Working From Anywhere: Are We Asking The Right Questions?

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

Should we all come back to the office? Is working from anywhere the future of work? The remote working discussion often revolves around yes or no questions. Working from anywhere enthusiasts announce an era of unlimited flexibility while remote working opponents blow the full-time whistle to signal a brutal return to the office. Both sides feverishly comment Elon Musk’s erratic tweets on the topic.

Polarized debates are popular — they make for good headlines. However, they are not helpful if you are a manager trying to implement practical plans and policies. Simplistic debates serve little practical purpose and whatever lessons emerge from the discussion are usually neither universal nor relevant for all organizations.

A majority of companies are still trying to figure out a reasonable compromise that will provide more flexibility to their employees while maintaining compliance and productivity. The rise of “hybrid” as new buzzword illustrates the attempts to reconcile these conflicting objectives. Even companies who have issued new remote policies sometimes struggle to connect them with clear business objectives and employees’ expectations.

Our old ways of thinking are often holding us back. The answers to the “working from anywhere” challenge are complex, temporary and company-specific rather than final and universal. We need to clarify the debate and question our assumptions if we want to find useful solutions.

Definitions 2.0

Do you have common definitions that clarify the drivers and the logic behind your remote working approach?
The confusion about remote working started with vague concepts and definitions early during the pandemic. Several CEOs announced their intentions to allow “work from anywhere” but their plans were quickly — maybe too quickly — derided as unrealistic by many HR professionals. Few stakeholders were clear about what was really on offer and the confusion persists to this day in many organizations.

In some cases, working from anywhere was limited to remote work options in the same city while other companies included the possibility to work abroad. Employees imagined options to change locations frequently while some organizations where only offering opportunities to transfer permanently to another country. A persistent gap between the expectations of employees and public announcements on one side and the reality of the solutions proposed on the other side was a defining feature of the early remote working debate.

However, progress have been made since the beginning of the pandemic and most HR professionals have now accepted — willingly or grudgingly — that the issue of remote working is not going away. Policies are emerging to address not only working from home but also employee-driven international remote working and company-sponsored virtual assignments. The debate has spawned many new buzzwords. Their definitions are not always clear but they illustrate the different aspects of remote working:

Flexible working: refers to the many different scenarios in which employees are given more options about how, when and where they work. Remote working is one aspect of flexible working. Some organizations prefer to talk about “smart working” to describe the use of technology and flexibility to work better.

Remote working: describes all situations where employees work without being located in the locations benefitting from their work.

Working from home: it could be referring to the fact that employees are working from their private homes rather than in an office. In a loose (and somewhat misleading) sense, it can be referring to virtual assignees who are working from their home country.

International remote working: refers more specifically to employees who work virtually from another country. It is a way to “work from anywhere”. In a narrow sense, it is referring to employee-requested international remote working as opposed to company-driven virtual assignments.

International remote working can take the form of a lifestyle benefit — working remotely from another country temporarily (typically 15 to 90 days per year.) It can also be a lifestyle change — moving for an unlimited duration to another country and working remotely from there.

Virtual assignment: another terminology used for international remote working. It conveys more specifically the idea that traditional forms of long or short-term relocations could be replaced by or combined with assignments performed remotely. A virtual assignment is typically company-driven.

Hiring from anywhere: this is the other side of the work from anywhere coin. Companies are increasingly taking advantage of remote working to tap into new talent pools and recruit highly skilled individuals. The definition of hiring from anywhere can be vague. The best practice for organizations is to clarify the details of the offer from the onset: the countries covered, the type of contract used, if the company will be relying on an Employer OF Record solution or hiring people as contractors.

These definitions are not universal and can vary by company. The objective is to achieve a common understanding among stakeholders within the organization.

What’s in an “office”?

The remote working debate is very much about the “office” — the end of it or the importance of it. It sounds like the office is a well-defined business concept underpinning management strategies and not just a location. While we know intuitively that an office serves more purposes than just hosting employees, we need a more refined analysis to understand what this means for each organization. We can consider for example that the office is:

- where we perform business tasks

- where the interaction between management and their employees are taking place

- where we socialize for business networking purposes and exchange ideas.

