Rajkamal Rao

Work From Home may make H-1B tech visas irrelevant

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on June 25, 2020

The pandemic has shown that the productivity of IT employees working from home has been surprisingly high

When the Trump administration announced the suspension of all H-1B visas through the end of the year, the negative reaction was immediate. The Information Technology Industry Council, which represents Apple, Facebook, Google, HP, Oracle, and Salesforce, said Trump’s move came at a bad time and urged him to reconsider.

Sundar Pichai went further. “Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today. Disappointed by today’s proclamation — we’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all.”

Pichai’s statement is disingenuous because if there’s one thing that the pandemic has shown, it is that the productivity of IT employees working from home (WFH) has been surprisingly high. He should know. Since March, Google has allowed all of its employees to work from home through the end of the year — with no meaningful impact on the giant’s revenues, earnings, or innovation.

Twitter has been even more of a visionary. TechCrunch reported that Jack Dorsey said in a May email to staff: “So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.” The same policy was extended to employees of Square, the other company that Dorsey controls.

Facebook has taken the most expansive view of all, using WFH as a strategic tool to shut down office space, limit expensive employee perks such as free transportation and food, and recruit from less-expensive locations all over the US, paying salaries that are significantly lower than what engineers earn in the Bay Area. The company estimates that within a decade nearly half of its employees will permanently work from home.

What’s home?

Which brings us to a crucial question. What exactly is home? Could that all-important H-1B tech worker sitting at home in San Jose write the same quality of code for Google if working from home in Chennai? The evidence so far seems to be an overwhelming “Yes!”

Because innovation has continued at breakneck speed — Apple just announced a major new iOS release for its iPhones and iPads — it is fair to ask: What is the need for foreigners to live physically in the US? To those who say that engineers like to network with each other in person at professional meets, necessitating H-1Bs to be physically present in the US, Apple just kicked off its Worldwide Developers Conference 2020 with “a jam-packed, all-online experience from Apple Park.”

So, is it possible that Covid has just made the H-1B visa largely irrelevant? Could companies with a voracious appetite for H-1B workers just recruit talent directly from foreign countries at a fraction of the H-1B costs and avoid the administrative overheads of filing petitions and responding to ridiculous Requests for Evidence? Could companies then get employees to travel to the US for meetings on B1/B2 visas when absolutely necessary? With the annual 65,000 H-1B visa limits rendered useless, would more jobs move from America to India? What impact would this have on the Indian government which has relied on the H-1B visa as a critical vehicle to bring home dollar remittances?

If the world is one big employment market, does the debate about the “contributions of immigrants to western economies” become obsolete? We don’t talk about “immigrants” on the International Space Station, why should we do so when Apple is building its next killer product?

The pandemic has already turned the world upside down. The H-1B visa may be its latest victim.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, Bedford, TX.

Published on June 25, 2020

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