Launch & Learn: Technology and the Future Work

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Hunter Strickler: We’re here today with a Birmingham native. David Powell spent his entire career in technology—various B2B SaaS companies and roles. He is an expert on a lot of things. But just to name a few: he managed IT and cyber security services and is now the president of a company called Prodoscore, which uses machine learning and AI to evaluate employee productivity, which is pertinent to this conversation about how we think about distributed teams in this brave new world of work.

Throughout the session, I’ll be asking David a series of questions and we’ll have time for audience Q&A. So, David, this remote work thing has been very familiar to you for a very long time, you were a remote worker before it was cool to be one.

David Powell:  Is it cool now? It’s not cool if everyone is doing it.

Hunter Strickler: Yeah. So, from your perspective, just on a personal level, how has it been seeing the rest of the world catch up to what this probably felt very familiar to you working from home for many years. 

David Powell: I started working remotely about seven-and-a-half years ago at a company in Santa Barbara, California, and I decided to stay in Birmingham after a quick review of the property in Santa Barbara.

Our founder out there had a $7 million house that was 3,000 square feet and had no air conditioning. So, I decided to be a remote guy. But yeah, we were early adopters of Zoom, collaboration tools, and this kind of stuff.

It was interesting when in March of 2020, everybody went home. And all of a sudden our friends who are lawyers and stuff, were asking “what’s your zoom rate and how is that whole setup?”So, I kind of just became a Zoom consultant for a little while. There is a bit of a difference though. When I was a remote worker, I was traveling a lot. So, really, I was about one week at home and three weeks in one of our offices in Santa Barbara or Austin, Texas, or out in conferences seeing customers. So, that in-person interaction was still pretty prominent.

What was different in March 2020 though, is all of a sudden, you were purely remote. You didn’t have in-person interaction. It was a huge shift and I was so desperate for the in-person stuff. I never stopped traveling. Cyber security, where I was at the time, was still hot, and people would meet with me because they were scared of what the “bad guys” were up to.

I do think as people came to the remote world, there was a novelty of it at first. And now as people are incorporating this idea more, they’re wondering, how do we operationalize our remote workforce?

I think the policy back in March was, grab your computer, grab your monitor, go home. We’ll figure it out. And most companies have been kind of managing the last 18 months to survive. With all the ambiguity, no one has had a plan yet for how to truly operationalize this. They just have been figuring it out as they go.

Hunter Strickler: We joked about this podcast I sent you on this topic of the future of work. It is a Hidden Brain podcast and the title is, “Why you miss Tony from accounting.” So, let’s talk about that in terms of what got lost in translation with the inability to bump into Tony from accounting.

David Powell: I think what you miss when you’re purely remote, are those accidental conversations. Michael, Hunter, and I were talking about this earlier—what happens in your normal conference room? When the meeting ends, you’re packing up your laptop, putting everything away, and you start having casual conversations—like hey, what are you doing this weekend? Or, hey, are you on that project? So, then you can get the insights and then you go back to your desk.

What happens in the Zoom world is that everybody clicks “leave meeting” at the bottom, and that’s it. So, you miss all of that conversation. And I think there’s this lack of managerial intentionality that a lot of managers miss. If you go back to Peter Drucker, an effective executive in the sixties, there’s that idea of management by walking around.

Say you walk around the office and you see that Michael seems a little disengaged. So, you’re like, “Hey Michael, you got a minute?” You then walk to the break room, get some coffee, and check in. 

Now, as a manager, you have to be intentional about setting up a meeting with Hunter every week and probe a little deeper besides just going what you see on Zoom.

What we see a lot of in our worlds, when we talk to people trying to figure this out, is, are managers equipped to truly lead in a remote environment? Where a lot of managers’ stuff before was accidental, such as these collisions in the break room, now they don’t necessarily have that opportunity. How did you build the company cultures or companies before? Well, you know, Jeremy was the VP and you’d take the company credit card, go down to the bar and have a happy hour with his AMAX behind the bar, and that’s how we built company culture. But that wasn’t a prescriptive kind of thing, that was Jeremy with a company credit card taking people out for drinks.

So, the question now is, how do you get all that stuff that used to happen organically, and now programmatic that, so that companies can still build engagement and foster that connective tissue with employees in a distributed hybrid way? 

Take, for example, every HR question, there was somebody you can call before. You would call another HR person and say, “Hey, I have somebody who has  an addiction problem or has been sexually harassed by somebody.” But now, there’s nobody to call and say, “how did you return to work in a hybrid way after the global pandemic?”  done this before. So, everyone is searching for answers and trying to figure it out. And there’s no real consensus emerging on how it works. 

