As the great reopening gathers pace, one of the most intriguing trends is the corporate response to the spate of relocation requests triggered by the pandemic.
For years, employees have been clamoring for the opportunity to break out of the corporate office. Now, many are taking the plunge and looking to work overseas – to return to their loved ones, or simply to experience different ways of living.
Recognizing this shift, organizations as diverse as Spotify, Shopify and Siemens are reinforcing their credentials as A-list employers by promoting a range of different ‘work from anywhere’ policies to their staff.
As a concept, ‘work from anywhere‘ is as simple as it gets.
The pandemic has proved that 100% remote working is viable for most desk-based workers; ‘work from anywhere’ is the logical next step that will help businesses usher in a new era of truly global employment and talent hunting.
The question is, when it comes to these policies, can employees really take their employers at their word?
Putting policies into practice
When Siemens announced its ‘work from anywhere’ policy, it came with the caveat that this would be for an average of two to three days per week, “whenever reasonable and feasible”.
The implication is that each proposed location must be approved by the employer, and that the remainder of the week must be spent working in a Siemen’s office.
This is a nice policy, but it’s not ‘work from anywhere’.
Neither is Ocado’s offer of a month-long stint overseas, which states that certain conditions apply on the thirty days.
Surely, true flexibility in the age of ‘work from anywhere’ ought to mean the promise of permanent detachment from the mothership for anyone that wants it?
The fundamental problem is that, while these policies make great headlines, the devil is in the detail, and scores of hopeful employees are currently learning that the small print tells a very different story about the relocation opportunities on offer.
Take Spotify’s policy, for example, which states that, “for now, we can only support remote working within the region your role is based.”
It goes on to explain that Spotify must be a registered entity in the desired country, before listing a series of other caveats and barriers – including the company’s right to refuse the request.
Let’s be honest – this is not a ‘work from anywhere’ policy either.
Overseas employment is really, really difficult
Rather than being too critical of these companies – all of whom are attempting to respond to the changing demands of the workforce – we should acknowledge that it is incredibly difficult for any organization to employ people in a country where it doesn’t already have an operational presence.
Employment laws, tax codes, and statutory benefits all differ from country to country, creating a plethora of compliance concerns that every organization must address when they’re looking to open an office and become a registered legal entity in a new country.
The problem with offering a ‘work from anywhere’ policy is that the vast majority of companies do not operate in every country in the world – and have no intention of doing so purely to support a handful of ad hoc relocation requests.
The time, effort, and cost of ensuring compliance is just too great.
Employers, for instance, are always obliged to comply with the employment laws of the country that a worker is based in, regardless of where the company is located, or what’s written on the employment agreement. What’s more, the employer must process payroll, and pay employer taxes and taxes on behalf of the employee, in the country that the worker is tax resident in.
This almost certainly explains why Spotify has such exacting restrictions about where its team members can work, and why Ocado has opted for a 30-calendar day approach – with its own as yet unspecified conditions – unlikely to fall foul of most countries’ compliance requirements.
Neither are true ‘work from anywhere’ policies because these employers have discovered that legally compliant working from anywhere is too difficult to achieve.
Employees do want to work anywhere
Now, there are ways companies can legally employ people in territories where they don’t have an existing presence (and no, the use of full-time independent contractors isn’t one of them).
The Employer of Record model, for example, solves the legal problem by using a Professional Employer Organization (PEO) to employ the overseas worker on the business’s behalf.
But whatever approach businesses favor as they look to develop their own ‘work from anywhere’ policies in the months ahead, they need to avoid making false promises around something as significant and life-affecting as relocation.
Companies that consider relocation requests and offer true flexibility will be in a far better position to attract the best talent.
Otherwise, the disgruntlement among internal teams may end up outweighing the recruitment and PR benefits of the policy.