You can’t scroll past five posts, turn on the T.V. or read an article today without hearing about the new normal to come. But what the hell does that even mean? That phrase covers a myriad of things from social interactions to business processes. Are we talking about becoming a modern day version of the Morlocks and only emerging from our homes to attack anyone who dares go out in public? Or, are we referring to how we do business? Do we still have meetings, client visits or even offices. For this article I’ll save my thoughts on the other areas and focus on the business aspect.
Whereas, the meaning of new normal varies, one thing that is the same for everyone at this time is the necessity for businesses able to operate, to have implemented in whole or in part, some form of remote operations. Over the past couple of weeks I have had, as you can imagine, many discussions with business leaders regarding their thoughts and feelings on where we are at today, how their businesses are managing and what they feel their vision will be for tomorrow. Those discussions extended to some colleagues in the IT and Security space to get a feel for what they have been seeing as well and a couple of them were kind enough to let me quote them for this article.
Most of the businesses I work with and/or have connectivity to are essential businesses so they remain open but mandated to 100% remote operations. They range from large organizations as well as much smaller companies, but each has been faced with similar obstacles in this environment despite their respective size. How to transition an entire workforce to working from home virtually overnight? The positive for everyone is that in today’s age of technology almost every business had the ability to accommodate remote operations at some level. According to Keith Shaffer, Partner and Senior Managing Engineer at Faridinkum Consulting, a New York City, IT Services Firm “Many companies used remote access for working from home and only being ready for say 20% of their user base working remotely.” For those companies, the issue becomes the increase in consumption of resources to accommodate for the pandemic and ensuring tightened security. “We have seen a number of companies button up their remote access and now want to see more security around that remote access.” Keith says.
Based on the discussions I had with the businesses out there this was absolutely the case. When the word came out here in New York that there had to be 75% reduction in workforce, I happened to be onsite at a client’s office. This company’s model was traditional brick and mortar and everyone reported to the office daily. In line with the above this company had limited capability for remote operations because management had it set up for their use. The first call was to their IT support to get all their users set up. They evaluated their roles and responsibilities, structured a plan and within 2 hours from the announcement had a plan in place for their employees to work remotely which they have been doing successfully since. This is a similar story for virtually every other business where it was possible to do so. These companies now for the past 5 weeks have continued uninterrupted business operations. Barring the reduction in workloads and subsequent potential workforce reductions, one thing has become apparent. Remote operations are possible. This in-turn for leaders and business owners leads to the next logical question. If we are able to work remotely now for 5 weeks, does that mean this could be our “new normal”?
It is a legitimate question for any business and one that I know for a fact is being heavily considered today. Realistically, businesses which are not customer facing currently are supporting offices from 10,000 to 40,000 square feet and more!! Physical offices and related infrastructure support cost companies hundreds to millions of dollars annually to sustain their brick and mortar operations. What the last month of forced remote operations has shined a light on is the fact that in today’s world of video conferencing and VOIP phone systems, it may no longer be the “necessity” it once was. Many companies have been stuck in their 1980’s operational structures for one reason or another. Be it lack of vision, fear or just out of tradition “this is how we always did it” is one of my favorite responses for resisting growth/change.
Of the types of companies that I’ve followed transition, personally I wondered how companies such as law firms who from my understanding (based on my dedicated viewing of LA Law and Boston Legal) were the epitome of that environment. You know, the one where you walked to the office next to you to confer with another attorney on a case, meet in the board room to brainstorm on strategy or have a glass of bourbon on the balcony afterwards to discuss your victory (okay maybe too much Boston Legal).
When I think of that environment, I thought of Jones Jones, LLC a 100 year old top defense firm based out of New York City. However, when I connected with their Managing Partner, Sara Thomas regarding how they were navigating the transition I was pleasantly surprised to hear that my vision although entertaining couldn’t be further from the truth! According to Sarah: “Navigating the transition has been at times challenging and at other times a pure joy. I am so lucky that [the] law firm is extremely tech savvy and already had many systems in place to support a fully remote operation. I love going into the office everyday and connecting with our team, so that was my challenge. But I have leaned heavily on hopping on Zoom conference calls to stay and feel connected to everyone. We now hope on a Zoom conference call where in the past we may have just sent an email. It is great to see a face and to feel that camaraderie and teamwork!”