Hunter Strickler: The buzzword or the theme that seems to be emerging is that employees want flexibility. And yet employers want some version of accountability. So, let’s get to the accountability later. But in terms of flexibility, is that trend of “work where you want, when you want,” here to stay? And how are employees and companies formalizing that as part of their policies?

David Powell: I think the balance of power used to be very skewed towards employers. And now, it has quickly skewed to employees. I have a friend who works for Bank of America in Charlotte and he had his heart set on Chattanooga. Bank of America would’ve never hired someone in Chattanooga before. Because they couldn’t.

And so, what does that mean? Well, somebody in Charlotte didn’t get promoted or somebody didn’t get hired. And so this guy in Chattanooga had a new power around, well, I can go work wherever I want. I think companies took real advantage of this kind of environment.

Whereas, if you want to be in publishing, you’d be in Midtown Manhattan. If you want to be in technology, you’d need to be in California. And now those people can work anywhere. I have a friend that lived in Park Slope in Brooklyn and paid $5,300 a month for a crappy apartment. He justified the cost because he wanted to be at the office. But now the office in Midtown hasn’t been opened in 18 months. So, then his wife starts looking at how much house they could get in Charlotte for $5,300 a month. That’s a lot of houses that you get in Charlotte. So now he’s thinking that he might want to go anywhere. Before, as a senior editor in publishing, you needed to be in Midtown Manhattan. 

What it’s done is really skewed the power towards the employee and the flexibility they want. Before there were jobs like mine that were expected to be remote and there were other jobs that were not expected to be remote. Some people found community in the office: these are friends that I go to lunch with, this is who I hung out with, I watched their kids grow up and they watched my kids grow up. Maybe they found their community and church or civic organizations or clubs or whatever it may be through people at work.

Now companies are prepared to answer those central questions for people. Some will definitely want to come back because that’s where they found their human experience or community. While others may be like, that was just a job that I did, I don’t really need to go to the office.  is at the root of all that. But, I think that employees now have to answer a lot of questions about themselves and where work fits into their lives.

Hunter Strickler: And now they’re pushing back or making demands like, “if I’m going to accept this position, I’m going to demand a flexible environment because if I can’t get it here, I can get it somewhere else.”

David Powell: Yeah, there’s a lawyer here in town who is a buddy of mine and we both loved cars. And on Friday afternoon, he used to send me all these car videos and I was like, dude, why are you still at the office? If you’re just watching car videos, why don’t you go home? And he’s like, the way the culture is here is that you don’t leave early.

And so he was stuck at the office watching car videos because “you don’t leave early.” And now with all this, he went down to his lake house and built out a little garage and office and now wants to work there. He’s not only finding that he’s entirely productive, but he’s also able to get on the boat at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon and no one is like, ah, you’re leaving early! So, he doesn’t have to pretend to work on Friday afternoons anymore.

Hunter Strickler: That was sort of the whole proxy of productivity: the presence in the office. And now that, in many ways, has been eliminated as the metric. So, what is now replacing that as a means of measuring if people are working?

David Powell: When we talk to clients, that’s the question we get, “how can we measure productivity?” What we do is we take a backend API of Salesforce, Office 365, G Suite, Slack, and like 60 different integrations, and retrieve the activity data, run it through Google AI, ML, and that will spit out a productivity score specific to each department and respective employees. 

I ask my clients,  how did you measure productivity before? The funniest thing is that they don’t usually have a good answer. The only people that can get an answer, are the sales team. For them, it’s simple, you were 200 percent of quota or 150 percent of quota, and that result measured productivity.

But, if you ask, how did you measure productivity for accounts payable? Or how did you measure productivity for literally anybody else in the organization who wasn’t cleanly tied to a revenue generator—they had no answers beyond the fact that they were there every day until 5 p.m. So, I would say that structurally as companies, we did a poor job of really assessing productivity or having processes around how to measure hard work as a whole. Most companies didn’t have KPIs or they thought they had a general understanding of who was working and who wasn’t, but no quantitative ways to back that up, beyond just a gut feeling.

Hunter Strickler: So, the answer to how you do it in the new world is basically productivity? 

David Powell: Yes. As long as you’re in the business systems that your company has issued and are productive inside those, we can see that. 

