Location, Location, Location No Longer

Location. What used to be a significant factor in compensation and career opportunity may no longer be a deal breaker. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s been that in a bind, we can work anywhere. And in some cases, work more effectively. Have we begun to shift the way we look at working?

A new way of looking at talent

Our CEO Chuck Robbins was recently quoted on Jim Cramer for sharing his thoughts on how we should “expect change in the way we think about talent”. I’m fortunate to be employed at Cisco, a high tech company that not only promotes virtual workplaces but builds the tools, like WebEx, to support remote work. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’m also lucky to be part of a team that has been a proponent of finding the best people for our open roles, not doing the best we could based on talent that lived near our offices. This has required us to shift how we operate but has opened the door to a much wider and diverse talent pool. 

For one thing, we as a team have definitely shifted the way we look at and how we look for talent. The majority of our job descriptions are open to remote work and internally we have given team members the flexibility to relocate or work from another location for an extended period of time. We’ve also looked at what we love about face to face working and how we can bring that to the virtual office. An important thing we’ve noticed is for everyone to feel part of the discussion so we hold operating principles that encourage practices like team chat rooms open all day for drop ins, Trello boards for backlog grooming, and documentation protocol to allow team members in different time zones to pick things up when they’re online. We share these virtual operating principles during our interview process to show candidates how we value bringing talented individuals together to solve complex technical challenges and do not let someone’s work location block us from building a great team. 

When looking for great talent, our team also no longer limits ourselves to where our offices are located, which happen to be in major cities. We noticed that a big problem with major cities is that they can be expensive to reside in so smart people tend to be in smaller towns surrounding these cities and can be missed in recruiting searches. By opening the work location to anywhere, our options are endless! This also helps accelerate our time to fill rate, which relieves existing team members from added pressure while supporting a growing product and the team during its forming/norming stages. And most importantly, it enables our organization to find cultural additions rather than fits. Each person’s uniqueness brings something to the table and collectively, we are an innovative powerhouse.

A new way of working

Although the pandemic was a forcing function into showing teams they can work effectively remotely, I hope it sticks well past the pandemic ending. I’m not suggesting companies completely pivot and enforce 100% remote work but enable that flexibility. I’ve heard from parents recently how they love just being near their children at times but would still appreciate the option to take a break to venture into the office. In my HR days, I supported a team that did not allow remote work even though tools were available. Their reason was around requiring collaboration but over the years, I’ve learned you do not need to be face to face to collaborate. But you do need leadership to embrace a new way of working and to trust their team’s work ethic will stay true at home. 

It’s been refreshing to see some companies release statements about the future way of working, such as Twitter announcing staff can continue to work from home permanently or politicians like New Zealand Prime Minister suggesting a four-day work week. As promising as these signs are, I’m still seeing location tied to a lot of job descriptions. Sadly, one of my good friends was impacted by a large layoff a couple of weeks ago. One of the most challenging realizations she had to digest was she felt restricted in choosing where she wanted to settle down and buy a home (and ultimately find happiness) because of job markets. Why do we have to add one more stressor to folks’ plates by limiting where we hire and instead give people the freedom to work where they’re most happy? 

I feel extremely fortunate to be able to work remotely on such a talented and supportive team, that is ~35% remote itself prior to the pandemic (100% remote now). Our team is a great example of how globally distributed teams can work even more effectively as long as your leadership supports experimenting with virtual practices and building habits around the ones that work best for your team. As you’ve heard, one experiment that has been put into practice on our team is being open to hiring folks from anywhere so we can focus on hiring the most talented people, not who happens to be in the right place at the right time. I hope other teams and companies continue to follow suit. It’s a game changer once you unblock the work location and realize it’s unrealistic to assume the one person best suited for your open role happens to be in the same city as you.

Pitfalls to avoid

As we open the doors to a new way of working and allow folks to work from anywhere, we must watch out for the tendency to also expect people to work anytime. A team cannot assume that because they enable remote work that everyone will be online 24/7. Yes, in some cases team mates are taking turns on an on-call rotation but in most cases, people need to sign off at the end of the day to find time for themselves. For instance, if someone needs to visit a sick friend in another town, we should not expect them to work while traveling to do so. Rather give them the time off needed to spend time with loved ones and return to work when they’re ready. If we overwork our folks or set the bar that you should be accessible because you have the privilege to work remotely, then we’re not truly building a new way of working. Instead of looking at remote work as a privilege, it should be seen as a new operating model that we as teams need to build new principles and ways of working around as guard rails to protect our folks from burn out.

On the note of new operating principles. companies should also focus on new hiring principles. The biggest mindset shift I see ahead is the concept of “cost of living adjustments”, where we pay differently based on where someone resides. But what if we allow folks to really work form anywhere, which means they could be spending weeks at a time working from a new happy place that isn’t their place of residence. I understand there are certain U.S. tax laws we must abide by that requires tracking the number of days one works in a state as an example but I’m not speaking to this. We of course must still follow local region guidelines but that does not mean we cannot find ways to allow people to work from their place of happiness, which will change over time. We should do our part to find lawful methods to pay people based on the work they’re hired to do rather than based on the address included in the tax documentation.

Imagine if we allowed folks to move around, working in different areas and finding new modes of inspiration? The creativity that could grow from people being happy, comfortable, and inspired is incredible. And imagine how the local towns would benefit from new visitors, especially as we return to a bit of normalcy and businesses begin to reopen? We would have the opportunity to help other cities’ economies grow while enabling our teams to find their happy places. I understand this will take time and open minds to happen over time but it will never happen if we don’t take the first step. I’ve mentioned it before and will mention it again: I’m lucky to be on a team and part of a company that is supportive in experimenting in new ways of working. My hope is one by one companies may begin to role model these new ways of working and operating behaviors so it spreads globally. I would love to see something a positive contagion spread across our planet right now; we could use a change.

Lessons learned:

  • Throw out anything in your mind telling you your team cannot work remotely. There are many tools out there, that are affordable and user friendly. 
  • Look to other companies for ideas and best practices on remote work. Many companies are trying new ways of working to provide the flexibility to enable people to work from their happy place.
  • Great people exist everywhere so why would you chance thinking the one person best for your role happens to be in the same city as you?
  • As your team tries on new ways of working, including remote work, remember to watch out for pitfalls that could lead to the wrong expectations being set.
Back in our days of living in a San Jose suburb called Willow Glen, where we would purchase hand made pasta from a local Italian deli.

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