Don’t kill your competitive difference: Why businesses shouldn’t make remote work permanent

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Consulting firms offer clever models to explain how business works. We prefer to view commerce through a different lens.

In short, you understand work better when you realise it’s all a chimp colony.

And there’s a big, chimpy risk factor looming up, driven by remote work. But more on that shortly.

Chimp or CEO?

Businesses and chimp colonies share a lot of activities. Stealing territory from other groups. Defending your own turf. Resolving lines of responsibility. Succession planning.

Getting it done takes all sorts of chimp group antics.

Dominance displays. Absurd posturing. Lobbying. Secret alliances. Younger ones manoeuvering in ways they think are invisible.

Some will do any repulsive thing just to get people to look at them.

Let’s play the ‘chimp or internal CEO candidate’ game.

Males form coalitions, so they can dominate a third individual that they could not by themselves.

Coalitions can also give an individual male the confidence to challenge a dominant male.

Alliances can be very fickle, and one member may turn on another if it benefits him.

OK, it’s chimp.

But it’s a familiar story. The new CEO ascends. Over the next few months vanquished rivals leave ‘to pursue other business interests’.

Like the horrific story of Foudouko, ex-CEO of his chimp community, who was stoned to death and cannibalised.

Conveniently all problems are the fault of the ones departing.

Grass in the ear and sockless suits

Chimps love to copy. Not just essential life skills.

In one study group a female chimp, Julie, randomly stuck a long piece of grass in her ear each day. Before long the others started doing it. The tradition outlived Julie. Those chimps watch and take note.

Businesses: same.

Remember that first time a young male wore a suit with no socks and everyone was aghast? And then it was everywhere.

But business is about more than socks.

And this leads us to a looming problem.

Should you make remote work permanent?

Right now, managers are thinking: ‘Our people seem to be getting a good amount of work done at home. Maybe this remote deal will become permanent, and that will save us acres of expensive office space.’

Cut to CFO with a sly smile, running a quick bonus calculation based on rent savings. Like many cost cuts, it creates risks and lost benefits after that CFO has left.

Right now you’re justifiably focused on the urgent issues of COVID-19: ‘Can I keep all my staff? Will I have enough cash to make it to Christmas?’

But there are other risks if you make it to 2021.

If you keep everyone doing all remote work, in a couple of years you’ll have an ominous skills and culture black hole.

Your younger people will do their best. But they only have their family, housemates and the UberEats guy to learn from.

Lessons happen off-screen

If you’re older and experienced, remote working is fine. You’re comfortable with the work territory. You have contacts if you need advice or support. Contacts you made back in the physical world.

When you’re starting out, the value of experienced people around you all day is huge.

They answer minor questions. They take you aside and suggest how you might handle that situation better next time.

But even if they say nothing, watching and listening is everything.

Yes, there’s Zoom. But it’s how people behave when they’re not on show that brings the deep-down lessons.

You learn by how people deal with chaos. How they treat other people all day. How they act in meetings when they’re not talking. How they handle disagreement.

Someone being a dick by ignoring everyone all day after an argument doesn’t show up on Zoom. One more essential conflict-resolution lesson that never happens.

Don’t kill your competitive difference

Your business isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it.

When you have a thousand competitors doing the same thing, it’s your competitive difference. You don’t learn those subtleties from a gallery of heads on your laptop.

After a few years, you’ll be exactly the same as the others. The only way to compete will be, yep, lower your prices.

As I’ve written before, you can tell the quality of a company by how it talks when management isn’t watching. This is pure herd behaviour and it’s hard to quantify as it happens.

But damn when it’s working it shows up on your P&L as increased margins long-term.

What do you do? I don’t have a genius answer right now and I’m not saying go to work if you’re in a virus-y place. It’s something to think about for next year though.

I’ve heard of mentors in service industries leaving the Zoom on all day a couple of days a week, so their junior can soak up the vibe.

I’d welcome any other ideas or experiences you have.

Remote work makes you a cost-cut target

Something else to consider if you work for a big company. Getting the whole job done from home is a reminder that they could replace you with someone else in a lower-paid country.

You know they’d do it in a heartbeat. It won’t happen this year, but give it two years and a consulting firm report, and suddenly, you’re an ‘unsustainable cost’.

Start thinking about how you can re-establish a physical presence somewhere in the business.

Those management monkeys seem pretty benign right now. Like the nice banana-eating chimps from childhood TV and cereal boxes.

Now watch them hunting with serial-killer precision to catch and snack upon smaller, cuter monkeys.

It cannot be unseen. Be careful out there.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics.

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