By Joe Ricketts

Ever since I founded my first business in the 1970s, I have liked to be in the office and see people working.  The idea that employees had to be supervised in order to be productive was branded on my brain.  So, when the pandemic arrived, and it became clear that lockdown would keep many of my employees at home, I was more than worried.  I had to take a deep breath and say to myself that if they could not be productive from home, I would have to take them off the payroll.  No one wanted that.

My employees went home and continued to work using all our modern communication methods, and they did remarkably well even though I wasn’t with them.  Our business did not slow down.  For an old guy like me who has been managing people for so long, this was an enlightening reminder of what these times ask of business leaders.

We continue to face uncertainty and accelerated change.  Even with the promise of vaccines for the COVID virus, we will have to make permanent adjustments in the way employees work, not just in terms of how they communicate but also when or if they will come into an office, the role of travel, the use of hotels, and the kinds of relationships any of us can have with our fellow workers and our clients and customers.  The natural human tendency is to see these required changes as further burdens that make success more difficult, as if COVID is a business-unfriendly government administration that burdens us with new regulations. We would do better, however, to adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur and look for opportunities.  

            When I decided to send my employees home and see what happened to our productivity, I was running an experiment.  I’d love to say that I had a special insight, that I knew in advance what the outcome would be, but the fact is that I only tried remote work because I had no other choice.  Even so, it was an experiment and a successful one.  And that’s what entrepreneurs do.  Experiment.  Entrepreneurs have an idea for a product or a method of production or distribution, but it is at best an educated guess.  They have to try it out and see what happens.  They don’t figure out the result in their minds; they let the market give them the results.

            In this moment of profound and unexpected change, we all need to be entrepreneurs in our thinking, viewing change, even unwelcome change, as a chance to experiment and succeed.  We need to look at employees at home and think, What a wonderful thing.  Look at all the time saved!  People who used to commute to offices in city centers have given up their commutes plus the time they used to spend getting ready for work.  That might be a saving in time of 25%.  They have also been freed to use their time as they think most productive.  What might they do with it?  How can their companies help them be most productive?

            The shift to remote work is giving all businesses a new opportunity to innovate.  It has never happened before, and we had better not miss it, because, in five years, I predict, the successful companies will be those who have learned to adjust all aspects of their work and policies to seize this moment.  How does a decentralized workforce create opportunities for employers to hire people they would never have considered before?  How can we align the incentives of remote workers with those of the company?   We need to rethink compensation to reward the employee who gets inspired and works for twelve hours straight or otherwise contributes to the company’s success.  We need to find new ways to manage employees and to evaluate performance – performance that produces results, not just looking busy.  

  We also need to remember that the success of a business depends on more than short-term productivity.  We need to think beyond efficiency and find new ways to support our employees’ well-being and sense of purpose.  When we were building Ameritrade, every Friday after the stock market closed, many of us went out for a drink to let off some steam and celebrate the week’s success.  We had memorable office parties.  My wife, Marlene, got inspired to bake birthday cakes for employees, and we found it meant a huge amount to people to be recognized in that way – decades later, former employees are still reminiscing about those birthday cakes. 

I don’t know how you get the remote equivalent of an office party or a chance to share a personalized birthday cake with your co-workers, but I know that remote workers still need those things.  I think employees will always need a desk in an office, even if they only work there occasionally, as a reminder that they belong somewhere, that their efforts are part of something greater than their to-do list.  We may need to give them incentives to come in at least occasionally.  And though I can’t predict the answers, I know how we will find them: the entrepreneurial mindset.  We need to run the experiments now to discover the innovations that will define the future of work.

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