No Geographic Bounds to Talent

Photo of a rough-hewn desk with an open laptop on it on a beach with the ocean in front of it.

We have a new neighbor on our street who moved into her home in April, at the height of the shutdown across the entire nation. She is a graphic designer for a magazine in the Washington D.C. area and in mid-March her entire team began working remotely. She looked around at her tiny, expensive apartment with a view of an alley and remembered her roots back in Minnesota, where her dollars would go farther and her view greatly improved. She found a house in a friendly neighborhood and is renting an adorable story and a half with a porch the width of the house. I’ll wave to her from the sidewalk as she sits on her porch, coffee at her side and laptop in front of her, working away on whatever project is next on her list.

The current pandemic has changed the way the world works, possibly forever.

With a Covid vaccine on the horizon and businesses talking about plans to return to the office, an honest assessment of why work offices exist is needed.

Is it to collaborate? With tools like Trello, Basecamp, Wrike and others it’s easy to manage projects virtually.

Is it to have work meetings? Welcome to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or one of many other video conferencing tools that allows people to meet from virtually anywhere. It takes effort to have side conversations in virtual meetings, be it through a chat function or on a separate device, so meetings are shorter and more effective.

Are people working in offices to share data or projects? Welcome to the cloud where documents, projects, spreadsheets and data are all stored for anyone in the organization to access. All you need is an internet connection and a login to access any of the documents you need.

Clearly one reason for in-person work environments is the benefit of getting to know your co-workers on a personal basis, in having casual conversations at the coffee machine and creating the comradery and teamwork many employees find fulfilling in their work environment. And yet, there are always team members who would rather get their work done and go back to their homes and families, valuing time spent outside of work with loved ones above connecting with their co-workers.

This doesn’t make them a less valuable employee, but it makes a work office a less valuable asset.

Ask the person who spends 2 hours every morning commuting to their office if the benefit of connecting with co-workers face-to-face was worth being on a train for 4 hours.

Companies in some fields have embraced remote work environments for years, while others believe that their work is best done in a formal office environment with cubes and offices filled with people. Companies that do not embrace remote employees will lose talented people to companies that embrace remote workers.

Working remotely during a pandemic has its challenges, especially for those with children at home for whom child care is closed, schools are also in distance-learning mode, or other aspects of their lives have been temporarily suspended due to the safety measures that are needed to contain the spread of the virus. But imagine the world after the pandemic, when schools can safely re-open, child care centers are operating again, and gatherings with family and friends fill our lives with the social connections human beings need.

Wouldn’t this improve workers’ work-life harmony and overall happiness? Doesn’t that make for better employees and human beings?

Business is Business, but People are People

Recently I had the opportunity to catch up with a former co-worker and good friend, LeAnn. She and I met 25 years ago when she became the fourth person hired at the then-fledging ParadyszMatera office in Minneapolis.

We reminisced on some fun times — brainstorming sessions while standing around in a large open space between our offices, using golf putters to hit a beach ball from person to person as we talked through client challenges. That beach ball became our mascot for a while, finally dying on the end of a well-executed drive from the putter.

We also told stories on our fearless leader, Mike Cousineau. He founded the Minneapolis office and is a strategic, smart, quirky guy. We talked about how we all had to take turns making the coffee in the morning and according to Mike, no one made it strong enough for him. When it was finally strong enough for him, none of the rest of us could drink it. Finally he started buying his coffee from Dunn Bros. and bringing it in every morning and the rest of us made the coffee the strength we could tolerate.

He then developed the habit of leaving those Dunn Bros. coffee cups around his office, to the point that his desk and table were littered with dozens of slowly disintegrating paper cups in various stages of growing mold. With no cleaning staff and no one else willing to touch his office, he would finally go through it once a month and dump them all in the garbage. He called it his “great experiment.” We joked about the strains of mold that he may have accidentally created in his “experiement.”

Mike was passionate about business — hungry to grow, focused on the bottom line, always the first one in the office. But he also understood that people were people. There was no one more compassionate and caring than Mike. In typical Mike manner, he found ways to ensure that his people grew as professionals and human beings.

I recall struggling one time with a project he had assigned to give me. I wrestled with it for a while in silence at my desk, not understanding exactly what it was I was supposed to be producing or where to start. He could sense my frustration and stopped by to see how it was coming. I told him it wasn’t, I was terribly confused and struggling. He then told me something that followed me for the rest of my career.

“Jenny, you are the smartest person I know. If you can’t figure it out, then you don’t have all the information and need to ask more questions.”

As I retold this story, my co-worker and I both laughed about the fact that he told everyone they were the “smartest person he knew.” He was diligent about surrounding himself with people who had different skills than he, different strengths than his to build a comprehensive team that — together — could do more than any one individual could accomplish. Perhaps to him they were all the “smartest people he knew,” just in areas different from where he was steeped in knowledge.

From that day on, I never doubted myself when a situation was unclear.

I would go farther in life by asking to learn, than pretending to know everything.

This was an incredibly helpful thing to learn as a young adult, and I applied it professionally and personally. I am so grateful to have had Mike in my career, guiding the way.

We worked together happily this crazy group of four, tethered by a long, 254MB modem cable to the main New York office which we interfaced with daily, but seemed unrelated to our culture. About a year later we merged with another company and grew from an office of four to 30. The days of hitting a beach ball around the office were gone, but the teamwork and compassion were not.

LeAnn and I both agreed it was mean to talk about Mike so much without him there to defend himself, so we invited him to the next get-together. It was hilarious as expected and filled with small gems of wisdom packaged as stories. Sometimes business goes beyond business and becomes friendships. What a gift.