WFA is the future. Firms that insist on going back to past will lose employees

The pandemic transformed the world of work. But now many businesses are debating whether to stop remote work completely or compromise with a hybrid arrangement. Prithwiraj Choudry, Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has been studying remote work that is geographically agnostic far before the pandemic. He talks to Sunday Times about why he is convinced that there is no going back.

There are still many skeptics of remote work. Why do you think it will be the norm in ten years rather than just a short-term pandemic experiment?

I am most excited about a form of remote work that I call work from anywhere (WFA). It allows the individual to choose where to live. Based on that choice, they could decide to either work from home, or work from a co-working space or a cafeteria. The reason I believe it will become the norm is that it’s a win-win-win, for workers, companies and for society.

If you can work from anywhere, then employers can hire from anywhere. The world becomes your labour market. Twitter recently showed me some data about the diversity of the workforce going up because of this. Internationally, it takes care of immigration problems. People face so many permanent residency issues which they won’t have to deal.

What about those who say remote work isn’t collaborative and you can’t socialise with co-workers?

There are two ways to mitigate that. First of all, in my model of WFA, there are brief periods of temporary co-location with the team. So it’s not that you never see your team members, colleagues or manager. colleagues or manager. You do meet people maybe once every quarter or once a month in some cases for a few days. I wrote a case study about TCS implementing a model like that. They imagine that people will only be in the office 25% of the time, and that is decided by the team. The second thing is my research on virtual watercoolers has shown that when we went into the office, we typically saw the same people every day. Virtual watercoolers randomly put together a group of people and you get to know a little bit about lots of people in the company.

Do you think a model of hybrid work where some are working remotely and others are not could cause a disparity in how they get treated by managers?

What I like is a flexible and uniform hybrid model. If the the team comes together every now and then and every number is there, there is no disparity. If you have a rigid, non-uniform hybrid model, then you risk creating two classes of employees- in office and remote employees. If that happens then for sure there will be differences in how people are exposed to managers and ideas and that impact career trajectories and productivity.

What about companies that are insisting that employees return to office?

Companies that force people to go back to past will lose employees- every employee, but their best employees. The beast employees have options and they will get calls from competitors. It’s bad for productivity, diversity and talent retention.

Could you tell us about the project you did ITC Infotech on remote work?

 They have embraced the WFA model and done it very well. The main insight from that is that you need to re-think your management practices. You need to think about how people codify knowledge, socialise, how you measure productivity, how you take care of employees’ wellness when you don’t see them. I’ve put together a framework to think about all these management practices. You have to create new ones and train people, because there are very old school beliefs that are ingrained in managers.

Is there the will to enact that kind of change?
There are a few companies in every industry who have taken a pioneering role. My prediction is they will become talent magnets. They will retain employees more and that will force other people to catch up. Business leaders will have to decide if they want to be at the forefront or catch up two-three years late.

Were we heading in the direction of remote work even before the pandemic?

 Yes, there were all-remote companies leading this movement. I was studying GitLab prior to the pandemic. I was studying eXp which is a real-estate company that doesn’t have any offices. Now when I talk to entrepreneurs, they want to go remote because it’s easier on the balance sheet. That is also what will make this phenomenon permanent. If new technology leaders are all remote, in 10 years, it will become the norm.

What does this mean for the future of cities?

WFA can revitalise tier-two and three cities across the world. I have been studying that in Tulsa, Oklahoma and now in Venice. I can’t think why Nashik, Durgapur or Sriperumbudur can’t do what these global cities are doing, which is to attract talent back.

Source: GWFM Research & Prithwiraj Choudry,


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