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  • John Chambers, PhD

Still Remote? Tomorrow, Next Year, Always?

The Future Belongs to those who Prepare for It.

Those words are etched inside the Boston Prudential Center.

In 1952, artist Peter Hurd showcased the quote with his enormous mural at another Prudential building in Houston. The mural was a sight to behold – not foreboding but uplifting and encouraging. It showed pioneers working, harvesting, and feasting on the bounty they had cultivated.

Times change, location strategies change, and in 1970 Prudential Insurance sold the Houston building.

Then in 2010 the buyer, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, decided to implode it.

Prior to the wrecking ball crashing the former Prudential Insurance site, Hurd’s mural actually survived. It was salvaged by a benefactor (a fascinating story in itself) and it found a new home, in New Mexico. The mural still celebrates preparation for the future in New Mexico’s Artesia library.

The original building was gone; but the advice rings on.

For those who are used to commuting to a facility, you’ve “worked remote” for about six months – a new location strategy. Maybe things loosened up. Or maybe in weeks or months you’ll be back in the multi-level or multi-sectioned office, sipping coffee by the lobby kiosk, plugging in your laptop in the conference room, linking your presentation to the display board, adjusting chairs.

Or maybe not.

In late March, teams packed their stuff and created a makeshift office in their homes. Some cubes were now kitchen tables, some offices were dining areas. Or some actual home offices were home offices, with privacy and cool stuff on shelves.

But for how long?

Now the Hard Part

Was the remote connectivity and remote worker scenario an overwhelming implementation effort? Technologically, no.

Remote access is not some cutting edge communications or security challenge (in most cases).

I don’t minimize the stress; I experienced many trying days implementing a migration, as did the team. Moving a workforce to a remote model has its challenges that go beyond laptop selection. There are some daily operations that were entrenched in an on-prem model, either because the future wasn’t imagined, or because the processes required hands-on touch and feel. Yet through thick and thin, most enterprises successfully scrambled and served their customers. Some awkwardly, some efficiently, but now many employees navigate the firm within their own four walls.

Conversely, the “pioneers” of remote work had little stress through the past half-year. Their preparation, long ago, had set them apart, without skipping a beat.

Sending your team home with laptop under arms was easy. Under the new paradigm and an evolving 9 - 5 operating model, we faced, and still face, the real challenge – behavioral, managerial, and psychological:

Are our teams collaborating in the new paradigm?

Are we as productive?

Do we still feel part of a team?

There answer to all the above is yes. Or it most certainly can be.

Change is opportunity, and many companies have adapted to the virtual environment well. Others less so, but they can overcome the challenges with a focus on the best practices of virtual collaboration. And a commitment to a culture of communication and sharing.

And then.... there are also those companies who wait for things to get back to “normal.”

They may be waiting a long time.

Technology Adoption Lifecycle

Another reference to the Cactus State -- the late Everett Rogers. That University of New Mexico Professor published his technology adoption lifecycle in 1962. You probably saw it in Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm, which focused the adoption curve on market opportunity and customers’ willingness to change.

Everett's theory and Moore’s book identified moments of critical mass, where new products migrate from newness (pioneer paradigms) to eventual "leap" of the chasm -- acceptance by the majority. His guidance helped a generation of sales professionals better target their prospects.

Well, it’s not just products and sales. Think also in terms of company and people behaviors.

Say a new capability arrives on the landscape, such as cloud provisioning did nearly a generation ago. There were "innovators," "early adopters," and then as the capability improved, the industry exploded. The “majority” began jumping on the off-prem delivery bandwagon. If you were still on the fence a decade later, you were what’s called a “laggard” in the adoption cycle. I prefer “skeptic” as a better term. “Laggard” sounds too much like “slacker” - something that Back to the Future principal Strickland would taunt.

