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Transnational localism - a small town approach to staffing up

Raju Vegesna Profile picture for user Raju Vegesna April 28, 2021
Increasingly, talented people aiming to stay local are applying for jobs remotely. Raju Vegesna shares Zoho's transnational localism strategy for the US and the experiences that led there.

Opening of the Zoho office in Queretaro in Mexico © Zoho
Opening the Zoho office in Queretaro, Mexico (© Zoho)

Zoho has long believed that talent is universal but opportunity is not. Qualified people all over the world lack the means or the flexibility to relocate to big cities for work. Others may not have access to the schools and training required to even apply to certain jobs. We see this as a missed opportunity not just for these prospective employees, but for businesses as well. Zoho, for its part, stopped requiring four-year degrees around 2004, preferring instead to teach employees on the job. Our offices are located outside of major metropolitan areas, in places with a lower cost of living like Utrect in the Netherlands, Querétaro in Mexico, Yokohama in Japan, and Tenkasi in southern India. Even still, Zoho's employees, like so many people in the workforce, face issues of rising costs of living, long commutes, and general life/work imbalances.

We think the solution to this problem is bringing opportunity to people in the towns where they live, where they've grown up, and where they are part and parcel of their community. It's part of a philosophy we call transnational localism. Beginning a few years ago, we opened small offices throughout India to support existing Zoho employees and hired new employees in three small towns in Texas. These remote offices represent a way to restore dignity to — and support the local economies of — small towns and rural areas around the world.

If we want to create a more equitable system for employment, we can't forget the lessons that the pandemic has taught us. Workers still want and need to collaborate in person; however, remote working has opened many people's eyes to the value of remaining close to family and friends and building a schedule of one's own. Transnational localism is our best shot at creating a balance between at-home and in-office work for employees that had previously never had a say in the matter. Now that cities are opening up, and more and more people are relocating for jobs, it feels like a good time to present an alternative, before we all go back to the way things were. Here is how transnational localism has evolved within Zoho, hopefully it can serve as a transferable model for others.

Commute times in India 

Over the past 20 years that Zoho has been in Chennai, the population has nearly doubled from around 6 million people to more than 11 million. The cost of living has gone up as a result, while opportunities for employment remain scarce in rural areas outside the city. For various reasons — from wanting to remain close to family to the affordability and availability of housing in the city — many Zoho employees live in rural villages outside of Chennai, and had, until recently, been commuting several hours to the office. Zoho has been looking at this problem for some time, but it wasn't until the viability of remote work was proven during the pandemic that a scalable solution emerged. (This is not a problem unique to Zoho or to India. Commute times for employees working in most major cities can total hours per day.) 

Remote work in remote areas

In the early days of the pandemic, there were questions as to whether Zoho's employees throughout rural areas in India could rely on the network to do business, day in and day out. But soon those worries were put to bed as we all went remote. For us, the pandemic proved that we as a company of more than 9,000 employees can work entirely at home; however, so much of Zoho's success and development happens from in-person collaboration. I suspect this is true of many organizations. And so remote work, at least for Zoho, solves only half the problem of employee happiness and business growth. As cases in India began to stall, and people were returning to work all over, Zoho employees developed their own solution to the problem.

Local offices for in-person collaboration

Today there are more than 20 small, mostly rural Zoho offices in India, with more coming. Until the recent surge of COVID cases in the country, these offices functioned as spoke locations where employees could collaborate, across departments and areas of work, based solely on where they lived. New relationships with colleagues have formed, and employees are able to continue to support their local communities. If needed, members of these offices can use the Chennai campus as a hub, but their local network and our business tools are capable of supporting them in these remote offices. This stage of transnational localism has worked very well in support of existing Zoho employees, but what about new hires?

Creating new jobs outside the city

One foreseeable benefit of having spoke offices in India is that employees will be able to recruit friends, family, and community members that they trust to work at Zoho, and from their rural office. It's a way of growing the company sustainably, and with better outcomes for employees who no longer have to travel or relocate to Chennai. Additionally, in this scenario new hires would be working alongside existing, possibly longtime Zoho employees who can onboard and train. Based off the success of these offices throughout southern India, and encouraged by the thought of creating jobs in rural towns — not just supporting existing employees there — Zoho started to adopt the model the US.

Hub and spoke in Texas

Using Austin as the hub, Zoho established its first US spoke office in New Braunfels, Texas, last year. Located about an hour outside of downtown Austin, the team of mainly sales and support agents in New Braunfels is still close enough to Zoho's US headquarters to engage with other employees whenever needed or desired. Likewise, Zoho employees in Austin can travel to New Braunfels to help manage operations once the pandemic subsides and people can safely work together face to face. 

Soon after onboarding the team in New Braunfels, Zoho starting hiring in Bastrop, a rural town around 40 minutes southeast of Austin, adding several talented people fairly quickly. At the beginning, it wasn't clear how much and what type of engagement these smaller, more rural offices would need with managers and longtime Zoho employees, so New Braunfels and Bastrop were chosen for their proximity to Austin. These two locations have proven that talent truly is everywhere, and that many young people in small towns around the US are just looking for an opportunity. 

Self-sufficient offices throughout the United States

Encouraged that transnational localism is a thoughtful and humane way of growing a business, we have just expanded further out in Texas — around five hour's drive south of Austin — where opportunity is even more hard to come by. We have added eight new hires from McAllen, Edinburg, Harlingen, and Brownsville, all towns near the Texas border that are at most one hour's drive from one another. This means that once COVID-19 subsides, Zoho can establish an office for all of these new employees at the midpoint between towns so that no one person would have to commute more than a half-hour to collaborate with their teammates.

When Zoho was considering moving south in Texas, far from the hub in Austin, we conducted some exploratory interviews to gauge the interest and the level of talent in this region. We learned pretty quickly that there are many eager and equipped young people in each city. In some cases, the city itself has offered free technical training to grow the local economy and champion the talents of its own citizens. It just goes to show, small towns have a vested interest in retaining their culture and their talent, and they're getting buy-in from locals.

Ultimately, the goal of transnational localism isn't to have offices within arm's reach of Austin, or any other established Zoho office. Rather, the roadmap is to have teams throughout small towns, beginning in the US, with access to diverse customers and markets. Given the success of New Braunfels and Bastrop — especially considering onboarding was done for those employees remotely due to the pandemic — we're confident this concept can work all over and for any business, so long as that business is interested in providing opportunity in places and for people who would otherwise go without. 

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