How the Shift to Remote Work Could Impact People Differently Around the World

In the past year and a half, COVID-19 has accelerated the global transition to remote work. As a young Indian who has worked remotely for both Indian- and U.S.-based companies, I began wondering how this shift might affect people in different parts of the world, particularly in their migration patterns and career aspirations. 

Something I’ve noticed is the contrast in perspective between those in places like the United States versus those in countries like India. In the U.S., for instance, many see remote work as an opportunity to migrate to cities with a lower cost of living, take “workations,” and perhaps eschew a home base altogether. In India, many people dream of moving abroad for education or work and see migration to places like the U.S. or U.K. as a form of upward social mobility. 

What does this shift to remote work mean—financially, culturally, socially—for different people around the world? 

To find out, I spoke with Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies a particular kind of remote work—work from anywhere. In our conversation below, we cover how work from anywhere differs from work from home, how a shift to work from anywhere could impact things like pay and immigration policy, why he thinks innovation and creativity won’t suffer under the remote model, and some of the ethical issues companies need to address.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Anupriya Kukreja: How have notions about where we work changed from prepandemic to today? What are the trends that youre seeing for companies around the world? Was the shift in work from home or remote offices during COVID just a blip, or did it spark something more permanent? 

Prithwiraj Choudhury: I’ve been studying a particular form of remote work that I call work from anywhere for many years, even prior to the pandemic. Work from anywhere is different from work from home in the following way: in work from home, you are able to work from home for maybe three days a week, or two days a week. But you are still required to go to an office for the rest of the week, which means that you cannot live in a preferred location, you still have to live in the city where the company has an office. If the company is Bangalore-based, you still are stuck to Bangalore. Work from home has a lot of benefits for employees. As we now know from research, there’s less commute, and the employee has more temporal flexibility.

Work from anywhere goes a step beyond and it essentially grants the employee the choice of relocating to a location of his or her choice. That might be based on cost-of-living considerations—you might want to move to a smaller town because it’s cheaper. Or you might want to move closer to your parents or your family. You might want to move to where there’s a great music scene or food scene. That is what I call geographic flexibility. This form of remote work is pretty new.

The first instance of work from anywhere that I encountered was at the U.S. Patent Office, which had implemented this policy in 2012, and that is what I studied in my paper where I documented productivity gains.

Work from anywhere is definitely on the rise, and the pandemic has acted as an accelerator. I don’t think the world will go back to where it was in 2019. I think that that debate is probably over. I see many companies, including Deloitte, Google, or Facebook, to name a few, that are granting work from anywhere to a section of employees, or in the case of Deloitte to all employees in the U.K. I think it’s here to stay.

These changes in work are likely to impact people differently around the world. For instance, in the U.S. remote work might mean more freedom to live and work where you want. Perhaps youre no longer tethered to a city with high rent. But for people in India, for instance, getting a job abroad is often an aspirational, socially mobile step, so a push toward work from anywhere will have different consequences based on where you live. Can you give us a sense of how remote work is being perceived and adopted in the U.S. versus how it is being perceived and adopted in places like India?

I feel there is a great opportunity for India as well, because, first of all, India is not just Bangalore. Talent has been exceedingly flowing to these clusters like Bangalore, Gurgaon, Noida, or Mumbai. Now talent has a real opportunity to spread to the second tier and third tier towns, which is great for these towns.

Specifically on the question of migrating to the U.S., yes, it has been aspirational. I’m not saying that people should not migrate. But there have also been a lot of immigration frictions. The H-1B visa is a lottery. Not everyone wins that lottery. The H-1B visa extension has become increasingly problematic. Getting a green card often has delays of several years.

Now there’s an opportunity for people to engage in work across the world—by just living in India, you don’t need to migrate if you don’t want to migrate or if migrating is too expensive or too stressful.

Even if you migrate, there’s an uncertainty—if I leave the U.S. and visit India, will the policy change, will I get stuck? There are people I’ve interviewed who have not seen their family for years because of this uncertain H-1B environment. Now you can mitigate all those concerns, and you can still work for a U.S. client, but you can live in India.

Now there’s an opportunity for people to engage in work across the world—by just living in India, you don’t need to migrate if you don’t want to migrate or if migrating is too expensive or too stressful.

For a lot of us in the Global South, there is positive status for the foreign return,” a person who lived the good life” in the West. How might the changing trends in work affect these attitudes and aspirations around living and working abroad?

There is an element of status that you are talking about. There’s also a benefit of traveling—you have new experiences that shape your human capital. Work from anywhere actually enables that really well. If you are a young millennial graduating from college, now there are many countries around the world that offer digital-nomad visas. Estonia was the first example. Barbados has a visa, Dubai has a visa, Indonesia has a visa. I’m actually advising the government of Italy, and Venice is going to become one of those visa destinations. So if you are a young person just graduating from college, you can now travel around the world, live in four, maybe five countries over two or three years, still work for your Indian company or international company, and then come back to India with many experiences. Why live in one country? Live in five countries.