It can be challenging, you know? How do you get everybody on board?  There’s still some reluctance. If you are a metrics and accountability-oriented company, people love it. But if you’re kind of a touchy-feely company, that’s going to freak people out. 

What would happen 10 years ago in this situation??

If I told Jeremy, “hey, you’re going to be on a video camera everywhere you go,” he would be like, “I don’t want to be on a video camera.” But now, if he got mugged while walking out to his car, he’d think there better be cameras so that we can catch whoever did this.

So, surveillance culture continues to become more the norm. Just like when you got in your car for the first time and Apple told you it was 12 minutes to the gym and you were like, “that’s creepy.” And now, it’s 20 minutes to the gym and you’re like, “oh, there’s probably traffic from here to the gym.” So, we get okay with that stuff.

But this is a new category where employees who are really good, want it. But employees who flew under the radar or aren’t doing that much and just like their check, aren’t so much a fan. 

Hunter Strickler: What are times during your career as a remote worker where you have felt very connected in that environment? And what are times where you felt less connected? In other words, what can companies do when they’re trying to create or cultivate that same level of connection?

David Powell: Where I’ve always felt the most disconnected is if I’m the only, or one of the few teams or Zoom users, and everyone else is in a conference room together.

It’s those nonverbal cues of, when I’m done talking and then Michael thinks,, okay, I can see David’s coming to the end. And now he’s ready to take the conversation and go with it. That is impossible to catch from the remote experience. And, if you’re on the TV screen at the end and there are six people at the table, they’re not looking at you. So, then you’ve got the casual, “oh, hey!” and all this kind of stuff. And so it’s can be a really awkward experience. 

What some of our clients are doing is, if a whole team is in the office, by all means, go to the conference room. But if one or more people are not in the office, everyone Zooms in. Even if you’re three cubes down from the next person. That way everyone has the same experience.

What companies are trying to avoid is this idea of second-class citizens. Just like when everyone was in the office, you got free snacks in the break room, you know, you’re getting lunches brought in and it’s all fine. And then when you’re home, you’re slaving away at the house.

Or flip it to where everyone was in the office, you got more scrutiny n, and then everyone is sitting at home happy they didn’t have to go through the commute. So companies are trying to figure out how do they level the playing field so that it’s not more or less beneficial to be in the office or remote. And instead, is more preference-oriented. That’s a challenge.

Hunter Strickler: So, you would say that creating balance is the key?

David Powell: Yeah. And if you’re the leader and you do have people on Zoom, call on them. You know, stop and say, “do our remote people have anything to add at this point?”

I was at a meeting last December and the board I was on made a bad decision to cancel something. And I was the only person in the room who was on Zoom. But I know for a fact that if I were in person, I could have built consensus because I could have seen the body language of those who weren’t on board with this, and then I could have drawn them out. But in Zoom, you have to be bold enough to jump out and say what’s on your mind.

Hunter Strickler: You did a recent interview on this topic about the future of work and you used the phrase, “responsibility along with radical innovation.” What do you mean by that? 

David Powell: I’m a huge Thomas Friedman fan and his most recent book, Thank You For Being Late, talks about this idea of radical innovation and big safety nets. And he says this isn’t political, but it gets political.

And he says, you know generally, Republicans typically want radical innovation. You know, companies should go unfettered into this future and create new stuff, consequences are damned. And then, the Democratic party typically wants a big safety net. Meaning,  we have to tend to all the people who are discarded by society.

He said the unfortunate thing is that those two things are presented like they’re at odds when they really have to go together. That if you want big safety nets, you have to have the funding that comes from radical innovation to support the big safety net. If all you have are big safety nets, eventually you run out of money and you have to tax. And if all you have is radical innovation, then you have all these unintended consequences and throw those burdens on the government. So, say Hunter and I went in and totally automated a factory and there were 50 workers who used to work in that factory. What happened to them? Are they the government’s problem now?

So you need to tie those two things together. I think about that a lot in my job because, to some degree, sometimes I feel like we’re a little bit like a gun salesman. Where buying a gun in and of itself is not inherently bad or good. You can defend your family with it or you can rob a bank with it.

We’re providing productivity data for your employees. That’s not inherently good or bad, but some people who aren’t good at their job need to get fired. Some people never burn out and need to be retained. But we’re just getting the data– how they use it is up to them. But then you have to ask, what about all these people getting discarded because they’re non-productive? And some of those people maybe weren’t motivated and they had to look into that. Or they were just kind of lazy and they needed to do something different. 