So of course, I still have the picture of William Shatner, James Spader and Candice Bergen running from office to office so I asked Sarah about what they do in the absence of physical presence and not being able to walk to the next desk or office and if she felt that their ability to communicate had been impacted? According to Mrs. Thomas, “ I do a Monday morning round robin (what is everyone working on, who needs support on what) and that has been something I added since we’ve all been at home. It’s fun and keeps everyone in touch and together. In some ways, I think this situation has greatly improved my own communication skills and ability to deeply and really connect with my team. Rather than just doing the drive by, her let me stop in your office to chit chat, we now have very pointed and impactful meetings remotely…”
Aside from my television fantasy being disassembled, the reality is what Sarah Thomas and her teams at Jones Jones are doing is, in my opinion, what we are really discussing when we talk about the new normal in business operations. In the time since this began, she has recognized improvements in her communications and despite being physically farther apart, feels closer and more connected to her teams because of increased communications. Whether they decide to sustain this model or not, the reality is the lessons learned from it will be.
This is something I have witnessed first hand on smaller scale with regional claims administration firm that also transitioned to operating remotely. Adjusters and supervisors took phones home with them and are able to contact their colleagues just as easily as if they were 10 feet away from them. Open communications and availability of supervisors is the same, if not more than it was available to them before and they operate in very much the same way the did previously. Again, due to the fact they had transitioned to paperless operations years prior, there was very little necessity to physically be onsite.
These facts are what is making executive leadership and owners look at the potential of making a permanent transition to remote operations a reality. Many companies have or are planning on placing expansion projects on hold. They are evaluating and looking to redirect those resources towards implementing a plan to reduce their physical space and tighten up their end-to-end security risks. Jones Jones has had their eye on remote operations prior to the pandemic because they have attorneys representing their wide client base spread across multiple states and part of their success formula as stated by Mrs. Thomas: “Our goal and task has always been how to make every single team member feel part of the Jones Jones LLC family despite physical distance.”
So what does that mean for companies out there today. The primary thing is when considering making a seismic shift of this nature, you must realize, you can’t just flip a switch overnight and it is so. The actions of an emergent situations should not be mistakenly be interpreted as efficient or sustainable as a long term solution. A transition such as this needs a well thought out and executed plan designed to support a long term vision of success. The benefits of this can be impactful in every aspect of your business when executed appropriately. Conversely, it can be critically detrimental when not. In my follow up article I’ll address some of the important aspects of such a transition and considerations.
For now, let’s touch base on two of the most important issues that needs to addressed when considering such a transition, the first is security. When I asked Keith Schaffer what his company says to leaders looking at this potential transition, his response was “Security. Security. Security. I cannot say that enough. Leaders have to be concerned with out of date operating systems (home machines) connection to the office which can have many vulnerabilities that now can infect the file systems of the business. It is not enough to allow workers to connect to a company resources from home, you have to consider the exposure of company documents, phishing training, secure remote connections with 2FA, and even providing business machines that have been set up by your [company’s] IT administrators”
From an operational perspective, I asked Sarah what she felt was the most important factors to consider and her response was is what I too believe to be the other of the two factors in her words: “Communication. Communication. Communication. When going full remote, there is no such thing as too much communication. And to piggyback off of that documentation of that communication. A lot of things come across all of our desks on a daily basis, learning to focus on the important takeaways and then ensure that there is follow up and execution on tasks is paramount.”
As someone who has managed remote teams since 2009 domestically and internationally, I could not agree more with that statement. As an Executive who has worked remotely part time at first and now full time, I’ll be the first to say it is initially, not the easiest transition. Having had the benefit to ease into it in my case was a key to my success. Unfortunately, most today have been cast into that environment like it or not. However, if you are a leader planning on transitioning to that format for the long term, then my suggestion would be to construct a DETAILED plan for execution. Do not rely on the processes you have implemented in an emergent situation to carry your operations for the long haul. It is more than having access to your system security, it is policies, cultural issues, human resources, management training and adjustments, communications methodologies and standards and much, more.
Regardless of what your opinion is on what business operations should be after this situation, the reality is we have been thrust into tomorrow. There are many benefits to being there if you capitalize appropriately on the opportunities presented before you. Now is the time to review new technology options (enhancements vs conversions), make improvements take a deep look at your resources and resource allocation.
In the end, you have a choice as leaders, owners and operators in this current environment. You can ride the wave and hope you end up favorable or complain about where you land or initiate action and by doing so you don’t have to ask what the “new normal” is, because you’ll have been a part of establishing it.