Recent research has shown that invention and innovation often happen when there are talent clusters, often with a large number of immigrants. One reason for this is that leaving ones country is itself an act of risk taking, and a team made up of people with diverse experiences and perspectives may be able to see and address challenges better. How do you think remote work will affect innovation?

I studied innovation as an outcome, and innovation benefits when you have inventors or employees transferring and recombining ideas from different parts of the world. In work from anywhere, the team can be anywhere. Earlier, if I was an Indian IT company and I received a project from a U.S. or a Japanese client, my entire team was sitting in the Chennai campus. But now there is no campus. Now one employee could be in Poland, another employee could be in Japan, and three employees can be in India. They can bring ideas from their cultural contexts, they can bring ideas from their own institutional contexts. There can be greater transfer and recombination of ideas.

[Employees] can bring ideas from their cultural contexts, they can bring ideas from their own institutional contexts. There can be greater transfer and recombination of ideas.

Countries like India have been known to experience a brain drain of talent to countries abroad. What are the implications of work from anywhere on where talent will choose to live and work? Could work from anywhere keep talented individuals in their home countries?

Work from anywhere has that potential to reverse brain drain. If someone has the permission to go and live in whichever part of the world, and if you want to go back to your family or parents in India, you can go back. So it has the potential, not only to reverse brain drain from the developed West to India, but also from the Bangalores of the world to second tier and third tier towns, which is a more micro brain drain. Both can happen.

Lets stick with that idea for a moment. You authored a case study about how work from anywhere could mitigate brain drain from rural counties in the U.S., and you referenced an example from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Can you describe what happened in Tulsa and whether it might tell us something about how this might play out in other countries?

In Tulsa, there is an organization called Tulsa Remote. Since 2018, they have been incentivizing remote workers to migrate to Tulsa. Tulsa is a town just shy of one million. They have traditionally had lots of problems attracting talent, because there are no companies, and no company wants to come because there is no talent. They had a chicken and egg problem.

But remote workers do not need a company, so they broke the vicious cycle. So far, in four years, they have moved about 750 families. These people are buying houses in Tulsa, they are living permanently, they are engaging in the local community. It’s a very diverse population that they are attracting. I keep thinking if Tulsa can do this, why not do Durgapur in West Bengal? Why not Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu? I think these models are extremely important for Indian policymakers to study.

Im curious about how work from anywhere and immigration policy might combine to affect salaries. For instance, if an Indian worked at a U.S. consulting firm, and had to move back to India due to visa issues, should they be paid the same amount as they were while living in the U.S.? What are the ethical issues at play here?

That is a big debate. I don’t think there’s a right answer right now. There is one camp that is saying that wages should be location independent—that if you’re doing the same task, you should get paid the same. It doesn’t matter where you live, that’s your choice.

The other camp is trying to adjust wages. I think we’ll have an answer in the next few years. My take is if a particular task is one where there’s a low supply of skills, like machine learning engineers, then it’s actually very sensible to make the wage location independent, and then let the person choose where to live. If he or she wants to live in a cheaper place, relocate to India, have a greater real income, have more savings, so be it. That’s the person’s choice.

Every employee should be measured not based on how many hours or screen time or days worked but based on the quality of output.

Lets look at the potential downsides of work from anywhere. We saw during COVID that when people work from home, they often end up working more hours. What are you concerned about as you see this shift?

On the hours of work, I think it is true, it’s a very real concern, and it’s especially complicated because of time zones. If you’re living in India, and your client is in the U.S., then the expectation is you’re up at midnight every day to do calls. There are two solutions to that. The first solution is to make the measurement of productivity completely independent of how long you’ve worked. Every employee should be measured not based on how many hours or screen time or days worked but based on the quality of output.

The second is to mitigate the time zone problem. There have to be very clear communication guidelines with respect to asynchronous communication. As long as the communication guidelines are more liberal, and they embrace asynchronous communication, then maybe you can stay up one day a week till midnight to do a team call. But the rest of the days, you can work in your own time and communicate asynchronously.

Broadening out a bit, jobs are going remote primarily because of the internet, but do you think that the internet can make up for the traditional ways of cultural integration and amalgamation?

In the work from anywhere model, there should be some periods of a team colocating. They don’t always need to be in an office. They can be in an office, they can also be in some retreat. I’ve studied all-remote companies such as GitLab and Zapier. They don’t have any offices, but twice a year they bring their employees together in a retreat, and their people develop deep social bonds. That is very important in the work from anywhere model.