When the West works from home

Published June 9, 2021
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

AS more and more of the Western world gets vaccinated, the predictions about the post-Covid-19 world are being tested against reality. In the early days of the pandemic, when a lot of the Western world was hit hard by the virus and when there was practically no way in sight to fight off the virus, most employers sent their white-collar workers home from office. Working from home was the only way to be safe and also work. Office towers across the United States and, in fact, much of the Western world emptied out and a creepy silence permeated the once busy hallways and conference rooms.

Now that there is a vaccine, and people are getting vaccinated, employers are trying to bring their employees back to work. However, it seems that workers in America are not really interested in coming back. Research shows that a large percentage of employees would prefer to quit their jobs altogether than return to the office as full-time workers.

Working from home for over a year had, it appeared, led to some rethinking among many people who had otherwise been trapped in the daily grind. They no longer had to make arduous commutes, which in places like New York City would sometimes take two hours each way. They no longer had to spend and invest in a work wardrobe, they did not have to buy lunch or snacks and, perhaps most importantly, they did not have to put up with annoying co-workers or micro-managing bosses in offices.

The connectivity revolution and the technological advancements meant that they could communicate often and easily with work-team members and hand-held devices meant that they were always available during the workday. Going back to the way things were was simply not on the agenda; they would rather get another job than revert to their previous way of working. The emerging labour shortage in the United States meant that they really could quit and go to another employer who permitted them to either work from home full-time or have a hybrid work model that allowed them to work from home one or two days a week.

Pakistan can develop and organise its own highly skilled workforce so that it becomes more attractive to foreign employers.

As Harvard researcher Raj Choudhury has written about in his research paper Our Work From Anywhere Future, this is great news for highly skilled workers in the non-Western world. The reason is simple: as work from anywhere becomes increasingly dominant in the West and people work from their office headquarters, it follows that a worker can also be found anywhere.

Simply put, instead of global labour mobility being the basis for workers to go where jobs are, the jobs could easily go where the workers are. If a company is looking for software engineers and remote work is the norm for them, they can just as well hire that engineer from Karachi. As Choudhury points out, this will do away with the need for “employment visas”. No one will have to stand in line for the scant number of H-1B highly skilled-worker visas; they could start immediately from just about anywhere.

Like with anything, there is a downside. Already some companies that are permitting their employees to work from home are considering pay cuts. Facebook, for instance, had told its workers that they can work from anywhere but those moving out of the extremely expensive Silicon Valley area would see a pay cut based on where they were actually choosing to live. Translated globally, this would mean that companies hiring talent from Pakistan would pay a salary based on the Pakistani white-collar labour market. Western governments are already preparing for this work-from-anywhere scenario.

For instance, a huge agenda item that was agreed on by the G-7 countries recently has been a minimum tax that corporations would have to pay regardless of where they choose to operate. The move is very pointedly targeting a future where non-Western governments try to attract corporations to hire from their workforce by waiving taxes on the corporation concerned. The country where the corporation is headquartered (which would be a Western government most of the time) will levy the tax and collect it from the multinational. Competition for filling jobs is now likely to become global, and Western governments want to make sure that they come out ahead.

Read: All in a day’s remote work

There are things Pakistan can do to develop and organise its own highly skilled workforce so that it would become more attractive to foreign employers who are looking to fill work-from-anywhere job slots. One template for this could be to mobilise the Pakistani diaspora and figure out ways to showcase the talent that is available in Pakistan and create a streamlined package which would make it easy for the company to fulfil legal requirements for doing so.

The work-from-anywhere culture is growing; the transition may take some time as debates about worker productivity are resolved, but remote work is the undeniable future. As it changes Western societies, it may also change non-Western countries that enter the highly skilled labour market. There could be a section of the population that keeps New York or London hours working all night and sleeping all day. Strict visa rules make travel to the Western world increasingly difficult. But cultural competency requirements would mean a virtual familiarity with places where one ‘works’ but has never been.

‘Work from anywhere’ presents a huge opportunity for Pakistani workers. The government of Pakistan and the chambers of commerce must immediately put together teams that could look into these issues and work with multinationals and corporations that are looking for workers. The world is on the cusp of tremendous change, where work and employment are likely to be transformed. Highly skilled Pakistani workers who have been at a disadvantage owing to their geographical location, can really shine in this new environment.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2021

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