Remote Work — Why Geography Is the #1 Factor That Limits Applications

It’s a fundamental law in recruiting that you “are limited to hiring individuals who have applied for a position” (even direct sourced candidates will at some time will be requested to acknowledge application). Assuming you want an applicant pool that is bulging with superior talent, a logical question would be, ‘What factors restrict qualified individuals from applying?’. Prior to the most recent global economic meltdown, most recruiting professionals guessed that the top factors were pay, benefits, and employer reputation, which are important, but one factor has always trumped them: geography.

95% of the Qualified Candidates Are Not In Your Backyard

While there are pockets of industrialization that attract a greater percentage of highly educated and trained professionals, the vast majority of talent remains dispersed around the world. If your organization forces only local talent to be considered, there is no way your organization can claim to be hiring only top talent. Such an approach dictates that your organization is missing out on a huge group of qualified applicants (the 95% that exists elsewhere) simply because:

  1. They do not live within a commuting distance of your job
  2. They are not willing or they cannot relocate to the job location due to relocation costs, living preferences, underwater mortgages, or family issues
  3. Possible immigration/visa issues

Restricting recruiting to only local communities can have dramatic effects on results. For example, if you are the head coach at the college basketball powerhouse University of North Carolina, and the team was restricted to recruiting only players who currently lived within a commuting distance of the campus, how many months do you think it would take until the team would begin its slide into mediocrity?

If you want to have a strategic impact as a recruiter, you need to recommend any low-cost action that would dramatically increase the size of the qualified candidate pool: remote work. While many assume geography is an unavoidable barrier, the truth is that for most knowledge jobs, it simply isn’t. Allowing more remote work could literally increase the quality of your applicant pool by several hundred percent.

What Percentage Would Want to Work for You

Whether your talent pool is local and small or global and large, you still must convince the qualified individuals to want to apply and work for your firm. For the local-only talent pool, flexibility, work/life balance, and commute time/costs would be among the potential selling points. If you were offering remote work, you would likely immediately meet each of these three selling points.

In addition, if you are a global firm with relatively high pay, benefits, and outstanding management practices, you will find that an extremely large percentage of those qualified individuals around the globe would jump at the opportunity to work for you (provided that they didn’t have to relocate).

Great Brand, But Location an Application Killer

Zappos is a wildly successful online shoe retailer, with a powerful employer brand built on unusual but highly effective management practices. If you were one of the best online marketing experts in the world, chances are that an opportunity to affiliate with the brand would be attractive. Unfortunately, Zappos isn’t in New York or Chicago. It’s in Las Vegas, a place that gets an automatic reaction (often a negative one) when mentioned. Despite a great brand and exciting culture, there are a number of location attributes that negatively impact the size of the talent pool willing to work in Las Vegas, including the historical role of gambling, and extreme temperatures.

For those outside the U.S., immigration issues could prevent application. However, remote work by itself could be such a compelling draw to overcome most if not all barriers.

Remote Work Makes the Best Even Better

The European Champions League employs the most effective and powerful recruiting model in Europe. In an environment where winning the championship for a club is nearly a life-and-death experience, teams like Barcelona and Manchester United have developed a “cherry pick” global recruiting model, recruiting the single best player from the best football countries around the world.

Unlike offshoring, this model focuses on recruiting a single “game changer” from other countries. This approach, coupled with great team management, results in a level of performance that could never be reached if the club recruited players solely from their home country. A good as it is, this model also suffers from the “location problem.” Imagine if you could build a team as powerful, but allow players to remain in their home country; could the team be even more powerful? This is not possible in a physical game like football, but in business, where many of the professional jobs can be converted to remote work, it’s quite possible.

Article Continues Below

Obtaining a High ROI

Many assume that remote work jobs are expensive and that remote workers average lower levels of productivity, however, the data suggest otherwise. The most famous case of remote work, Best Buy, reported that by offering remote work options at its headquarters, resulted in as much as a 35% increase in productivity and a 90% decrease in turnover. McGraw-Hill and Cisco have both reported multimillion dollar increases in productivity as a result of remote work options.

Almost every firm that offers remote options has also realized that the practice dramatically increases retention and reduces real estate and office expenses. So overall, not only will you attract and hire better quality candidates, you are also likely to see an increase in productivity and a reduction in costs.

Offering 100% remote work options for mission-critical professional jobs may be the highest ROI recruiting solution there is.

Tips on Creating Remote Work Jobs

IBM has taken the most scientific approach to remote work and have found that there are steps that you can take to make any remote individual or team more effective. My research has also come up with a list of do’s and don’ts that you should consider when creating or implementing remote work jobs. Here are some recommended actions.

