As employees embraced the work from home environment, many found themselves having to invest in personal computers and other office necessities to adjust to this ‘Next Normal’. However, prior to the pandemic, most organizations were not familiar with the concept of ‘Bring Your Own Device’. Now, it’s essential for business leaders to understand how an asset-light office operating model can impact their businesses.
In the last column, I burst the ‘Back to the Office’ bubble. Today, I propose that C-Suite decision-makers don’t just tolerate the WFH ‘Next Normal’; I suggest you embrace it.
The ‘Bring Your Own Device’ Concept
30 years ago, I was CTO of a 5,000-person firm. My boss, the Head of Operations, asked me why I was buying a bunch of upgraded PCs for employees. He said, “My son is a carpenter, and he’s expected to bring his own tools to work. Why aren’t programmers and financial analysts expected to do the same?”
It sounded crazy, but it got me thinking back to my first career as an engineer. Part of my job was supervising the machine shop. This was where ‘tool and die makers’ (precision machinists) turned our engineering drawings into functioning machinery. When a machinist came to interview for a job, I learned that they were expected to bring their toolboxes. In the interview, the evaluation covered three main criteria. First, it considered the quality of precision tools and instruments they personally owned. Second, it reviewed the care they took maintaining their tools. Third, they valued the quality of the toolbox itself, as they were expected to have designed and built their machinist toolbox with their own hands!
Although this was the reality for some professions, we went ahead and bought the PCs. 30 years ago, most people didn’t own personal computers. The concept of ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) wasn’t even remotely feasible.
Fast-forward to March 2020: many firms were forced to hurriedly adopt BYOD strategies. Desk phones and desktop PCs sat unused in empty offices. Additionally, many employees switched to personally-owned cell phones, laptops, and networks.
Work From Home Concerns
A note to CEOs/BoD Audit Committees: every CISO (Chief Information Security Officer) and Auditor reading this just shuddered in horror at the thought of abrupt and massive moves to BYOD. Losing control over physical devices raises many security risks. My answers to these concerns, as a CIO and business executive, are:
- We had no choice.
- We know how to mitigate those risks.
- This can be seen as part of a long-term shift in ‘locus of control’ from ‘internal’ to ‘external.’
Forced adoption of ‘Work from Home’ in 2020 presents CFOs and CIOs as well as CHROs with a unique opportunity. They are able to rethink the notion of ‘corporate infrastructure’ that came about as the Industrial Revolution dawn. For example, these notions include owned/leased office space, Leasehold Improvements, FF&E (Furniture, Fixtures, and Equipment), and Data Processing Equipment.
Adoption of Scientific Management
In the late 1800s to early 1900s, firms adopted principles of ‘Scientific Management’ and ‘Industrial Engineering.’ This included ‘economies of scale’ and ‘interchangeable parts.’ For instance, this involved saving money and improving quality by creating standardized processes using standardized tools and buying standardized parts in bulk.
Implementing those principles required the corporation to set standards. In addition, they were able to make massive investments in specialized buildings (primarily factories), giant machines, and bulk orders of highly specified parts. This made sense back then and it has survived to this day.
However, there was a side effect of the widespread adoption of Scientific Management and Industrial Engineering in manufacturing. There was the assumption that employees could best complete ‘office work’ according to the same principles: scale and standardization. As we all know from personal experience, these ideas lead, over the decades, to (dis-)functional silos, cube farms, and the ‘rise of Middle Management.’ But, in the 21st Century, are standardization and efficiency always our goals amid the data revolution? Have we not entered the ‘Era of Mass Customization,’ the ‘Customer Segment of One’?
For many parts of our economy, we assuredly have. Furthermore, the means to those ends is our increasingly flexible technology. This ranges from ‘Additive Manufacturing’ (3-D Printing) to Flexible Manufacturing Systems (robotics) to 3PL/4PL logistics, to outsourcing. Ironically, our larger and more expensive office operations have yet to adopt the vast changes occurring in manufacturing and logistics operations to improve flexibility.
Changing the Norm
IT has changed over the years. The 2020 ‘Next Normal’ (work from home) accelerated these changes. Twenty-five years ago, the norm was building, owning, and operating ‘data centers’ filled with mainframes. These were connected by costly networks of ‘dedicated circuits,’ connecting those data centers to our factories, stores, and offices.
During the early 21st Century, the IT ecosystem evolved towards modular applications. These were hosted by dozens to hundreds of vendors connected to a growing number of specialized devices. Also, they were located anywhere we did business via cheaper, faster internet connections that we shared with others.
We went from buying and operating customized, internally-owned assets to renting pieces of assets that were owned and operated by someone else. Also, we shed IT capital assets and gave up some control in return for a cheaper, more flexible, ‘asset light’ IT operating model.
Why not take advantage of this ongoing and evolving ‘Work From Home’ Next Normal to transition from rigid asset-based office environments to flexible, asset-light office environments? Such environments shift costs from the corporation to the employee, such as acquisition costs (CapEx), ongoing support costs (OpEx), and labor costs.
The Asset-Light Office Operating Model
Over the last 20 months, employees bought better chairs and desks. They re-purposed personally-owned computers as well as phones for part-time business use. They bought dedicated ‘work stuff.’ Additionally, many upgraded their Internet connections, Wi-Fi routers, cellular connections. Some even bought their own espresso machines, snacks, exercise bikes.
Employees spent their own money and in return got more control over their physical environment, like their choice of monitor and mouse and coffee flavor. As long as the technology they picked worked within the explicit or implicit confines of corporate standards, they could have more control. (Note to CIOs: publish explicit standards or live with the resultant chaos).
Why shouldn’t organizations nurture this asset-light office operating model? Why not offer stipends for purchasing computer equipment and FF&E (e.g., desks & chairs)? Organizations can use corporate buying power to obtain discounts from preferred vendors. They can beef up support functions to reduce the hassle of BYOD. So, why not?
Over the next few years, an organization that embraces and supports the expansion of Work-From-Anywhere will realize significant cost reductions in corporate overhead that support the infrastructure. By embracing WFA, a business can see leases roll off and depreciation ends. Yes, the CIO & CISO will not like this extra BYOD burden. But, the future belongs to the nimble!
What’s happening today is unprecedented. This ‘Next Normal’ leaves millions of office workers deciding whether to return to offices daily again, return on occasion, or not return at all. The Acceleration Economy is transforming traditional office work norms. CEOs and Boards should stop their shortsighted — and expensive — embrace of antiquated models. They should seek ways to enable this next wave of asset-light ‘office’ work.