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Penny Farinha, VP Human Resources for Ecobee inside their near empty offices in Toronto, says they go out of their way to hire remote workers.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Before the pandemic, Toronto-based smart home technology provider Ecobee had a few remote workers spread across Canada and the U.S., but the arrangement was an exception, not the norm.

“Now we go out of our way to hire people that are remote,” says Penny Farinha, the company’s vice-president of human resources.

Ecobee still has an office in downtown Toronto and one in the U.K., but when, where and how its 500 employees work is largely up to them. Staff members are free to work remotely, in the office or on a hybrid schedule of their choice. Employees with roles that don’t require a physical presence are also free to relocate within Canada, and those who have been with the company for at least six months can apply to spend 30 days working from another country.

During the pandemic, a large proportion of the workforce transitioned from a traditional office to their home office, but working from home during a pandemic is not the same as remote work. No longer bound by lockdowns and travel restrictions, employees are increasingly looking to work from a location that is neither their home nor their office, challenging organizations to transition from work-from-home to work-from-anywhere.

Making this transition typically requires employers to overcome practical challenges related to taxation, cybersecurity and compliance, and some human resources-related issues, like maintaining team cohesion and culture.

Ecobee, for example, asks its employees to visit its Toronto office at least once per quarter and reimburses them for any related travel expenses.

“We just say come when it makes sense, nobody is taking attendance at the door, but we want people to feel a connection,” Ms. Farinha says.

Despite some initial challenges, she says the flexible work policy has had a noticeable, positive impact on the company’s ability to recruit and retain talent in a competitive labour market.

In a recent engagement survey the company does twice a year, gauging how productive and connected employees are, Ms. Farinha says 90 per cent of staff reported feeling “very connected” to their work and their team – the highest score ever.

The company was also selected by job-hunting site FlexJobs as one of Canada’s best companies for remote or flexible jobs in 2022.

In addition to providing “the ultimate in career flexibility,” organizations that offer work-from-anywhere also often enjoy “improved retention, access to a more diverse talent pool, increased productivity and engagement, cost-efficiency and a more positive environmental impact,” according to Toni Frana, a career services manager at FlexJobs.

Few employees have the opportunity to truly work from anywhere, however, because of tax and legal restrictions. Instead, Ms. Frana says most remote jobs have geographic boundaries, at least for now. She believes that “as more companies embrace remote work for the long-term, the number of jobs that can be performed from anywhere may expand.”

While more organizations look to offer staff the freedom to work from anywhere, studies show a need to bring them together in person at semi-regular intervals.

A recent Harvard Business School study, which looked at varying degrees of workplace flexibility and measured various outcomes – from job performance to employee satisfaction – found the “sweet spot” was about 23 per cent of days together with the team.

Prithwiraj Choudhury, the study’s lead researcher who coined the term “work from anywhere,” says initial studies suggest workers are most productive when they have control over where they work each day, and have semi-regular face-to-face interactions with colleagues.

Mr. Choudhury recommends one day per week, one week per month, or a few weeks each quarter of quality face-time to keep those connections strong — ideally in a non-work setting.

He believes work-from-away policies can also have a range of positive societal impacts, such as reducing brain drain and population decline in smaller communities, fostering a more diverse and equitable employment landscape and reducing carbon emissions.ays Mr. Choudhury, who is also an associate professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School.

e believes work-from-away policies can also have a range of positive societal impacts, such as reducing brain drain and population decline in smaller communities, fostering a more diverse and equitable employment landscape and reducing carbon emissions.

Ecobee chose to pursue a work-from-anywhere policy, according to Ms. Farinha, in part because these benefits align with the company’s core values.

“Having a very flexible work approach helps reduce our carbon emissions,” she says. “It’s also a completely different talent pool that we’re able to tap into because, when we had constraints before to only hiring people within commuting distance of Toronto, we missed out.”

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