Now being slow to adopt a new way of life, or a new business model, is not always short-sighted. I appreciate that companies are as individual as… individuals! There can be very objective and scientific rationales for delaying change, such as remote work. However, if no analysis has been executed, which explicitly presents the options to your fellow leadership, then the business vision is made “by the gut.” The asset of experience can be powerful, but if you are building a culture of quantitative risk management and objective plans, the gut is no substitute for the analytical tool box. Snthesizing a strategy shouldn’t take the time it took Hurd to create his famous mural.

Set goalposts and a game clock; move quickly.

Are you preparing? And not to state the obvious, a long-term, remote worker dynamic is not simply about savings on facility lease costs.

Reuse and Reconcile

For companies that haven’t formally framed their long-term strategy (i.e. the past six months was just a 'temporary fix for lockdowns) then there’s opportunity to leverage your prior efforts.

For large-scale enterprises you have business continuity plans. They are (or should have been) organized around your business processes and your end-to-end value chain. It’s not an all or nothing situation. You can institute a progression toward your remote strategy by understanding the dynamics and touchpoints of your company processes.

(Disappointingly I’ve heard some firms, so well known, whose brand is embedded into the marketplace’s psyche, whispering that their business processes are not very well defined. Talk about being a laggard. Don’t be one of them. Everything but everything flows from the understanding of your offerings and how they are made available in your value chain.)

Leverage your business continuity framework and/or your control frameworks. They are right there; and were used when your clients or regulatory bodies audited you. Your continuous improvement efforts also include your artifacts on controls.

Those are outlines to evolving and analyzing your remote strategy. Assessing Remote Worker ROI is a rigorous undertaking, but can still be delivered quickly. Uncertainty and delay (in analysis, let alone implementation) is a greater cost and competitive liability.

When skeptical, think of dipping your toe in the water. You certainly use remote capabilities now in tech support or customer service. In determining whether that was viable, you created a methodology for analysis. Use that approach for considering how much can be remote.

This is about the long-term, and avoidance of future helter-skelter reactions.

Preparing for Cultural Obstacles – Change Management

In the early teens IBM embarked upon a program of remote workers.

In 2017 they started yanking them back. In effect they cancelled it. A failure of technology? No.

While there were unforeseen consequences, it strikes me that none were so inconceivable that they could not have been mitigated. The remote/not remote flip-flop was evidence of an oversight, an omission, lack of thorough strategic thinking, and ill-prepared management. And it also was inefficiency in change management.

At least when the pandemic arrived, IBM was probably better prepared for the mass migration of workers, since it had once operated with many remote employees. So it makes me wonder, when the pandemic subsides (not if, but when), shall IBM reactively pull everyone back again until the next great issue?!

There’s nothing wrong with changing strategies in midstream, after deliberate and quantified considerations. The most competitive enterprises do it; adaptation and change is not a weakness, but a strength. However, if it’s kneejerk and reactionary, that is the opportunity for leadership reflection, serious and thoughtful.

Return to fundamentals and analyze day-in-the-life operational aspects of remote work, as well as the behavioral aspects.

There is something very disconcerting about a pendulum of decision-making.

"It Grows as it Goes"

The past six months were the rallying cry for all executive leaders to reassess their strategies and prepare for the future. Whatever decision you made (or will make), the analysis alone shall reap benefits across the corporation. The result of your remote worker strategy is thorough explication of the company processes – where, when, who, and how much. That effort itself returns confidence and bottom line savings just by socializing and formally illustrating the company’s operation! You will expose gaps and opportunities.

New Mexico has one of the more thought-provoking state mottos: It Grows as it Goes.

Isn’t that the heart and soul of adaptation and innovation?

Stuff happens.

Change is imminent.

You can manage and grow with a culture and a strategy of adaptation, with a constant mindset of preparation.

Generally, thought leaders know the remote workforce will grow as it goes. It’s not a bold prediction. There shall be a point in time when the location of your employees will be a trivial concern. Their location will be transparent and virtual. Always.

Remote work is not isolated to a pandemic or a policy of isolation.

It is not a "pioneering" concept anymore.

It is not an "innovator’s" position anymore.

We are entering the “early majority” stage of the Technology Adoption Lifecycle.

Are you standing pat, or leaping the chasm?


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