Reinventing Business Strategy in a World of Permanent Distributed Operations

When so many of us switched to WFH and remote operations last year, it was mainly a reactionary and tactical response. Organizations spent their time and energy on solidifying infrastructure and establishing processes — it’s only now, in 2021, as the dust settles, that we can consider its implications for the long term.

What we see today as we move towards recovery, few politicians (for whatever reason) decide not to enforce substantial restrictions, and the virus will continue to spread in that society. Moreover, it will increase the duration of economic instability. People will soon get used to health checks, masks, and rearranged workplaces. Of course, it won’t be the same as before, but it will feel normal quite soon. Still, specific industries will take a long time to recover.

And these implications are immense. By the middle of 2020, nearly three-quarters of CFOs had already decided on adopting remote work as a permanent part of their operational strategy. And this is now in execution. Moreover, the list of companies opening up to the possibility of long-term remote work (and in association, permanent distributed operations) is endless. From financial service providers like American Express, Nationwide Insurance, and Lincoln Financial Group to product companies like Spotify, Slack, Salesforce, and HubSpot, and even multinational giants like Siemens, Amazon, and Microsoft: companies are ready to embrace indefinite remote work at least partially for a portion of their staff.

What does this mean for your operational strategy and business model?

Most businesses rely on in-person presence in terms of operational performance and culture more than we understand. In the previous few quarters, companies haven’t just moved to a new way of doing the old thing — they are doing entirely new things altogether, with a few crucial changes that transform the very bedrock of your organization.

Understanding the Deeper Impacts of Remote Work Beyond Infrastructure and Policy

It changes who you hire — The major asset for operational execution, i.e., your people, is influenced by the remote vs in-person debate. Without the need for in-person hiring, onboarding, or daily attendance, you could technically hire talent from any part of the world. Thus, it has implications for regulatory compliance, talent pool selection, and workplace diversity.

It entirely levels the playing field for minority groups — Speaking of diversity, a permanent state of WFH opens up myriad opportunities to professionals from disadvantaged or challenging backgrounds. For example, new mothers will find it easier to return to work. Those with dependents do not have to sacrifice their dream job due to difficulties in relocation. Differently-abled employees do not have to go through a daily commute. And minority groups that have traditionally faced microaggressions in the workplace can now work from a safe environment.

In fact, in the US, Black knowledge workers favour flexible working policies much more than their Caucasian counterparts, which isn’t surprising because 60% of the Black labour force currently is located in the US South, compared to just 33% of private-sector jobs.

It necessitates new performance measures — The old ways of measuring performance, through the number of hours, daily presence, deadline adherence, and professional networking, no longer apply. Instead, in the new normal, the focus is squarely on outcomes and outcomes alone.

Imagine an employee who spends more than their daily quota of hours in the office and submits an error-free assignment by the end-of-day. Now consider a WFH employee who takes more than the allotted number of hours, logs in during after-hours slots, and submits the project with an entirely new take that adds further value. As a result, organizations will need new indices to quantify and recognize performance, factoring in individual nuances.

Operational costs will go into a tailspin — With reduced dependence on on-premise facilities, space, and utilities, organizations will be able to save on their bottom line. But, at the same time, WFH will make it necessary to revisit compensation plans, benefits packages, travel costs, etc., which might add to your Opex.

It poses an opportunity for carbon footprint reduction — A permanent state of partial or complete remote work can positively impact an organization’s carbon footprint by freeing up real estate, reducing non-green commutes, and dependence on paper. While cloud/SaaS adoption and digital transformation have their emission metrics, this is an opportunity for companies to move towards carbon neutrality or even carbon-negative operations.

It rewires the nature of customer relationships — Digital interactions are now a staple for customer success and will continue to be so even after the pandemic. Digital allows for heightened responsiveness, greater transparency, and closer collaboration between CS teams and the client’s SPOC. The new engagements rules and methods developed cannot be recreated in-person alone.

Adopting a Task-based Business Model for Remote-Work Readiness

Given these remarkable and ground-breaking changes, it is advisable to rethink business strategy and create a new and refreshed operational paradigm. Therefore, it would be essential to evaluate the as-is situation, define how your peers/leaders in your segment are doing, prepare for future contingencies with military-grade efficiency, and breaking down this emerging landscape into explicit, tactical models:

A sustained focus on employee wellbeing: More than ever, now, looking after one’s employees, understanding their personal and professional requirements, and emphasizing work-life balance will be mission-critical. By offering your workforce a stable, considerate, compassionate, and sensitive work environment, you can continue to push productivity while revitalizing wellbeing.

A task-based approach to remote work readiness: It is a common misconception that there are specific occupations unsuited to remote work, making it impossible for organizations to gain from or adapt to distributed operations. In reality, remote-work readiness needs are assessed through specific tasks, where knowledge work, communication, creative thinking, information analysis, and digital interactions can entirely go remote. Other functions like the handling of objects or caring for people have less isolated readiness.

An evolving blueprint for the road ahead: Regardless of your area of business or specific expertise, the future is now a vastly changed space. It means that contingency plans will require process redeveloped. Hybrid work must be the way forward (in some cases like Deloitte UK, remote work might become the acceptable form of employment indefinitely), business models, terms of engagement, and ways of communication will require restructuring.

Over 100 years ago, the events of the late 1800s and the early 1900s had birthed a modern era of enlightened business methodologies and incredible tools for productivity. I am confident that this period will refashion how we work, connect, and create new vistas for organizational excellence, technological innovation, and interpersonal collaboration. First, however, businesses must keep in mind accepting this era of “now normal” and gradually reinvent their more effective business strategies and enterprise mission statements.

I would be interested to know your thoughts on this emerging state of affairs. You can email me at Arvind@am-pmassociates.com to continue the conversation.

Board Advisor, Growth Enabler, Strategy & Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor