Raj Choudhury, also known as Dr. Raj, is an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, where he studies the future of work and hybrid work models.
Dr. Raj will be among the many workplace experts speaking at our event on October 3-5. We asked him about his research around reimagining work and explored how we can better integrate our lives.
Defining “Work from Anywhere”
For Dr. Raj, “working from anywhere” means that workers can choose to live where they want and then come into the office for collaboration and culture-building in a manner that best suits them. He celebrates not only workplace flexibility but work-life flexibility around where people choose to live.
To better understand how to optimize hybrid work, Dr. Raj ran an experiment with a group of workers who were also HR professionals. “We found that about 23% to 40% of the work days in the office was the optimal number,” explains Dr. Raj. "People in that 23% to 40% range did better at every outcome: they had better work outcomes, better job satisfaction, and experienced less isolation."
For Dr. Raj, the experiment doesn’t mean that employees should exclusively come into the office one or twice per week. Instead, he proposes a more extended time frame that allows people geographic flexibility.
“If organizations have a rigid hybrid work model where people need to go into an office one or two days a week, then people can't live very far away from the office,” says Dr. Raj. “But if the optimal percentage is defined as a percentage of work days over a more extended period of time, some teams could decide they want to come together one week every month while other teams might decide to come together for two and a half weeks every quarter.”
He points to a real-world example of a more extended timeframe for WFA that allows a better work-life balance for people. He explains that TCS, which is a tech giant in India, has 16 campuses globally and 500,000 tech workers, many of whom are coders.
“They've adopted this 25% model where every worker has to be co-located with the team for 25% of the work days. But the team gets to decide when that is, and every team could have a different cadence, but the unit of analysis is the team over the entire year.”
At the start of the annual planning cycle, the team could decide to meet once a quarter for all four quarters or they could plan a longer-term trip to the site once. It’s a flexible approach to flexibility that prioritizes preferences while still investing in the workplace community.
Company Culture, Hiring, and Diversity
Could the more extended approach to WFA have negative impacts on company culture? To find out, Dr. Raj did a separate study with software firm Zapier and found that company off-sites really helped build teamwork even when teams were geographically distributed via a WFA model.
“The connections colleagues make at off-sites lead to a lot of help once colleagues get back home,” explains Dr. Raj. “We found that friendships were formed on the Uber drive from the airport to the resort location.”
Dr. Raj also studied the US Patent Office, which adopted a work from anywhere model back in 2012. He set out to better understand the impacts of WFA on employee retention rates. The federal agency allowed their patent examiners to leave the HQ in Alexandria, Virginia and live wherever they wanted. “Our study found that employee attrition went down significantly after the agency adopted their work from anywhere model,” says Dr. Raj.
WFA has also been found to enhance hiring, enabling organizations to cast a wider, geographic net to pull in talent. Employers simply don't have to be constrained by the geographic labor market of Boston or San Francisco. “They can find talent in Kenya or Bangladesh or in the middle of nowhere,” explains Dr. Raj. “The diversity of workforces increases too because you're hiring from more communities.”
Work from Anywhere’s Social Impacts
The research conducted by Dr. Raj also uncovered that WFA can help reduce brain drain in rural communities and smaller cities. He’s done extensive studies of Tulsa, Oklahoma and found that flexible work could help keep smaller cities afloat.
“More than 85% of the recent college graduates in Tulsa would leave the city every year and go to bigger cities like Austin, Los Angeles, or New York City,” says Dr. Raj. “The work from anywhere model offers the possibility of keeping younger professionals in smaller communities.”
Talent could even begin flowing back to the smaller towns that have suffered significant brain drain, creating a “reverse brain drain.” Dr. Raj notes that Tulsa has already attracted 2,000 families leaving Austin, Houston, and LA.
This use case begs the question: Could a more flexible approach to work solve bigger questions? How does hybrid work and work-from-anywhere impact economies? Can flexible workplaces improve quality of life? These questions are still being answered, yet early signs point to positive impacts that extend beyond our working lives.
Hybrid Work Experimentation Needed
The best organizations understand that hybrid work is not just about adopting new technologies. It's about adopting new mindsets, new practices, and new habits. There's no single policy that you can mandate. According to Dr. Raj: You need to say – “we're going to experiment and implement what we learn.” As you’ll hear often at the Hybrid Work Conference October 3-5th, hybrid work is nothing if not an ongoing, massive experiment.
Dr. Raj believes that “companies should empower every team to figure out its own cadence for coming together [in the office]. And then later they can figure out what model is working best.” It requires collecting the relevant data, analyzing it for actionable insights, and applying lessons learned.
To learn more about how to manage the entire hybrid work experience, check out Robin.