- a cradle for the company culture

We can easily expand this list and associate other purposes to the office. The real question is therefore not if we should return to “the office”.
It is how do we address the points we have listed?

There are different ways to answer these points: it could be about being in the office full-time. Hybrid working (flexible days in the office or “anchor days” when employees commits to come to the office) is also an increasingly popular answer. It could be about having a shared office or just regular get together events. The answer could imply using new technologies, changing processes, and work habits.
All these potential answers are valid but there are few that would always work for everyone and every organization.

Message clarity

What message are you sending to your employees?
Having a clear point of view is essential for companies. They do not have to accept every forms of flexibility but, no matter what they decide, they cannot avoid the debate. Employees will raise questions and compare policies with peers from other companies.

We tend to attribute erroneously the beginning of remote working to the pandemic. Having a large part of the population forced to work from home dramatically accelerated the pace of change but the remote working trend was already there. More and more organizations were already evolving in the direction of distributed workforces. More importantly, this change was taking place at a time of talent shortage. Working from anywhere took off due to the rise of Employee-driven mobility — skilled individuals willing to market themselves globally.

Offering some form of remote working is not just about providing an isolated lifestyle benefit, it is a business strategy to attract and retain top talent. As such, it is becoming a critical component of the employer brand. A well-designed remote working policy can be a differentiator in the war for talent.

For these reasons, purely reactive or half-hearted policies may not bring the expected value to the business. A clear policy, even a restrictive one, is preferable to a confusing one that could cast doubts in employees’ mind about the company’s intentions.

Challenging clichés and assumptions

Have we checked our assumptions?
Many dubious assumptions are made about the feasibility of remote working. Much of the debate is based on existing technology and processes. The fact that something is possible does not always mean it is desirable but we cannot use clichés and incorrect facts to decide what is right for employees and the company.

For example, we commonly hear during discussions about remote working that some positions can be remote but not all jobs can be done remotely. A common cliché is “Some jobs can be done remotely but others not. Of course you don’t want a doctor to work remotely”. In reality, it is already possible for doctors to work remotely and even for a surgeon to perform an operation remotely with help from medical technology and AI. Telemedicine can be a great help when a local doctor is not available or not qualified for a specific operation. But in many other situations, you would want to have a doctor onsite. The question “should a doctor work remotely?” elicit strong emotional responses but has zero practical value. Immediate responses are based on our current perception of what doctors are doing and our limited knowledge of available technology. This example can be applied to engineers working on machines and many other jobs.

Challenges are often more about processes and the work culture than purely about technology. Again, this does not mean that companies should accept that all jobs should be performed remotely. But they do need to dig deeper into the tasks involved and specific business requirements in a precise context. The future of work is about matching tasks and skillsets rather than following rigid job definitions.

How can we future-proof our assumptions and policies?
We should not invoke too lightly the impossibility of performing a job remotely because the technology to support it might already be there or coming in the next few years. Technologies are evolving quickly and more and more organizations are starting to use the metaverse for onboarding, training and other HR purposes. If we do not integrate this rapid evolution in our points of view, whatever we discuss about remote working will not be relevant for long.

How much effort do we want to put to make it work?
We tend overestimate practical and technical barriers to remote working but also often underestimate compliance issues. Regulations do not evolve at the same pace as technology and employees’ expectations. They can constitute bureaucratic hurdles or on the contrary salutary safeguards against new risks for employees, companies and the society as a whole.

Compliance issues represent a huge burden for companies because international remote working questions often have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The alternative is to set a duration threshold and restrictions designed to keep risks low and accelerate the authorization process. The most common example is to set a maximum duration for international remote working (usually 15 to 90 day per year) combined with destination exclusions to limit compliance risks. This is not a perfect solution and it does not always protect companies and individuals from new tax liabilities or other compliance issues. However, it can sometimes constitute a compromise between risks and an unsustainable administrative burden.

More discussions now focus on resourcing rather than just on feasibility. New HR roles are appearing to manage remote work issues. Global mobility teams are increasingly willing to expand their purview and advise the business on complex international remote working questions but they will need the resources to do so. It is a good time to redefine HR roles, policies and processes — but only if we ask the right questions.

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Olivier Meier

Exploring trends about people management, workforce mobility, globalization, and the future of work. www.linkedin.com/in/olivieraemeier