Inside the fish tank - how the Ivy League white dudes are having to rethink their work policies post-COVID

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks August 10, 2020
There are pros and cons involved in working from home, but the technology case is there. As employers and governments try to re-open workplaces, the arguments move beyond the tech.


Whatever we end up with as the cliched ‘new normal’ in our working lives, events have shown that for many, if nor most, the technology is already in place and available to make for a much higher level of home-based working. Some of that technology has, literally, been around for years and is now finding the most unfortunate of circumstances catching up with what it can provide.

Other providers are much more recent on the scene, such as collaboration specialist Bluescape, which is offering what its CEO Peter Jackson pitches colorfully as:

Why don’t we make a giant fish tank and let anyone put whatever they think is important into the fish tank, and make sure that everything is compatible with the fish tank? 

If you get from that the notion of a very large peer-to-peer network within a virtual bubble, that is probably as good a technical description as most are likely to need, especially as the real issue is not what technology is required to make this ‘new normal work’. Instead, it is likely to be what the new underlying argument will be that needs to be worked through to justify such a momentous change in work patterns. These are arguments that CIOs are now facing as they come under pressure from wider economic and political factors where technological answers are broadly irrelevant.

Surveys and reports are starting to indicate that while initially obliged to start home working where at all possible, many people are now realising it to be a good thing and they want some more. Yet political pressure is building against the idea and in favor of the line that people should go back to the workplace instead. In the broad picture this makes some sense, given that whole slices of the economy depend upon it. We may hate rush hours, but they are the life blood of transport services - trains, subways, fuel producers, motor manufacturers all thrive on people going into workplaces - and thousands of jobs are potentially at stake in subsidiary industries, from cafes and sandwich shops through to pubs and bars. 

Many urban centers have become akin to a ghost town and thousands of small service businesses that provide daily support and sustenance to the hordes of office workers are struggling. So major property empires are under threat because Working From Home (WFH) means they and their properties are no longer relevant. Yet their dividends are one of the major vertebrae in the backbone of, for example, a nation’s personal pensions plans, a loss which, if permanent, might take some replacing. 

In addition, if WFH does take off as a new permanent thing, its impact on architecture (housing design) and regional planning/investment will be wide-ranging. A recent survey found that city dwellers are starting to want to move out to the suburbs and the country because of WFH. 

Forget the hours, think of the outcomes

The stakes surrounding WFH are therefore huge, and little or nothing to do with technology. It is a side of the WFH marketplace that Jackson has some interesting views on, as well:

So many of the political challenges and a lot of the old school money and infrastructure is based on different economics and a different world. Technology until 1990 and onward was really about transportation and cities were built around transportation. They became hubs. Then we became about devices and the internet. Pre-COVID, we started to realise that we’d go into the subway, we’d go into the office, we’d spend 20 bucks on lunch and then we’d get back, reverse that and go home and try to be a responsible parent/spouse or whatever.

For over a year, he has been using every presentation opportunity to talk about what he calls the zero hour work week, which is usually met by McEnroe-esque ‘You cannot be serious!’ responses from his audiences. What he means, in essence, is taking an outcome-based view of work to its logical conclusion, rather than bosses requiring to see bodies at desks regardless of the outcome. 

His keenness for the subject is made even greater by post-pandemic statistics showing that with a remote working programme of just one day a week, staff attrition rates would be cut by 50%, staff turnover rates would go down by 87%, employee health would improve by 77%, the cost of healthcare would be reduced by $1,700 a year, and staff loyalty would go up to 77%. 

On the other side of that coin are the defences already being put up. Jackson sees a couple of main arguments to face down. There’s the group that says, ‘This is just a phase, everything is going to go back to the way it was’, usually proposed by what he calls ‘starchy old commercial building owners’, who never want to sell their buildings for any sort of deflation based on value today vs pre-COVID. 

Then there are some ‘new normal’ fans who are ok with the idea of two/three days worked at home, but still want to maintain an office, regardless of factors like social distancing. Jackson quotes a senior HR person who suggested it would take two days to get 50% of a major IT company’s staff up the elevators and into the office with current US social distancing rules:

So what is the ‘new normal’ in the middle and is it dictated by some white CEO dudes who actually own part of the building and actually have some part of the infrastructure, that are trying to say, ‘No, you’re coming back or you’re fired’? There’s going to be a little bit of that, but I also don’t think everybody is going to be like WordPress, which has never had a an office and everybody in the whole company has been remote from day one.

WFH is also going to play a part in attracting new talent to any company, and this is a curate’s egg. In one way it can be very attractive to new talent because they don’t have to face all the stress and drama of travelling to a new place of work – and by the same token the company gets new talent without having to move them close enough to come to the new office. The other side of that coin is they may take more time to bed in with others in a team, not least because they are not physically close and there is still something different about that when compared to a Zoom meeting.

Inside the fish tank

Bluescape, Jackson’s skin in the WFH market, started life as this notion of a collaborative container in which everything associated with a project can be held, found and worked with by any combination of people who are authorised members. It is a secure, contained, peer-to-peer network that can work with any of the applications and services a group or business requires. For example, Zoom can work within Bluescape and be secure. Amongst its early customers have been the most security conscious, including departments of the US government and the military, as well as the UK’s Royal Air Force. Until the pandemic, its big market has been the movie business. It has underpinned the whole TV series, `Black List’. Jackson says: 

Today we have almost every movie studio as a customer. We have directors in London who correspond with producers in Los Angeles who no longer have to get on a plane. They watch the video together, it syncs together, they write on it, they iterate on it.

Its other big-name customer is the Ford Motor Company, and, according to Jackson, Bluescape is about to roll out to Amazon around the world for all of its internal employees. 

In the first three months of the COVID pandemic the firm generated over $30 million of new business. Jackson sees this coming from two main factors - the first being a move to address the needs of mid-sized businesses, and the second down to the fact that many businesses saw how the pandemic gave them the chance to re-assign existing budgets, such as the travel and entertainment budget, to cover the cost of the Bluescape services.

This take up is part of a sea-change being brought on by not just the pandemic, but the Black Lives Matter and Greater Equality movements, he adds: 

It’s coming from senior management, that white dude is now figuring out that he can’t have a racist organization, he can’t have an in-house organization, he needs to be a man of the people and his products need to dictate that as well. He can’t be tied to politics, he’s got to do what’s right for the people, and that’s very difficult for a lot of these Ivy League leaders to make that transformative shift, but they have to.

They’re going to need to change their board structures, their technology and how they treat their people. The people are starting to rebel. Hopefully it won’t be ‘Les Miserables’, but we’re starting to see this rebellion that’s tied to ‘I won’t buy your products’. As unhealthy as some people see this, I see a lot of this transformation as healthy.

My take

As someone who has worked from home for more years than I care to remember I think that, as a society, we would be foolish to turn the opportunity down. The indirect savings – on the environment, our health (both physical and mental) and the rest are perhaps even more important than the savings on investments that are no longer needed. 

But there could well be major arguments set against it in terms of job losses for those that work in the industries that support the ‘going to/being at’ work model, and perhaps more importantly, the heavyweight political lobbies that are inextricably linked to the big industries of transport, energy and property that will now be staring at the potential of their productive vested interests melting away. 

For CIOs therefore, it is time to consider the non-technical arguments for WFH, for that is where they may well get caught out in their planning.