The laws surrounding physical immigration have tightened recently in the United States and abroad, and that makes it difficult for companies to source talent on a global scale.
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But what if instead of bringing employees across borders into the office, we could send the office across the border virtually to employees? That's exactly what's happening with the latest trend in remote work: digital migration.
As people in both developed and developing nations find themselves with more frequent and reliable access to the internet, the possibilities for remote work expand exponentially. In India, 53 percent of workers prefer to work from home, according to "Mobile Minds: An Alternative to Physical Migration in the 4th Industrial Revolution," a whitepaper from World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Migration in conjunction with Remote.co. In the United States, 37 percent of workers work at home occasionally, and in the United Kingdom 54 percent of workers participate in remote work practices. In addition, the whitepaper states that between 10 and 20 percent of managers in developing nations work remotely.
The Challenges and Benefits of Cross-Border Remote Hiring
With such high numbers of workers already participating in remote work programs, it's not surprising that some businesses are beginning to source employees from other countries. However, cross-border remote work programs face myriad obstacles and challenges.
"From a legal standpoint, some of the notable topics are the many different taxation, employment, and labor laws that exist in different countries or different states," says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs and Remote.co. "Other important considerations for cross-border remote hiring include things that might be assumed as normal in one country but not in another, such as wage equality issues, cultural differences, educational and skills bases, communication styles and tones, and management protocols."
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Even with so many difficulties, companies are likely to find the benefits of cross-border remote hiring outweigh the cost. Between savings on real estate costs, improved productivity, ease of scalability, bigger talent pools, and improved retention, companies have plenty of good reasons to join in the digital migration.
"For example, Dell is on track to meeting its goal of having 50 percent of its workers telecommuting by 2020," Sutton Fell says. "As a result of this initiative, since 2014, Dell has reduced its real estate costs by $39.5 million."
Sutton Fell notes that "for society at large, remote work greatly benefits things like global traffic issues, emergency and disaster preparedness, environmental sustainability, and the overall health and well-being of people around the world. Remote work can also help to improve gender equality in the workplace, particularly in senior roles, and reduce unemployment and underemployment in rural or economically underdeveloped areas."
Remote work on a global scale offers significant benefits not only to companies doing the hiring, but also to employees being hired.
"For individuals, remote work can play a key role in improving their health and wellness by reducing the friction between work and life, providing more employment opportunities, and actually improving their productivity on the job," Sutton Fell says. "Not only do companies save an average of $11,000 annually for every half-time remote worker they employ, but the workers save, too. When looking at typical work-related costs paid by professionals each year in the United States, we found that the average person can save at least $4,668 per year by working remotely."
Supporting Education to Build a Global Talent Pool
Even highly developed nations like the United States face talent shortages in many verticals. In some areas of developing nations, educational opportunities can be severely lacking. The best way to address skills shortages and talent gaps is for companies to invest in providing educational opportunities in their own countries and in countries from which they wish to draw talent in the future.
"There are so many organizations doing great work educating local populations with the skills they need to fill today's most in-demand career fields," Sutton Fell says. She cites two in particular: Andela, which connects top developers on the African continent with companies like IBM and Microsoft, and NaTakallam, which helps displaced Syrians find work educating people who want to learn Arabic.
"Businesses should seek out education-focused organizations such as these to help fill skills gaps through remote hiring," Sutton Fell says.
The Politics of Globally Sourcing Remote Workers
Some who read this may immediately worry that a global remote work initiative will lead to American jobs being sent overseas, but that isn't the case. The purpose of such an initiative is to source people for jobs where U.S. talent doesn't exist to fill them.
"The most vocal concern for American jobs being taken are not the low-skill, low-paying ones taken by illegal immigrants, but those jobs being taken by legal immigrants – non-U.S. citizens with work visas and/or green cards who are taking high-skill, high-paying jobs," says Sutton Fell. "But keep in mind that employers often have to go to some additional effort to hire them, not because they want to expend extra effort, but because they can't find qualified candidates in the U.S. talent pool. This ultimately ties to an educational and training problem in the U.S. We simply aren't training our young people in the skills they need to find these high-skill, high-pay jobs. We have employers saying they can't find good candidates and job-seekers saying they can't find work. The math still doesn't add up."
When the talent simply doesn't exist locally, expanding the boundaries of the talent search becomes necessary.
"Remote work can provide a best-of-both-worlds scenario," says Sutton Fell. "Right now, some American companies may be hiring workers from overseas to fill those high-skill, high-pay jobs because those workers are willing to relocate, and workers in the U.S. are no longer willing to move to find economic opportunity. Remote jobs actually make it more possible for U.S. companies to hire U.S. workers without needing them to relocate, which might actually help keep jobs here that might otherwise go overseas."
Whatever your politics, technology doesn't always wait for politicians to catch up. The technology exists now to hire employees from anywhere, so businesses struggling with talent shortages are finding ways to take advantage of that. We can only hope that global governments will get on board to further address wage and legal issues.
"Ultimately, I definitely believe that remote work already provides an additional option to globally minded employers hiring for high-skilled, high-pay jobs because they can look to hire candidates internationally if they can't find them in the U.S. and because they can more easily hire U.S.-based workers without needing them to relocate," says Sutton Fell. "For immigrants who would have liked to come to the U.S. but currently are more restricted, remote jobs still offer job opportunities with American and international companies."