Rules for the road ahead

The world is changing quickly, and it is really hard to forge a surefire path. There are, however, some guidelines that are worth following — especially with regard to what not to do

by Howard Tullman

Future of work 18 August 2022

Before 1995, when the World Wide Web first became broadly public, there was an inextricable connection between a company’s identity, its brand, and its physical presence/location—be that an office, a building, a factory, or a store. Much like a business’ brand was the shorthand promise of certain long-understood values, commitments, and guarantees, where a company housed its employees had a great deal to do with what kind of entity it believed it was and what it stood for, both in terms of space and place.

Shared space and pride of place were crucial parts of how any business presented itself to the world, to its clients and customers, and especially to its own employees. And although we always knew that many of our workplaces were lovelier in theory than in practice, we never realized there was a viable alternative. Today, largely as a product of the internet’s immense and rapid growth and its ubiquitous presence in our lives — and, more immediately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic — we now know that we can work effectively from virtually anywhere and that, in the new (and still unsettled) “normal”, digitally distributed businesses know no physical bounds.

What this means for the office, for corporate identity and culture, and for the future of work are vast unknowns. In addition, we have no idea about the long-term impact of massive decentralization on effective collaboration, generational knowledge transfer, and the necessity for consistent, ongoing innovation, which we’ve always believed were largely a product of proximity, serendipity, and fortuitous collisions of people and ideas. And finally, we need to ask, if corporations and companies served in the past to assure and anchor control, continuity, and stability, what will be their ongoing role in a “world of one” where we’re all increasingly working for ourselves and/or in fluid and flexible teams at a time when the rate of change is the slowest it will be for the rest of our lives and nothing seems to last for more than a moment?

Given that there are no certain or absolute answers to these new issues and concerns and that every business for the foreseeable future will be a work in progress, the most important guidance I can offer at the moment is a specific series of simple prohibitions. Make no mistake, however: “simple” should not be confused in this case with “easy,” and this process of restoring and refreshing, renewing and reimagining — and, where appropriate, rebuilding — certainly won’t be without its own difficulties and problems. With that fair warning in mind, here are four things to keep firmly in mind.

What the future of work means for the office, for corporate identity and culture, and for the future of work is a vast unknown.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

When getting back to business and adapting to the new world in the frenzied rush, it might be easy for conscientious managers to over-correct and abandon essential parts of their business for no good reason except change for change’s sake. Be careful to keep what has always worked well for you and build the path forward on that firm foundation.

Don’t try to get to heaven in one night

Everyone’s in a hurry today, and there’s no question that speed is crucial—as long as it’s properly employed. Nothing good these days happens instantly, and no amount of speed will help you if you’re on the wrong road. Take the necessary time to aim carefully before you fire and make haste slowly. Remember that almost everyone is similarly situated with many of the same concerns, constraints, and limitations that you are facing. Trying to cross the chasm in a single bound ultimately helps no one.

Don’t try to be all things to all people

The accumulated demands of your customers, partners, vendors, regulators, and employees will far exceed your ability even over some reasonable period of time to meet them all. Triage combined with honesty is critical. Prioritize what absolutely needs to be done now for the long-term good of your business; explain to those disappointed what can be done in the future and, realistically, when; and, if necessary, fire those customers and others who won’t take even a momentary “no” for an answer. In these cases, a friendly refusal is better than an unwilling and unachievable promise.

Do a few things very well

Spreading yourself too thin — being a mile wide and an inch deep — is a formula for inevitable failure and unhappiness. In a time of scarcity and limits, it’s more important than ever to focus. Decide at the outset what the core offerings of your firm will be, and then determine what people and other resources will be required to deliver those key items on the money, on time, and in a fashion that makes you and your people proud. And finally, remember that how you get there (the process) is just as important as where you end up (the end products) — especially because there’s no finish line. Make the journey objective and transparent, extensive and inclusive, focused on concrete outcomes and results — actions, not oratory.