  • Selecting  jobs — obviously professional, knowledge-based, and white-collar jobs are the most likely targets for conversion to remote work, but you should also consider converting call center jobs (like JetBlue did), security, and customer support. Before you make any decision, develop a checklist for qualifying jobs for the treatment.
  • Periodic communications — remote workers need to feel like they are an important part of the team, so you should require periodic communications and interactions among team members.
  • Who can handle the independence — because no one is physically watching over your shoulder, remote work requires a different level of drive and self-management then traditional jobs. Some individuals simply miss the personal contact and face-to-face interaction. As a result, the hiring process needs to be rigorous enough to ensure that remote workers have the right skills and mindset to thrive under remote work.
  • Technology is required — getting high productivity levels from remote workers requires that they have access to many types of hardware and software.
  • Managers need convincing first reaction on the part of most traditional managers is resistance. Because the support of hiring managers is essential, the recruiting function must make a clear business case that demonstrates to individual managers that they will see a significantly increased quality of hire, improved retention, and increased innovation and productivity. You’ll also need to provide them with a toolkit to help them quickly learn how to manage remotely located employees.
  • Metrics and rewards are essential — you can’t assume that remote workers are productive, so you need more sophisticated metrics and measurement processes to spot weaning productivity long before he gets out of hand. You might also find that remote workers require more recognition and individualized rewards then workers that see the boss every day.

Final Thoughts

Whether your organization has embraced remote work or not, it is a trend that will not be reversed. Nearly 25% of American workers have remote work options and over 60% would like to. Young workers and those who support a family are among the strongest supporters of this option.

A few leading firms are approaching the point where more than 50% of their employees can participate in remote work options. Although the trend is clear, the most surprising aspect of the increase in remote work is that the recruiting function has been almost invisible supporter of the approach. This is surprising because the recruiting benefits of remote work appear to be much greater than the benefits received, due to increased flexibility and work-life balance. If you’re not convinced about the recruiting advantages of remote work, try a split sample. After hiring is completed, measure the dramatic increase in quality of hire observed as a result of broadening your talent pool through remote work.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



7 Comments on “Remote Work — Why Geography Is the #1 Factor That Limits Applications

  1. Great article John! I’m a Sr. Talent Strategist in the digital media industry and have worked as a contract recruiter for years. Although there definitely has been resistance since the recession.

    Personally, it’s all about results and working virtual allows me to be more productive and be a better resource because I can block out the distractions like the commute and the office water cook talk. I also put in more hours I bill for since I appreciate the costs savings and convenience. Additionally, there are no additional overhead costs typically associated with onsite personnel. (badges, keys, office space, computer, software, snacks, supplies).


    Ira Brown, Principal & Sr. Talent Acquisition Strategist
    Big Picture Consulting, Inc.

  2. Thanks, Dr. Sullivan.

    For many years, I’ve argued that in-presence (recruiting) work should be limited to high-touch, high-value add activities that can’t be no-sourced, through-sourced, or out-sourced, and requires a direct physical presence. With the increased use of Skype and broad-band telepresence, I’m not sure what those activities are which stil require real-time presence, aside from the physical manipulation of material objects.

    Re: “managers need convincing”-
    I suggest an inversion of the paradigm “onsite unless permitted to” becomes: “offsite unless permitted (or desired- one of my colleagues prefers to come in for the human contact)”.
    Is this a panacea? No, you’d still need to retrain many/most managers on how to manage a remote workforce, and some otherwise-capable managers may be unable to do this…



  3. Thank you for addressing this!

    I’ve worked in the internet space for nearly a decade and find it ironic that in this century, technology companies can still be resistant to working remotely, or having a more flexible arrangement–particularly with their emphasis on being “green” (i.e., not commuting into the office). Occasionally there are hush-hush exceptions, and this contradiction makes for bad business practices, contributing to attrition. Hence, it would be best if companies consider an overall remote policy, particularly if they want to be global and not exclude top talent.

    I worked remotely for three years and my management handled it beautifully since they too worked remotely. The keys to success included regular communication, metrics to measure productivity, and confident upper management that empowered and trusted the team.

  4. You are 100% correct! While remote work may not be an ideal solution for every position, a number of jobs should not require physical presence in an office. With my background in IT I can say that for the most part, I got significantly more done working at home where I wasn’t interrupted nearly as frequently.

  5. Although I agree with the majority of this article, and as someone who has the luxury of being able to work flexibly from home and in an office I completely concur with the benefits for employers and employees alike, I have to wonder at your use of the European Champions’ League as having an effective and powerful recruitment strategy – the current strategy of cherry-picking high performers is actually driving a lot of football (sorry, soccer!) clubs towards administration and bankruptcy. In addition, your club only qualifies for the league if you come in the top 4 in the domestic league. Every club wants the revenues from the Champions’ League, but few will get them. Many end up paying players astonishing salaries that they cannot afford when the club only comes 5th. Here’s a link to the kind of salaries we are talking about (apologies it’s in Dutch, but I don’t speak it either and can still make sense of it!)
    My understanding of your article is that is not what we are looking for in recruiting the best talent. We want to open up the field, we want to make our positions attractive and available to the top performers and remove the ‘geography’ obstacle, but we don’t want to start getting into bidding wars for this talent that makes it so expensive we have to make cuts or price hikes elsewhere and our business is no longer profitable.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *