collaboration. But other organizations—the ones I study—moved toward greater geographic flexibility, allowing some if not all employees, new and old, to work from anywhere, completely untethered to an office. The USPTO is a prime example. Its leaders launched a WFA program in 2012, building on an existing WFH program that mandated workers’ physical presence at headquarters, in northern Virginia, at least one day a week. The WFA program, in contrast, requires employees to spend two years at HQ followed by a WFH phase, after which they may live anywhere in the continental United States, provided they’re willing to pay out of pocket for periodic travel back to headquarters (totaling no more than 12 days a year). The patent examiners in the program dispersed all across the country, choosing to move closer to family, to better climates, or to places with a lower cost of living.
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.
Even before the crisis, a smaller group of companies had taken this trend a step further, eliminating offices altogether and dispersing everyone, from entry-level associates to the CEO. GitLab embraces this model at scale: Its remote workers span sales, engineering, marketing, personnel management, and executive roles in more than 60 countries.
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. One patent examiner told me, “I’m a military spouse, which means I live in a world with frequent moves and personal upheavals that prevent many spouses from pursuing lasting careers of their choice. WFA has been the most meaningful telework program I have encountered. It allows me to follow my husband to any U.S. state at a moment’s notice and pursue my own aspirations to contribute to my home and society.”