Welcome to the weekly column, Board Room Acceleration. This column will address mostly tech-related issues of interest to C-Suite executives and Board Directors. I’ll also discuss Board & C-Suite issues — such as Governance, Oversight, and Risk — that will resonate with IT readers.
For the last ten years as a Board/C-Suite IT Advisor, I’ve spent lots of time bridging the communication gaps between technology and business. As I reflect on my 30+ years in IT and tech industry, I have probably spent more time communicating than doing any other type of work. In this column, we are going to dive into work-from-home environment transitions.
Here’s my wake-up call to CEOs and BoDs: “I know you’ve been planning for it and talking it up, but most of your office workers who work-from-home today will NOT be coming back to the office!”
I base this prediction on three developments:
- A continued Work-From-Home Evolution driven by the Covid-19 pandemic
- Acceleration of Work-From-Anywhere Technology
- The Great Resignation and Employee Empowerment
The Work-From-Home Evolution
Over the last 90 days, there has been lots of uncertainty to when offices will reopen and workers will return. The ‘Delta’ variant, vaccine efficacy reduction over time, and related factors have caused this uncertainty. Most are NOT returning to offices next week or even next month. Additionally, we’re NOT all going to in-person conferences this fall.
An increasing number of firms have announced ‘indefinite holds’ on return to office plans. Some have bumped their dates to early 2022. In a recent interview, Satya Nadella called companies moving to open too quickly “shortsighted.” That same day, Microsoft pushed back its reopening ‘indefinitely.’ In recent weeks, big companies, such as Uber, Google, Amazon, and Starbucks, have announced return-to-office delays until 2022 or indefinitely.
We’ve already worked from home for 20 months. Early 2022 will make it almost TWO YEARS of this ‘Next Normal.’ How long does it take to ingrain a new habit? Is it 3,000 repetitions? 10,000? How about TWO YEARS of doing something every day? Two years is long enough that employees are on their second lease renewals and have perhaps tired of living their lives in limbo.
Becoming Comfortable with Work-From Home
By now, we’ve all got our video cameras working. We’ve figured out our lighting and sound. So, video conferencing feels comfortable. Our IT departments have also worked through their service ticket backlogs and built secure, scalable remote-work environments. Businesses have removed paper documents from their processes and updated documentation enough so everyone knows their tasks.
With the technology and processes figured out, we’re still in business two years after office workers were sent home. CEOs are fooling themselves by wailing, “productivity and culture and creativity, Oh My!” Based on my limited research and published surveys, many employees already think things have settled down into a comfortable ‘Next Normal.’ By next spring, they might be a bit peeved at being forced to re-learn work and work/life balance all over again!
Work-From-Anywhere Technology Acceleration
This leads to the second significant Work-From-Anywhere enabler: technology. In March 2020, many firms were playing around with Microsoft Teams (or converting from ‘Skype for Business’ aka Lync). Very few professionals had Zoom experience beyond attending a webinar or two.
Of course, every IT department had ‘softphone licenses’ which was often thrown in when they purchased physical phones years back. But, how many softphones were deployed outside IT and the Contact Center? Many firms provided desktop PCs rather than laptops to employees. They would often run older operating system versions and applications installed locally on each PC. We used VPNs for ‘perimeter security.’ Furthermore, we ran antiquated MPLS networks to create a ‘backbone’ site-to-site network. Employees also had to remember multiple passwords.
Think back and compare what you could do remotely in March 2020 to what you do today…it’s very different! Over the last 20 months, Microsoft, Zoom, Slack, and ‘cloud telephony’ vendors invested billions of dollars in their apps and back-end collaboration/communication infrastructure. As revenues have skyrocketed and competition has intensified, the rate of investment in features and performance is increasing. For example, Salesforce bought Slack for $28 billion and Zoom acquired Five9 for $15 billion.
Today, I saw the announcement of a Siri/Apple Carplay interface to Microsoft Teams for a better ‘WFC’ (Work From Car) experience. I’m not sure how I feel about a ‘better work from car experience,’ but ‘anywhere’ really does mean anywhere! Over the last few days, I also saw announcements for a Logitech WFH A/V dock, the ‘Series One Desk 27’ Google meeting device. In addition, I read a statement from Google & Cisco WebEx that their communication and collaboration tools will interoperate. Imagine what these tools will look like six months from now!
Networks are Redefining ‘Work From Anywhere’
Networking has changed. Telcos have dramatically upgraded their networks and offered bigger and faster data plans. For example, my AT&T Family Plan went from 30Gb across five devices to 100Gb per device to unlimited data (without throttling) on each device. Additionally, it went from LTE to 5G (a 2X-5X speed increase). And they even threw in HBO Max…for the same price!
Beyond traditional cellular and wired networks, we see the deployment of Starlink and other truly global high-bandwidth, low-latency services. Soon, we’ll expect terrific networking at reasonable prices ANYWHERE we roam. This is game-changing!
The impact of these investments is a redefinition of “Work From Anywhere.” It no longer means “sort of listen in when you’re at a coffee shop.” It means “participate fully from a conference room, from your cube at work, from your sofa at home, from your car—from literally Anywhere.” What does that do to the premise that “everyone must return to the office to participate fully”? If you have the hardware, software, and network infrastructure to work well from anywhere, why should I drive an hour each way to sit in my cube?
Employees Gain the Upper Hand
Who hasn’t read about or participated in “The Great Resignation,” the talent shortages, and the rise of Gen Z in the workplace? There’s not much I can add to the surveys and the social scientists’ conclusions that the power dynamic has shifted. In summary, employees are ready to say, “The heck with my employer if they’re unreasonable; I can easily find another job.” A big part of that feeling of empowerment is the freedom to live where they want while still finding meaningful, well-paid work.
And there it is, CEOs: Employees have seen the sustained financial results of their hard work. After their work-from-home experience, they have new tools and habits that prove better results. They know employers desperately need them. Given the confluence of Acceleration Economy changes, your office workers are unlikely to come back. It’s time to prepare your Work-From-Anywhere policies proactively!