Local vs. Global Based Salary: A Comparison

7 minutes, 4 links


Updated March 23, 2023

You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Remote Work, a book by Katie Wilde, Juan Pablo Buriticá, and over 50 other contributors. It is the most comprehensive resource on building, managing, and adapting to working with distributed teams. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, 800 links and references, a library of tools for remote-friendly work, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

One of the main incentives to hire remotely is that you can hire very skilled people at a much lower wage than in U.S. tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area. This is the general principle behind a local salary model.

In this model, you’d set a base wage equal to that role in one location—usually a head office, or a place with a lot of reliable labor market data. San Francisco is a common baseline. Then you discount the salary for the remote employee based on either cost of living, how competitive local salaries are, or both. In general, remote employees outside large tech hubs still end up making significantly more money than they would working for a local company.

story “I live in the middle of nowhere, in northern Portugal. People that study here and graduate with a degree in computer science, if they go work for a local consultancy, they make probably about the equivalent of U.S. $1.5K per month. It’s enough to get around here, but it’s not a lot of money by most people’s measure. But if we hire those people, we triple their salary at least. What we see is that there’s a floor of sorts, where startups tend to pay significantly higher, especially in low-wage areas.” —Job van der Voort, CEO, Remote Employ

The practical advantage of this approach is that it’s cheaper overall for the company. Many companies just can’t afford to compete with Bay Area salaries despite needing that talent density—and hire remotely for this reason.

Varying wages based on geography can help people to afford a similar standard of living for similar work, in different locations. Salary data shows wide variations people’s perception of how much compensation equates to emotional well-being, so pay based on geography can help even out living standard disparities.

story “A local pay model has the advantage of not creating “golden handcuffs,” where disillusioned employees remain in a role because the salary is many multiples of the local wage, when they might otherwise wish to leave. Emotionally, it’s very hard as a manager to dismiss someone when you know that their next best option, a local job, might pay them a tenth of their current salary. The impact on their lives of losing this job is significant, and being dismissed or quitting would be a major lifestyle change. This means that sometimes, for both a manager and a teammate, the employment relationship ends up continuing well beyond its healthy, mutually beneficial lifespan.” —Katie Wilde, VP of Engineering, Buffer

The disadvantages of varying pay by geography are that in a lot of places, there simply isn’t data on cost of living, labor markets, and other factors, and so approximations and estimates need to be made. It’s very difficult to be consistent when you’re guessing, and not to end up in a transitive crisis where town A is paid more than town B, town B is more than town C, but town C is well known for being more expensive than town A. The more fine-grained your formula, the harder it is to get accurate data and ensure each location is paid sensibly relative to other similar locations.

A way around this dilemma is to create bands, or buckets, such as “high,” “medium,” and “low” cost of living. The issue here is what to do with locations that fall on just one side of an arbitrary dividing line. There is no standard approach that we’re aware of for this situation, so companies are likely going to have to deal with this on a case-by-case basis.

Unlock expert knowledge.
Learn in depth. Get instant, lifetime access to the entire book. Plus online resources and future updates.

Additionally, if your employees change locations, then you’re updating their salary, which could mean either less income for them, or more cost for you as the employer.

Moving is super tricky with local pay. It works out best if the employer and employee are very clear upfront of the entire employment about how they deal with this. Generally, they accept that pay is based on market forces and that if those change, pay might follow.Job van der Voort, CEO, Remote*

If people in your company are moving frequently, it can become administratively exhausting to continually calculate and update their pay.

We’ve talked to hundreds of companies about their compensation strategies for remote teams, most of which have hybrid structures. What we are seeing is that many companies with local pay models adjust for a new location if an employee moves, unless they ask the employee to relocate. If it’s the employee’s decision, they recalculate their compensation to be in line with the local market.bethanye McKinney Blount, founder and CEO, Compaas*

The main practical advantage of a global salary model is that it’s very simple to calculate. It’s also more likely to feel fair to employees: two-thirds of people who are in fact paid market rates still believe they’re underpaid. Making the market rate very clear can help employees who are paid market rates believe themselves to be fairly compensated. It also alleviates the issue that someone could be paid more or less than their peer for the same role. Most employees believe they deserve to be paid the same amount for the same level of work, regardless of where they live. While some people in areas with much lower salary options may still be happy to get paid better relative to other local employees, this may change over time as more local talent gets hired by remote companies.

We’ve had many employees over the years who’ve moved around. I can’t imagine telling someone they’re getting a pay cut because they moved.David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder and CTO, Basecamp*

Paying global salaries can also attract top talent who are specifically experienced in remote work, and who consider their labor market to be global. When hiring these candidates, companies are competing with other remote companies, and not with the candidate’s other local options.

Further, the higher expense for the company of paying global salaries rather than local ones sends a credible signal that remote workers are equally valued by the company, and incentivizes managers to support them and treat them as a full part of the team. This can help remote workers be more successful.

Establish Your Compensation Philosophy

importantMany compensation considerations are seemingly practical. But compensation is not just a set of practical choices; it’s ambiguous, emotional, and symbolic. People will interpret their value at work based on how much you pay them and on how the company evaluates that pay in comparison to others. It’s not wise to choose a framework based only on what is most practical or what is cheaper. It’s critical for your compensation policies to be aligned with your company’s philosophy and values, and hold up to principled inquiry. That is what will gain you the loyalty and trust of your staff, who after all just want to be paid fairly for their work.

controversyWhat fair pay means in the context of remote work is unclear, and experts disagree.

Juan Pablo Buriticá argues that remote and office jobs come with different expectations and challenges, and that this should be a consideration when it comes to pay:

You’re reading a preview of an online book. Buy it now for lifetime access to expert knowledge, including future updates.
If you found this post worthwhile, please share!