What is Work-From-Anywhere (WFA)? A Shift for Employers & Employees
Work-from-home (WFH) is so 2020. The latest workplace trend no longer embodies the remote work-from-home model or even the hybrid model where post-Covid employees spend one or two days a week back in their old offices.
Believe it or not, those are already turning into dated workplace arrangements.
The cutting-edge trend is actually WFA, which stands for work-from-anywhere. As demonstrated by fast-growing, billion-dollar all-remote companies like GitLab, Zapier, and Automattic, the trend is gaining momentum faster than any of us had anticipated—and it’s not too early to get ready for it.
The work-from-anywhere model is fundamentally different from hybrid work-from-home models. Under these “remote-hybrid” WFH arrangements, employees receive more control over their time than they did when they worked in their company’s offices all week long. However, they still need to live within commuting distance of their company’s facility and plan to show up there one or two days every week.
That’s a significant constraint because it means those employees in many cases can’t move out of expensive urban or suburban areas to regions where the living costs are cheaper and the quality of life might be better.
How Work-From-Anywhere (WFA) Affects Employers & Employees
Work-from-home means that specialized employers—such as financial firms in New York City and tech firms in Silicon Valley—don’t always win access to the best talent. That’s because in many cases the most qualified workers don’t want to move to those expensive areas or can only afford to live in those markets so long as their employers award them lucrative compensation packages.
Work-from-anywhere amounts to a completely different paradigm. In a WFA company, employees get complete control over their geography. They can pack their bags. They can live wherever they want—even outside of their employer’s home country—because they never need to regularly appear in person at a physical office site.
To that extent, the work-from-anywhere model offers a unique set of advantages for both employees and employers.
For one thing, companies can hire the best talent globally. The extensive research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that the employer who lets that talent live anywhere they want engenders much more loyalty, and it also shows that the productivity of those WFA workers climbed by nearly 5 percent.
Furthermore, building a much more diverse and inclusive workforce is now possible. Decades of research show that women especially have suffered because of dual-career situations. A wife often can’t take promotions that require moving across the nation because her husband frequently doesn’t want to give up his job so she can take that promotion. Such a move would also require in many cases ripping children out of their school and away from their educational and social support network and its close-knit relationships that took years for those kids to develop.
Plus, consider the colossal cost savings for any company that adopts the WFA model. Firms don’t need to spend nearly as much money to lease physical offices, don’t need to pay for the overhead (electric power, lighting, heating and air conditioning, water service, or landscaping), and don’t need to pay as much for administrative costs.
As a result, might such a firm not need to raise as much capital on Wall Street? Moreover, could such a company achieve a competitive pricing advantage if it passed all these cost savings along to customers?
Improved employee retention also appears to be a benefit of the work-from-anywhere paradigm. Studies at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office found that employees attached to a locale with limited job opportunities worked harder to extend their employment with the agency and keep living where they wanted. Decreased attrition was also cited by GitLab’s executives as a key benefit of an all-remote workforce. They estimated the net benefits from reduced turnover, productivity boosts, and property cost savings at a whopping $18,000 annually per employee.
Changing the World
Then there are the societal benefits that could, in some ways, change the world.
Traditionally, the best economic opportunities have existed in large urban areas. But as more people moved in, those cities became increasingly congested, polluted, and expensive. Meanwhile, small rural towns suffered “brain drains” as talented workers abandoned them for big cities and their affluent nearby suburbs.
WFA can help revitalize those poor rural areas. In 2018 the government of one such locale that had suffered from chronic talent shortages for decades—the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma—offered to pay ten remote workers $10,000 each to move there, a program known as “Tulsa Remote.” The program received 10,000 applications, was replicated by municipalities in states like Arizona, Kansas, and Arkansas, and was even copied by private companies unable to offer the most competitive salaries or stock packages. And now, even foreign governments are starting to compete for remote workers.
