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Pursuing the American dream with ‘WFA’

For companies and workers facing woes dealing with United States immigration, there is good news and a practical solution. Work-from-anywhere.

For years, high-skilled economic migrants seeking to relocate to the U.S. have faced uncertainty due to lack of clarity and flexibility in the H-1B visa programme. This uncertainty grew even worse under the Trump administration, with visa denial rates rising significantly. In addition to the negative effects this had on individual migrants and their families, restrictions on the H-1B policy led to economic costs. In recent research with coauthors Dany Bahar and Britta Glennon, we find that (former) U.S. President Donald Trump’s June 2020 Executive Order limiting entry of migrants to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic led to an estimated loss of around $100 billion in valuation for publicly traded Fortune 500 companies.

As the U.S. adjusts to a new administration, there are signs that the immigration climate might improve. U.S. President Joe Biden has made reforming the immigration system a priority in his coming term.

However, with the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis, uncertainty remains. In the meantime, high-skilled workers facing immigration woes can take advantage of another emerging employment trend — companies offering their employees the ability to work-from-anywhere (WFA). I will first shed light on the Biden administration proposal to fix the H-1B programme and then describe how WFA can mitigate immigration woes.

U.S. immigration reform

In January 2020, Mr. Biden had floated a proposal to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, expanding pathways for legal immigration for both family-based and employment-based migrants. Crucially, for high-skilled migrants, Mr. Biden’s proposal would remove country-specific quotas for employment-based visas, and would exempt anyone with a STEM PhD from a U.S. institution from all quotas to receive a green card. In addition, current H-4 visa holders (i.e., spouses and children of H-1B visa holders) would become eligible for work permits.

However, it is important to note that this is still just a proposal. There is a long road ahead before the proposal becomes the law of the land, needing to pass through both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Given partisan divisions in the U.S. legislature, it is quite unlikely that the proposal in its current form will ever become law.

With U.S. immigration unlikely to change in the immediate future, those hoping to access U.S.-based opportunities do have an alternative: embrace work-from-anywhere.

The difference

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, companies were beginning to explore remote work options. The pandemic accelerated this trend across all industries for millions of workers. Unlike a traditional work-from-home (WFH) model that allows workers to WFH a few days every week and from an office for the rest of the week, work-from-anywhere grants individuals the choice to live in their preferred locations. This gives them the flexibility to live in a town, city, or country, far away from where the company or its customers have a physical office.

As I discussed in a recent Harvard Business Review article (https://bit.ly/3sTwXjs), work-from-anywhere can benefit workers, organisations, and society at large. Workers can relocate to their hometown, be closer to family and friends, manage dual career situations and move somewhere where they can enjoy better weather or a better cultural and culinary fit. Workers can also benefit by moving to (or continuing to live in) a lower cost-of-living location. Organisations can benefit from work-from-anywhere as well, and research I conducted at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) found that worker productivity under a work-from-anywhere policy was 4.4% greater than when workers were in a traditional work-from-home environment (https://bit.ly/2OvrC2Y). As more of the workforce shifts to remote work, organisations can also reduce and reimagine the utility of the physical office, reducing real estate costs. Society, too, can benefit, as daily work commutes are a major source of carbon emissions; the USPTO estimated that shifting to remote work cut emissions by their employees by more than 44,000 tons. In another article, I argue that work-from-anywhere can help talent move back from congested large cities to smaller towns.

A case study

Companies of all sizes and in all kinds of industries are embracing work-from-anywhere. It is most popular among start-ups, where WFA allows new companies to access a global pool of talent with relatively low investment in office space. That said, larger, more established companies are beginning to explore work-from-anywhere and hybrid remote models as well. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) made headlines during the pandemic when it announced that its 400,000-plus employees will be 75% remote by 2025. TCS has rolled out a ‘25-25 remote-work model’: 25% of the workforce will be in a physical office at any one time, and workers will only be expected to work from an office for 25% of their working hours.

In a recent Harvard Business School case (https://bit.ly/2OB7Y5v), I explored the changes being implemented by TCS. In this 25-25 model, TCS workers are mostly ‘location independent’. This enables TCS clients to access the best talent within TCS, independent of the location of talent. The model also offers TCS employees an opportunity to simultaneously work on multiple projects around the globe, without relocating to the client site or worrying about immigration. The TCS Chief Operating Officer N.G. Subramaniam recently joined my Harvard class to share the internal debates on how to effectively implement this model. Current priorities include ensuring remote workers interact informally with peers and receive mentorship from senior managers. Thought also needs to be given on navigating through the regulatory changes needed to enable work-from-anywhere.

The TCS example shows how work-from-anywhere can help Indian companies and workers mitigate the challenges of immigration. While U.S. immigration policies may change for the better, high-skilled workers should view work-from-anywhere as a viable alternative to physical relocation, allowing them to work globally without queuing up for an H1-B visa.

Prithwiraj Choudhury is the Lumry Family Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School, where he studies the Future of Work. He can be reached at @prithwic

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 4:49:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/pursuing-the-american-dream-with-wfa/article34022612.ece

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