The traditional models for international business expansion, talent recruitment, and retention, as well as forms of employment, are all undergoing a change, and the implications for employers and employees alike are many. Some of this change is captured in expressions such as “digital nomad”, “gig economy”, and “work-from-anywhere”. While most understand these, there is no universal definition of what each term actually means. Still, what they can all be related back to in one way or another is the fact that the relationship between a particular job and the location where it is performed is getting increasingly decoupled; while at the same time work itself is becoming more project/task-based rather than job-based.

An indication of some of the forces behind the shift in how and where we work can be gleaned from the company-wide email Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sent at the end of April this year, explaining the company’s permanent “live and work from anywhere” policy. He wrote, among other things:

“We want to hire and retain the best people in the world (like you). If we limited our talent pool to a commuting radius around our offices, we would be at a significant disadvantage. The best people live everywhere, not concentrated in one area. And by recruiting from a diverse set of communities, we will become a more diverse company.”

One driver for a more global vision of where talent is located and how it is attached to an organization comes from the workforce itself, for which a desire for more flexibility, greater work/life balance, and autonomy are increasingly important factors. To a great extent, the work-from-home shift that happened during the Covid pandemic served to reinforce the validity and the viability of this way of working. Not only did people efficiently and effectively work from home, but they also provided models for collaborating across borders and time zones.

For companies, technological progress along with the greater desire among workers for flexibility, and the demonstrated doability of working from home is a bit of a game-changer. It means that they now have the possibility of building an international presence more or less anywhere without going through the difficulties of opening a local branch — traditionally one of the big obstacles in building an international footprint. 

In his email, Brian Chesky goes on to outline how Airbnb’s work-from-anywhere program is structured while also touching on some of the hurdles that exist, one of which is securing work visas in foreign countries. In the case of Airbnb, that responsibility falls on the employee. Chesky points out that the company is actively collaborating with other countries to make it easier to gain remote work visas; another sign that this is becoming an important tool to attract and retain talent, and that this way of working/living is here to stay. Currently, there are about 20 countries that offer remote work visas.

Obtaining a visa is one of the practical problems with the “work-from-anywhere” movement but there are other, more structural ones, as well. For example, many are wondering what a shift like this will mean for organizations when it comes to company culture, engagement, loyalty, and communication. Another concern is that a global gig economy would deplete the knowledge base of the workforce. Moving from fixed-job functions to project-based tasks means continuity and development over time may suffer which could have an impact on skills development and the transferring of skills.

For workers, the physical freedom that comes with “work-from-anywhere” can be weighed against a general lack of security and financial instability. That’s because, typically, this kind of employment comes without benefits such as pensions, paid time off, healthcare, unemployment insurance, etc. 

There are societal concerns as well, and they include worker representation and gender equality. Driving collective agendas when the workforce consists of independent contractors who are spread out geographically is a difficult undertaking. And on the topic of gender equality, the fear is that more home-based work will manifest what research shows to be a great imbalance between men and women as it relates to domestic work, with women doing three times more than their male counterparts. 

The shift in work means that HR departments everywhere will need to figure out how to recruit, train, and retain talent in this new landscape, while also managing a more “on-demand” workforce. Standard relocation packages are becoming increasingly irrelevant as traditional expat relocation is making room for a global gig economy, along with other forms of mobile work situations, such as cross-border commuting, business travel, short-term relocation, etc. For HR, policies for compensation, processes, compliance, and benefits will have to be reviewed and updated to fit the modern globally mobile worker.

By: Felicia Shermis



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