The work-from-anywhere trend has created “digital nomads” as young millennials leave for adventures in foreign countries but continue to work for their WFA employers while abroad. Another Harvard Business Review article presents a chart listing 46 nations that now offer these “work-cation” digital nomad visa programs.
Although many of these are small, poor countries like Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Western advanced economies like Italy, Germany, Norway, and Spain also appear on the list. In fact, some destinations are even exotic tropical paradise getaways in the Caribbean such as Saint Lucia, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, and the 115 islands of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean off East Africa.
In exchange for the work-cationers’ spending boosts to their local economies, the incentives these nations offer include tax-free status for as long as two years, so long as the nomads agree not to take a local job.
Why Zapier Adopted WFA
The world’s leading expert on the WFA trend is Dr. Prithwiraj Choudhury. He’s a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School with seven years of experience analyzing successful remote companies and comparing them with traditional large-scale multinational firms in established industries. The chief executive of one all-remote billion-dollar firm Dr. Choudhury studied, Zapier, tells quite an intriguing story about why and how his firm got into the WFA game right from the very start.
According to Zapier’s CEO Wade Foster, he and two other founders launched their workflow automation startup near the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, where Foster had earned his undergraduate industrial engineering degree followed by his MBA from the Trulaske College of Business. However, all three founders quickly moved to Silicon Valley as soon as the startup incubator Y Combinator accepted their application on their second attempt. After finishing YC’s program, one of the founders decided to move back to Missouri, but the others didn’t want him to leave their company.
Meanwhile, with $1.3 million in seed funding from Bessemer Venture Partners, Zapier needed to start hiring. The founders had received advice to “de-risk” their hiring decisions by only signing trusted colleagues with whom they had previously worked.
Unfortunately, none of those associates lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. So they hired their first two employees, who lived in Chicago and St. Louis, under 100 percent work-from-anywhere agreement terms. Foster explained what happened next to Alexa von Tobel with Inc. Magazine:
With five people across three cities, we noticed a few things: One, revenue keeps growing. Two, the customer count keeps growing. Three, the team is happy. Four, the customers are happy. And you kind of just look at those things and go, “Well, all the metrics that seemed to matter are fine—in fact, they’re better than fine. They’re working great.
“So why don’t we just give this a shot? Like, why can’t we do this? We can tap into a global talent pool, which seems to be a strategy that nobody else is trying to do right now. And so we’ll just have a head start on this.”
And that’s kind of kind of how it happened. So it was a happy accident that very early on we realized could be an advantage for us.
It turns out that with more than 500 employees across the United States and 36 other nations, Zapier still has no co-located employees. In July 2022, Wall Street valued the firm at more than $5 billion.
Work-From-Anywhere Best Practices
It’s a misconception to assume that implementing a work-from-anywhere approach might be more difficult than traditional office procedures. However, introducing a WFA model can require an adjustment process for employees unfamiliar with this new paradigm. That’s because some of the procedures necessary to optimize the performance of this approach differ from procedures typically found in physical offices.
Dr. Choudhury’s research has identified several best practices of firms that successfully implemented the work-from-anywhere model. They include:
1. Reimagine Socializing and the Organizational Culture
According to Dr. Choudhury, many WFA firms encourage spontaneous online socialization, such as through break-time conversations at “virtual water cooler” digital hangouts throughout the day. But the most effective firms take this concept to a more sophisticated level.
Some workers might feel nostalgic for the spontaneous water cooler conversations among colleagues that were daily rituals within the workplace culture of physical offices. Likewise, some managers believe that these spontaneous interactions might stimulate brainstorming and problem-solving, or build workplace camaraderie.
However, the research shows that those conversations actually offer limited value to an organization because typically they only happen between workers in close physical proximity. For example, seldom do these spontaneous interactions take place among workers on different floors, and rarely if ever will they take place among those who work inside adjacent buildings. The problem is that the evidence shows these conversations will offer limited value so long as they only involve the workers in locations like one corner of a single floor of any modern, globally-distributed company.
Research shows that managers who further orchestrate the online socializing enabled by these virtual water cooler chats can improve on the limitations inherent with such conversations in physical workplaces.
