The Platform


“Any fool can handle the ship in calm seas,” is a quote I have used in the past to describe CEOs who are put into leadership positions lacking any real-world experience in leadership during tough times. You cannot truly judge their depth of skills, until the big storm hits.

Going back to the past is also the wrong direction to be headed if your city and region are trying to attain smart city status.

When a disaster hits, everyone in the organization needs to see good leadership from the CEO who sets the direction. The rest of the organization also depends on skills they may or may not have. Those skills include flexibility, adaptability, creativity, technology, and the willingness to change directions quickly to “avoid the storm” or at least weather it.

The most recent and relevant disaster to test everyone’s skills from the CEO down to the analysts and assistants was the immediate reaction to shutdowns caused by COVID. Organizations of all sizes were tasked with the job of staying operational even when the companies closed their doors and announced everyone needed to work-from-home.

Companies scrambled to find quick solutions and working alternatives to routine operations. All-in-all, they did a great job in changing approaches swiftly and becoming more adept at using technologies like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to continue operations, hold staff meetings, communicate, collaborate, and keep their organizations going throughout the pandemic.

This was a big shift in operations and a paradigm shift in where people worked. Organizations needed people to adapt quickly to the changes and remain productive. What happened, as observed in an earlier article, was that productivity actually increased. Those who did not want to work from home adapted and began seeing the benefits as well as the new “free time” they had by eliminating commuting time. Commuting time for many was significant. It could be one to two hours one-way.

Now, the pandemic is considered over, and some say we need to go back to commuting. Company executives, like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Elon Musk of Tesla, think employees should come back and work 100% at the office again. Have they thought about all that extra productivity being lost again?

Some CEOs appear to be practicing the ever-strategic “monkey see, monkey do” approach to leading their companies. Instead of looking at the culture within their own organization, they just copy someone else’s decision from down the street.

What is good for JPMorgan Chase and Tesla may be a huge mistake for other organizations. Didn’t any of these CEOs perform any quality methodologies where they analyze their company’s culture, before taking on any huge quality initiatives?

In some companies, they took surveys of their people and asked if they were comfortable working from home. In the beginning, at one major company, the initial response was only 6% of the people surveyed thought working from home would be good for them, and a year later, that number jumped to 46%.

After adjusting their home life, many employees saw it was beneficial to them and their families to work-from-home. At the same time at that organization, management saw a 20-26% increase in productivity. Their focus was to cut down their corporate leasing of commercial space to half of what they had before the pandemic and accomplished that in two years.

People made the immediate transition, and they were very successful in keeping their organization productive in highly unsettling times. The mass application and acceptance of new technologies, like Zoom, became commonplace and people were referring to meetings and conferences as, “I need to get on a Zoom call.”

Now, some companies want people to come back to work and they are finding stiff resistance to that idea because the employees only see the negatives of going back to work at the office. This is especially true with those looking at commuting into the downtowns of Chicago and New York City as well as other major cities. No one wants to deal with driving, taking public transportation or the subway, to get to work if they can work from home.

All the problems they had to deal with in a pre-pandemic environment which were totally erased with virtual meetings and work-at-home solutions will return. Things like arranging and paying for childcare, paying for commuting, wasting time on commuting, and paying for a lot more gas are all significant.

Some companies say you can work a hybrid time schedule which they think is a good compromise, but it is actually harder to manage than if someone goes in 100% of the time.

These hybrid situations, where you go in 2-3 days a week, create new problems of childcare arrangements as well as commuting issues. You cannot buy a monthly ticket because you won’t be saving any money. Plus, from a corporate perspective, what happens to all that productivity that was gained from people working from home and not wasting time commuting? It will disappear.

Some CEOs are not catching on to the new way of doing business. Some workers can work from home permanently and be far more productive than those who need to tack on two to four hours of commute time every day.

From trying to avert an operational crisis, organizations uncovered some new ways of doing business and employed technologies to a much greater saturation level than ever would have been imagined. Now, they want to go back to a mode of business more akin to the 1950s and 1960s, instead of the first third of the 21st century.

“Where did these ‘leaders’ get their business degrees?” would be one of the first questions I would ask. No one wants to go back once they have moved forward and made some significant advancements in the way they work. Going back to the way things were before the pandemic is a giant step backward.

People are talking amongst themselves about this request to shift backward. In some cases, they have kept working at companies that gave them the most liberal schedules in exchange for lesser salaries and increased productivity which was measured by corporate yardsticks.

Now, with the rumblings of “you must come back to work,” those same employees are saying, “Hey, if I have to go back downtown to work at this place and add commuting time, I might as well take a job at Company ABC because they pay more money.” If many people do that at once, how much institutional knowledge walks out the door and how much productivity will be permanently lost at their original organization?

Have any CEOs and their trusted advisors thought about that as a key factor impacting their long-term formula for success? If all that experience walks out the door, what extra costs will it take to attract new talent, and then, what is the investment in time and money to get them up-to-speed to be productive?

Smart cities are not built with dumb decisions in both government and the business district. Taking the time and money out of transportation costs creates more profits and productivity. More profits and productivity add to the regional competitive viability and sustainability of the area.

Doing the reverse, by adding those elements back, will destroy any progress made both by the organizations as well as the individual. This wrong direction will create a downward spiral and that is the wrong path to take.

James Carlini is a strategist for mission critical networks, technology, and intelligent infrastructure. Since 1986, he has been president of Carlini and Associates. Besides being an author, keynote speaker, and strategic consultant on large mission critical networks including the planning and design for the Chicago 911 center, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor networks, and the international network for GLOBEX, he has served as an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University.