Work from anywhere: will tomorrow's company be distributed?

Written by Perrine Croatto, on 26 April 2021

"The 9 to 5 day is dead," announced Brent Hyder, President and Chief HR Officer of SalesForce, marking the shift taken by the American company in terms of work organization. The pandemic played a role, signaling the end of the era of gleaming offices, with the trend now leaning towards remote work.

While only 7% of French employees regularly teleworked in 2019, they too have embraced remote work. During the lockdown, teleworking surged by 25%, proving that even the most reluctant companies could continue to function remotely (source: Futuribles). Will we witness the perpetuation of the remote work model? Most certainly.

However, remote work reflects diverse realities: from occasional telecommuters to employees working 100% remotely, work methods have multiplied, favored by the rise of digital technology. Among these trends, Work From Anywhere – WFA – appears as the most "extreme" version of remote work. Spotify, Payfit, Alan, Salesforce, etc., numerous are the companies that have announced their shift to WFA.

Will the company of tomorrow be distributed and without offices?

Work From Anywhere: the choice to live and work wherever one wants

Work From Anywhere is an organizational mode that allows employees to work from wherever they want. Employees are not obliged to go to the office (if there is one), but they are also not obliged to work from home. Their workplace can change according to their desires! The only imperative: access to digital tools. WFA goes beyond the framework of remote work; it is an organizational model based on flexibility and empowerment of the employee, who becomes an autonomous actor in choosing their workplace but also, very often, autonomous in defining their organization: hours, mix of office/home, decision-making processes, etc.

For the company, transitioning to WFA implies rethinking its model from the ground up: organization, compensation, management, recruitment, communication. It's the rise of the distributed company: a company that no longer has a physical connection with its employee, and above all, an agile, flexible organization that makes trust the basic principle of its culture.

Work From Anywhere: the rise of the distributed company

WFA: access to a globalized labor market

70% of American companies struggle to recruit talents, mainly due to the scarcity of qualified candidates. Companies, often limited to local labor pools, concentrate in major cities where competition is high. Thanks to WFA, the labor market becomes globalized, offering qualified resources from around the world.

Companies in WFA have understood this advantage, and some even use it to circumvent immigration laws. This is the case of Mobsquad, an American startup that took advantage of WFA to bypass quotas on immigrant workers in the United States. Mobsquad provided coworking spaces in Canada, a country with more lenient immigration rules, and invited its new recruits to settle there.

WFA: more flexibility to retain employees

When transitioning to WFA, the management of the startup Payfit surveyed its employees: 91% of them stated that they would feel more fulfilled in a more flexible environment. Flexibility is the primary motivation cited by employees who choose to work remotely.

In 2013, the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) pioneered the implementation of a WFA model. A year later, the office ranked first in the "Great Place to Work" ranking, with employees reporting a significant increase in their well-being at work.

What correlation exists between WFA and employee retention?

Work From Anywhere has a positive impact on companies' turnover rates. Remote work gives employees a sense of control over their time and tasks. It thus increases autonomy, motivation at work, and organizational commitment. The more employees telecommute, the more involved they are with their organization, the less emotionally exhausted they are, and the less they intend to leave their company.

WFA: productivity gains

According to the Sapiens institute, telecommuting has increased employees' productivity by 22% since the first lockdown in 2020, due to reduced distractions and disruptions. But what about when telecommuting or Work from Home transforms into Work From Anywhere? A study conducted within a Chinese travel agency showed that call center employees saw their productivity increase by an average of 13% following their transition to WFA.

WFA: cost optimization for the company

One of the often-cited advantages of Work From Anywhere is the possibility of optimizing real estate costs. Reducing real estate surfaces represents significant savings for companies. The American company IBM was one of the first to generalize telecommuting. Implemented as early as 1983, by 2009, more than 40% of the 386,000 employees in 173 countries were telecommuting. By adopting this strategy, the company was able to reduce its office space by over 58 million square meters and achieve savings of 2 billion dollars. However, this argument needs to be nuanced with the generation of ad hoc costs (multiplication of coworking spaces, payment of telecommuting bonuses).

Constraints on the generalization of the distributed company

Constraint #1: legislation that is not very "WFA-friendly"

Labor law and legal constraints represent the first obstacle to the generalization of Work From Anywhere. It is true that the relaxation of laws concerning remote work poses a risk to the protection of employees. Under what contract should a worker who works for a French company but chooses to work in Dubai be hired? Where does the line between work accident and domestic accident blur when my workplace is also my home? There are many questions, and studies have too little data to evaluate the real impact of WFA on workers' rights. However, if the WFA trend becomes widespread, it seems evident that governments will need to adapt legislation to make it more flexible and compatible with a flexible work mode. Some countries have already taken steps in this direction, such as Estonia or Croatia, which have implemented special visas to facilitate the installation of Digital Nomads on their soil.

Constraint #2: protecting employees against physical & psycho-social risks

The adverse effects of remote work were extensively documented following the first lockdown in March 2020, both physically and psychologically. Human resources services are all the more essential here, as they must be able to identify critical situations remotely. Employee isolation is one of the main problems mentioned for employees working fully remotely, and protective mechanisms are more complex to implement. Young collaborators are the most likely to suffer from the detachment from the company and lack of contact.