One strategy might involve cutting through functional boundaries; such an approach might virtually pull together an assortment of folks from various departments like marketing, engineering, or finance who otherwise might never socialize with each other. Another approach might involve cutting through rank hierarchies, such as by scheduling a group of MBA summer interns for an online group chat with the CEO.
2. Codify Shared Knowledge
With workers exclusively collaborating online, there’s no way to walk over to a colleague’s desk and ask them, “Hey, how do I do this?” As a result, there’s no question that 100 percent virtual work environments require exhaustive documentation. One good example is the solution by GitLab, which is transparent, easily accessible, and even open to the public.
This level of documentation detail benefits routine training and repetitive procedures and is especially useful for the progress notes that need to be updated continuously in real time within functional groups like research and development. Rigorous codification would be necessary in teams such as these to seamlessly coordinate tasks and projects within multinational or multi-time zone companies. That’s because someone in a different time zone can easily pick up where the work left off earlier in the day—but only so long as teammates had adequately documented their progress earlier.
This can amount to a challenging adjustment for some individuals simply because most workers would rather do instead of document. In other words, with the possible exception of specialists like technical writers, most workers feel a greater sense of satisfaction while they perform a task or project, rather than when they write about what they just accomplished.
Nevertheless, Dr. Choudhury’s research indicates that this need for exhaustive documentation makes up the new reality of remote work. For better or worse, it’s a critical function upon which success depends within all-remote work environments.
3. Encourage Asynchronous Tools
Dr. Choudhury also says that exclusively remote companies perform better overall when they blend their use of synchronous software—like the Zoom or Microsoft Teams video conferencing platforms—with asynchronous email and messaging tools. Specifically, he’s observed that “Zoom fatigue” is a very real phenomenon, and that in mid-2022 people are sick and tired of Zoom meetings.
Fortunately, he says, one doesn’t need to hop on a Zoom call for everything. These days, a lot of work can be performed using asynchronous tools, and according to Dr. Choudhury, WFA organizations need to “get comfortable” with them. He says that especially useful options include the newer enterprise chat applications like Slack or Doist’s Twist, which provide topic channels that structure and prioritize each subject’s conversation history. Compared with live video conferencing systems, these asynchronous tools can perform more effectively in many instances because they shield workers from the stress of constantly reacting and allow for reflection time so they can think before responding.
4. Rethink Productivity Measurements
Finally, Dr. Choudhury explains that in an all-remote work-from-anywhere company, the amount of time a worker spends staring at a computer screen is immaterial as a measure of productivity. Managers should never use data like that, he says, either to judge someone’s productivity or as a factor in their compensation or promotions.
Instead, to measure productivity they should use output measures like feedback from customers—whether internal or external—or the quality of work these employees deliver.
CEOs Need to Get Ready, Too
It may be true that the work-from-anywhere model won’t offer a viable option anytime soon for the relatively small proportion of American employees involved in operations in manufacturing, construction, transportation, shipping, and utilities. Nevertheless, the advantages of the work-from-anywhere model are so compelling that most of us need to prepare for the fast-approaching new world of WFA careers. Pre-MBA and MBA students need to get ready—but so do chief executives.
C-suite executives need to understand the risks their companies will face if they act like it’s still 2019 and fail to provide leadership that encourages work-from-anywhere initiatives. Their firms will soon face labor market threats from their own, self-inflicted brain drains; they’ll risk losing top talent to rival competing firms that, by contrast, do offer all the advantages of work-from-anywhere flexibility to their employees. And that lost talent could very well include graduating MBAs who accept job offers from competitors.
Under these circumstances, the only prudent and sensible strategy would be for these chief executives to get out—to get out of their offices and get out in front of this trend. They must demonstrate capable leadership that drives their company’s adoption of the work-from-anywhere model. If they want to prevent the inevitable loss of top talent like MBA graduates to their competitors, smart chief executives don’t really have much of a choice.