Harvard’s Raj Choudhury on Why ‘Work From Anywhere’ Benefits the Changing World
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When his father left a job as a surgeon in the UK, gave up permanent residency there, and moved the family back to India to care for a sick family member, Prithwiraj “Raj” Choudhury was just a boy.
“This taught me at a young age how geography shapes career choices,” he says. Today, Choudhury is a Harvard Business School professor and pioneering researcher in an emerging field called the geography of work.
His findings, combined with the pandemic-induced shift to remote work and the subsequent empowerment of workers to resist returning to offices, have thrust Choudhury into the spotlight as one of the world’s foremost experts in remote work and “work from anywhere.” Shaped by his own experiences as a migrant, he seeks to understand how mobility frictions—costs associated with jobs being tethered to specific locations—affect productivity and innovation. For example, caregiving for aging parents or a spouse's job offer can restrict geographic mobility for workers, as can regulatory and occupational licensing hurdles.
“We force people to live in places that are not ideal to them, and that's led to a lot of sacrifices,” says Choudhury, who traveled extensively as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and ran a unit for Microsoft in Southeast Asia before pursuing a career in academia. “As a migrant, I never got to see my family on birthdays or anniversaries or the key festivals. That's a sacrifice I thought I had to make for the rest of my life—and not only me, millions of migrants do that.”
Making these sacrifices, his research shows, negatively affects workers’ job performance and satisfaction, which can have substantial consequences for the organizations that employ them.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Choudhury identified work-from-anywhere policies, which allow workers to choose both where to live and when to work, as a potential mitigator of mobility frictions. Based on research exploring the implementation of “work from anywhere” at the US Patent and Trademark Office, he and his colleagues published what has now become a landmark study highlighting work-from-anywhere benefits for workers and organizations. The research showed that, as a direct result of being allowed to choose where to live, patent examiners were happier and more productive, which in turn increased revenue and reduced employee turnover. “Since the pandemic, that research has become way more important and now relentless,” he says. “It’s all I think about every minute I'm awake.”
Optimizing the ‘Work From Anywhere’ Model
In addition to identifying positive outcomes of “work from anywhere” for individuals, organizations, municipalities, and economies, Choudhury is well aware of the drawbacks—mainly, social isolation and the dearth of spontaneous interaction among workers. Can work be designed to leverage work-from-anywhere benefits and avoid these costs? Choudhury thinks so.
In a recent study of “virtual watercoolers”—informal online gathering spaces for remote teams—he and his colleagues found significant benefits, particularly among new hires and junior-level workers. Their research showed that newer employees were more engaged, productive, and less likely to leave when given opportunities to informally interact with senior management.
In a separate project, in summer 2020, Choudhury and his colleagues headed to Bangladesh in search of a hybrid-work sweet spot—a design that would allow workers to choose where to live but also bring teams together occasionally to connect and collaborate.
Over nine weeks, they assigned more than 100 HR professionals at a company in Bangladesh to one of three work arrangements: One group spent between zero and eight days in the office; a second group spent between nine and 14 days in the office; and a third group spent 15 or more days in the office. Their findings, outlined in a working paper (not yet peer-reviewed), confirmed Choudhury’s hunch: Teams that co-located for 23% to 40% of their work time, on average, produced more and better work.
While many business leaders have interpreted this to mean that workers should be at their desks one or two days each week, he says the reality is far less rigid. He calls the solution “flexible hybrid.”
The flexible hybrid model allows workers to live wherever they want. They can choose where to work 75% of the time but they come together in teams, whether at an office or offsite location, for roughly 25% of their work time. “Each team will find a way to meet occasionally—maybe once a quarter, maybe once a month—and that is a form of hybrid,” he says.
When Airbnb announced its new flexible hybrid work design in April, Choudhury was gratified to see a large company embracing the model. He expects many more will follow suit.
How ‘Work From Anywhere’ Benefits Communities
Ditching their desks and commutes, many remote workers with newfound geographic flexibility have already moved out of cities, following their personal preferences and circumstances to find new homes. This has implications for the places to which they relocate, and for the local hourly workers there. Choudhury has spent the last four years studying Tulsa Remote, an initiative aimed at luring remote workers to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to help address local economic challenges. The wave of about 1,500 remote workers and their families who have moved there has had a net-positive effect on the city, he says.
“This is going to increase the appetite and the demand for all kinds of services in places like Tulsa,” Choudhury says. “Tulsa will need better schools, better hospitals, more grocery stores, more restaurants, more warehouses, more public infrastructure. [Because of this,] many of the young people who are leaving Tulsa to work as a restaurant worker or as an Amazon warehouse worker far away will be able to stay in their home communities, live close to their families in their hometowns where they already have a house. That's going to generate wealth and value for them.”
Now, as even some of the staunchest return-to-office proponents have softened their stances, Choudhury is turning his attention to helping business leaders navigate the regulatory and organizational steps needed to transition to a flexible hybrid work-from-anywhere model. His book, a how-to guide for employers, is due out in early 2023.
In the meantime, the popular article he wrote for Harvard Business Review, “Our Work-from-Anywhere Future,” touches on the book's key ideas. “To become an effective work-from-anywhere organization, you need to re-imagine and reengineer fundamental processes,” he says. “This includes how you communicate, how you codify knowledge, how you socialize, how you mentor people, how you onboard folks, and how you think about wellness.”
For organizations that execute this transformation, the payoff is massive. Giving employees the freedom to choose where to live opens up a global talent pool, empowers workers, and improves retention. Beyond that, he says, shifting to a society in which “work from anywhere” and flexible hybrid are the default modes of work can also help rectify disparities that stem from geography and mobility frictions. The prospect that his research could help level the playing field for talented professionals worldwide is what drives him to keep advising companies and investigating geography-of-work issues.
“Work from anywhere can liberate us from the shackles of geography,” he says. “Talent is everywhere, but opportunities are not. Work from anywhere helps people who are living in places where there are no opportunities to connect with opportunities elsewhere, and I think of that as a great thing for removing inequalities.”