A Remote Work Boom Could Change Tech’s Immigration Debate

The pandemic has already shown it's entirely possible to operate businesses remotely, prompting some tech companies to debate the necessity of splashy headquarters and high-cost rent. Next, the move toward remote work could also push companies to reconsider another aspect of centralized offices: immigration.

For decades, American tech firms have poured time and money into bringing foreign talent to work in the U.S. But the pandemic may prove that engineers can work as successfully from their home countries as they could from Silicon Valley's coding bullpens—saving companies from the paperwork, costs and political maneuvering required to get them into the country.

"No offices: No visa issues," says Lan Xuezhao, who led corporate strategy for Dropbox Inc. before starting Basis Set Ventures, an early-stage fund focusing on the future of work. "Startups want the strongest engineers at the lowest costs and given how difficult immigration is getting in the U.S., people don't want to go through all the hoops when they can just work remotely."

Since the pandemic hit, immigration has become more difficult. Because of visa office closures, mass layoffs and furloughs, an estimated 200,000 H-1B workers could lose their legal status by June if they can't get their visas renewed. The situation has been exacerbated by a temporary ban on green cards for people outside the U.S. issued last month by the Trump administration.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of workers in the U.S. say they have worked from home during the health outbreak—a number that has doubled since mid-March, according to Gallup. But even before the crisis, remote work, and so-called distributed companies, had been gaining traction.

WordPress maker Automattic Inc., for example, has run what it calls a “distributed company” since it was founded in 2005. It now has 1,180 employees working remotely across 75 countries. And in February, Jack Dorsey said he wanted to untether the two companies he runs, Twitter Inc. and Square Inc., from their San Francisco Bay Area offices.

"The concept of headquarters to me is a very old concept that is going to go away,” Dorsey said.

Remote work is not a panacea, though. Offshoring operations can come with accounting and regulatory complications. (One tech company laid out the various challenges posed by its distributed workforce here.) Plus, a global group of employees can mean an influx of late-night or early-morning calls. Ideas and team bonding that spring from face-to-face interaction can suffer. And American companies risk training legions of tech workers that will end up at overseas competitors in China and India.

But Lan, the venture capitalist, said she's seeing more of her portfolio companies spread their engineers and co-founders across the U.S., China, Singapore and Europe. "Maybe we don't really need to bring over talent to America for American companies to get the best talent," she said. As the hurdles to immigration get ever higher, it might become easier to keep them where they are. — Shelly Banjo

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