Everything’s changed (and we’re not going back)
For the last couple of weeks, companies of all shapes and sizes have convened emergency leadership meetings in search of answers to different versions of the same wrong question: How do we survive this?
A fair question, but it assumes once COVID-19 is under control and “normalcy” returns, the way we always managed business will return with it. It won’t. Our workforce has been preparing for this moment over the last decade and, in Part 1 of this article, I will explain why I don’t think they will be willing to unlearn what is being forced upon them right now.
At Proxxy we work with some of the best small-to-medium sized business (SMB) leaders in the country and we see them asking the right question: How can we use this moment to rebuild for the new normal?
You see, we don’t face a challenge of workforce adaptation. This is an incredible opportunity for leadership transformation. A new generation of leaders will come out of this and we refer to them as Challenger Executives. Before we get into the ways they will capitalize on this moment, it’s important to understand why your suddenly-remote workforce has actually been a decade in the making…
TECHNOLOGY – Same Shift, Different Computing Decade
As a global community, we are living through an unprecedented challenge, but the shift we see in the computing landscape is right on schedule.
I remember reading Mary Meeker’s Annual Internet Trends Report in 2007 when she talked about major computing shifts occurring about every ten years. It stuck with me, because at that time I was watching it first-hand in mobile computing. We had claimed every year was the “Year of Mobile” since 2000 and couldn’t figure out why others didn’t see it. Then in 2007 we realized it was a slow boil and we were in the middle of the “Decade of Mobile!” It changed everything by liberating us from our desktops.
Since the mobile computing cycle, Ms. Meeker hasn’t made a definitive claim about the next one, but if we blur our eyes, I think we can see the pot is boiling again.
- In 2013 she pointed out “Wearables/Driveables/Flyables/Scannables” were coming on stronger than anticipated. In other words, sensor driven technologies are capturing data in the background and pushing it to us or serving us with it.
- Meeker has repeatedly recognized how Software as a Service (SaaS) and Cloud computing are altering how we buy our software and store our work ever since their explosion around 2014-2015. Their impact on the workforce was underscored in the 2019 SaaS Trends Report from Blissfully. It states SaaS is decentralized across most organizations and “there is no single stakeholder that ‘owns’ IT management anymore. Anyone—even those with little to no technical background—can choose, purchase, and implement apps.”
- In 2018 she said “Human Computer Interfaces,” like voice-driven computing, were the thing to watch. Making our environments more digital and on demand.
- Access has been playing catch up to our devices ever since the iPhone came out so imagine trying to institute a work from home (WFH) program just ten years ago. We’d be complaining about dropped calls, but today we’re barely hearing about challenges with connectivity with a whole family working and attending school from home at the same time! High speed wifi adoption really only began in 2010, but now it’s commonplace. Post pandemic, it won’t even be a discussion topic with WIFI6 and mobile 5G.
I would argue for the last decade we’ve been in the middle of a Human Environment Computing Cycle. A collection of personalized technologies operating around us in the background are making the modern worker infinitely more efficient and effective than ever before.
SOCIAL – The Remote Mindset
This computing decade has been wrapping technology around our individual lives – on our wrists, in our homes, in our cars, etc. Now lets take a look at the social and business trends coalescing to create a remote mindset and prepare our workforce for this moment (we just didn’t know it)…
- Video Chat & Messaging – Sure, social posting got us glued to our digital devices but they were all just an interface for people to connect. First by text, then by images, then came video, and it finally culminated in live video chat. Tools like Skype, Facetime, Facebook Messenger and other social platforms connected us in a way that was truly effective for interpersonal communications.
- Higher Education – I teach at SMU and think a lot about how education is evolving. As an example, I started Proxxy because I’m a firm believer in apprentice-based learning. Online classes and distance learning have become so commonplace that in 2017 more than a third of college students had a distance education course as a part of their degree. I, like others, thought that would only work for certain types of degrees. Today I have peers teaching classes like Interpretive Dance or Music Composition 100% online and I’m inspired. We don’t know what the long-term impact will be, but we do know there’s a workforce in market that’s learned remotely and is familiar with the experience.
- Online Collaboration – Generations X, Y and Z have been working together digitally toward common goals ever since gaming went online in the 1990’s. The gaming industry learned how to make the interface and circumstances relevant and has spent the last decade making them more social. Is it any surprise a gaming company would come up with a better way for teams to communicate? Today more than 1.25MM people use Slack to collaborate and it’s the fastest growing startup ever. It’s almost like there was a latent user base just waiting for them to launch, isn’t it?
- Work Environment – This is the most literal shift our workforce has been through in preparation for today’s situation. It may have started with gig-workers, but now nearly everyone has worked from home. If home wasn’t an option, then you did the obligatory time at a coffee shop, co-working space, library, etc. Like water, we have figured out the path of least resistance to get to the internet. Large corporations recognized the benefits of giving their staff options and instituted WFH programs, but some SMB leadership still struggle with the concept. In a 2018 Vodafone survey, 79% of SMB employees were in favor of flexible, remote work options, but that sentiment was shared by only 9% of SMB business owners. Now they’re being forced into it while their staff is getting what they’d hoped for.
- On Demand Jobs – All of these social considerations and technologies contribute to the constantly growing on-demand gig economy. While being unemployed or underemployed are major reasons for people entering into on demand, there are many who value the flexibility and chance to learn new skills. Either way, it’s a workforce taking more control of their careers. That’s why an Intuit study in 2017 forecasted the 3.9 million Americans working in on-demand at that time to surge to 9.2 million in 2021. That was done without the benefit of a crystal ball or the awareness of a global pandemic. We can only imagine how 2021 will really look, but we can assume that number won’t go down.
The Stage Is Set – You’re Welcome
Hopefully, you see the same thing I, and the other Challenger Executives reading this see. Human Environment Computing and societal changes have been setting up “remote” as the future of work for more than a decade. The surreal situation we find ourselves traversing at this moment has simply pulled the future forward.
So, Executive, you can take this moment to thank the Amazons, Apples, Samsungs, Nikes, Fitbits, Microsofts, Googles and other tech leaders of the world for providing your future staff with the tools. You can also thank your staff for buying the technology and training themselves on their own dime. You can probably hear your workforce collectively saying, “You’re welcome,” right?
They probably aren’t going to let you off that easily. As you read this, tons of SMB employees are experiencing remote work for the first time…and loving it! Sure, we will return to offices in the post-pandemic world, but your workforce will not be prepared to turn over the freedom and flexibility they experienced. If leaders don’t allow remote working to become a central part of their business, I believe the dissension will be palatable.
Tomorrow’s Challenger Executives are already planning on this shift.
Stay Home & Stay Tuned
- If you have a question or thought, please leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer each one. Or just give the article a thumbs up, they are always appreciated!
- Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this article next week where we will explore how Challenger Executives will capitalize on this moment. If you want to make sure you see it you can sign up here and I’ll email it to you.
- Do you know an executive that’s challenging the status quo, embracing the change that’s been thrown at us, and doing great things with their organization? Let me know about them ([email protected]). We are always looking for inspirational leaders and gathering best practices.