Constraint #3: innovation stagnation

WFA has also experienced failures. This is the case with two American giants: Yahoo & IBM. After transitioning 40% of its 386,000 employees to telecommuting, IBM recalled thousands of employees to the offices in 2017. The reason? Lack of innovation. "Big Blue" was increasingly challenged by startups with traditional but more agile, collaborative, and innovative organizations. The observation: the company was unable to foster collaboration on a large scale. Remote work impacts communication between employees: exchanges are less spontaneous, body language absent, and collective emulation more difficult to achieve. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Irvine measured the impact that a critical situation can have depending on whether it is addressed in person or through messaging. The study focused on an anomaly during a flight simulator. In just 24 seconds, the pilot and co-pilot solved the problem using only their body language, whereas it would have taken more than a dozen exchanges of messages at a distance (10).

WFA: imagining the distributed company of tomorrow

Work From Anywhere: one company = one model

Studying companies that use Work From Anywhere reveals that there is no one-size-fits-all model. With flexibility being the keyword, each organization chooses a framework, constraints, and processes that are unique to it, adapted to its ecosystem, its employees, and its mode of production.

For example, USPTO has imposed a mixed path for its employees: during their first two years, new hires are required to work from the offices. Once this period is over, they have the option to work from wherever they want, provided they bear the transportation costs to go to the offices occasionally. The company ensures the integration of its corporate culture and makes WFA a retention lever for new recruits. GitLab has implemented a very different system. The 25/25 model: a maximum of 25 days of presence at headquarters per year and a maximum of 25% of employees on-site. This rule aims to ensure equity between remote workers and those who come to headquarters. Dropbox imposes a specific timeframe during which teams must be available for meetings and spontaneous discussions. Thus, Asia-Pacific teams must be accessible from 9 am to 1 pm. The rest of the time, everyone is free to organize their working hours as they wish.

From distributed companies to hybrid models

Few companies have completely abandoned their offices. Over the past decade, the office has been a lever of attractiveness for companies: attractive open spaces, relaxation areas, fringe benefits, etc. Web giants have heavily invested in workspaces to attract and retain talent. Will they abandon this model for full remote? It is unlikely. While the office is no longer the norm, young workers are demanding collaboration and camaraderie spaces. Distributed companies will therefore have a strong interest in keeping meeting spaces to foster their culture and promote attachment to their organization. It is therefore conceivable that hybrid models will emerge: remote work becomes the rule while the office becomes a place for occasional meetings and collaboration, where the company culture is expressed. For example, Dropbox has chosen to convert all of its 13 offices into "Dropbox studios," meeting spaces for collaborative activities or informal sharing moments. Individual work will no longer be possible there.

Work From Anywhere: a collaborative model to be built with employees

Empowering employees is one of the founding pillars of Work From Anywhere. It is not about imposing strict rules on employees but rather offering them a flexible, adaptable, and customizable framework for their work. For example, Spotify offers several organizational models left to the choice of the employee. The "Office Mix": employees can go to the company's locations worldwide or to one of its coworking spaces two to three days a week. The "Home Mix": employees mainly work from home but can go to the office if needed. Employees must commit to one of the two models for a period of 12 months, allowing the company to adapt its logistics.

WFA: Developing an asynchronous culture

Asynchronous culture is the ability of a company to operate without all stakeholders interacting at the same time. The distributed company largely relies on asynchronous operation. Consequences: writing replaces speaking, formalization replaces spontaneity. The formalization of processes and the framework are often mentioned by the leaders of companies operating in WFA. Gitlab, the American company that gave its name to the collaborative development platform, has made asynchronous communication the core of its 100% remote model. Their "handbook first" approach involves documenting absolutely everything. Their motto: documents instead of coffee machines. Decisions are no longer made only through written exchanges: they are more inclusive, timeless, and easily traceable. Thus, from values to processes, more than 3000 pages of their handbook are accessible to their employees at all times.

Can corporate culture survive WFA?

The transmission of corporate culture is the greatest challenge of a distributed model. How to replace this physical connection that makes an organization a living community? How to foster camaraderie and personal connections?

In a distributed company, culture is not the result of a community of individuals working side by side, but the product of a proactive action, led by its leaders and relayed by its managers. Their role becomes central in defending the corporate culture through every action:

  • Working and embodying its values: In its guide, Gitlab defends its values and establishes them as basic principles guiding every action of its employees. The entire system is built in coherence with its values, and each employee adapts to it.
  • Recruiting and onboarding: As Alan suggests, special care must be given to remote recruitment and onboarding to ensure that the individual aligns with the company's foundations.
  • Ritualizing exchange moments: This is the case at Distillery Tech, a co-located American startup specializing in software development, which has made the ritualization of its communication its primary lever to guarantee its company culture. Every week, a TIFS (Thank God it's Friday) call is organized at two different times and in two languages (Russian & English) so that every employee can attend in their native language and in their time zone.
  • Organizing informality: Informality cannot be left to the spontaneity of the moment anymore. The necessary informal moments to build relationships must be initiated and encouraged by the company. Thus, at USPTO, activity groups are organized by employees living in the same region.

In light of these numerous examples, it is understood that digital tools offer tremendous opportunities for companies to adopt new, flexible, and empowering organizational models. Work From Anywhere fulfills this promise but imposes certain requirements on distributed companies: the ability to develop an equitable, transparent, formalized model, but above all, to build a strong corporate culture led by its leaders and embodied by its teams.