But, I think about that a lot. What are the unintended consequences or second-order effects of what we do as a business? Because, I do feel we’re innovating and pushing for taking people where they don’t necessarily want to go by helping them see the value, but what are the unintended consequences?

Hunter Strickler: When you look into your crystal ball for the next 10 to 15 years, when we talk about this concept of the future of work, what are the major disruptors on the horizon? What are the things that we will be talking about? And how can we prepare now for those types of trends? 

David Powell: I’ve spent a lot of time involved with college students. And the idea that you go work for a big company, work there for 25 years, get the gold watch, and retire—none of them care about that. These kids want to start something that’s fun and interesting and the purpose component is super important to them.

I think to gain these efficiencies in the workplace, we need to distill what work has looked like in the last 18 months down to its core essence. We stripped off the ping pong tables. We stripped off the luxurious travel business trips, the idea of getting on a plane and flying somewhere for a two-hour meeting, spending the night, eating a big dinner, and flying back the next day. We’ve stripped all that out and now it’s raw. 

When I worked at a previous job we sold to big companies in big cities. I was in NFL cities all the time and we’d always stay downtown because that’s where the customers we wanted to see were. I’d get up and open up the blinds and see a million people walking into this tall building across the street. If you ever walked past the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., you probably saw a block full of people coming in. And like, what did they do? Can the company possibly need this many people?

I think that we’re finding that, to a large degree, they don’t. So, what are those people going to choose to do? And I don’t know what the answer to this is, but you keep hearing, “we can’t find workers.” You know, where did all those people go and what are they pursuing?

So, I think that companies are going to have to become more nimble, and are going to become more agile. The big behemoth type companies that move slowly and have a captive audience, I think many people are just like, “forget that I’m going to go work wherever I can’t think 10 to 15 years out, but I think the next two to three years, corporations are in for a rude awakening around how their employee base truly feels are they captives? Are they empowered? Do they want to stay working there? Do they not?

So, if I’m recruiting people and I’ve got ping pong tables, nap pods, Cliff Bars, and coconut water… if that’s what you win them with and then none of those things exist anymore because you’re working remote, why do they stay? If I came to work here because there’s cool office culture, in a slick office, and we had that Ikea desk, and four monitors, and now I’m working in my jammies on my sofa. What keeps me there?

Hunter Strickler: I guess the only answer to that is a deep connection to the mission of the work potentially or some sort of feeling that my work is tied to a greater meaning. That’s hard to manufacture. It’s hard to be artificial about that. It’s either part of your company DNA or it isn’t. It’s hard to create that on the fly.

Before moving on, what questions do we have for David?

Audience Q&A: Going back to your lawyer friend who’s just sitting there until 5:00 because the culture expects him to, you can look at the other side of things and say, well, if you were actually working until five, then maybe you could produce more and I would get more out of my employee. So for me, as a manager, I struggle with remote work because if I’m trying to get the most out of my employees then what I would expect from them in terms of productivity is not for them to produce the same amount, I’m looking for them to produce more.

David Powell: So, in his role, there’s a clear tie to how much he makes and how much he works. So, if he gets on a plane and starts thinking about your deal, he’s billing points. He was billing 3,000 hours a year because he’s flying and dinners and all that kind of stuff But in all other cases what people really want, and data supports this, is something called gap time. Which is the time when you’re not in one of the systems. 

And we’ll still see people work the same amount but they’ll shift it. So this woman on my team, Jessica, lives in Palm Beach, Florida, and she’s got a dog and she goes for walks every day during lunch. So, there’s this hour gap. And then she likes to go before it gets dark so you’ll see her leave around 4 p.m. But then from 8 to 10 p.m. is when she’s updating Salesforce from all her interactions that day. You see these people who want to leave at three to go pick up the kids at school and then their coworkers are like, “Hunter is leaving every day at 3 and is not doing anything after that.” When in reality, he’s working those hours at night. And of course, if you ask him, that’s what he’s going to say but with our systems, you can actually see that. 

ith people not commuting, what data has shown us since March of 2020, is that people’s workday has shifted forward. If you got up at six and got in your car at seven to drive to the office, right now, you’re getting up at six and you’re sitting at your desk returning email at home and working.

So, that hour that they used to spend commuting, standing around in the lobby are now filling those gaps with personal things. But the amount of work they’re doing stays consistent for the average and above users of our system. 

Now your low productivity people, what we found is that if you suck at the office, you really suck at home.

Our data shows that 10 percent of any organization is low productivity. What that means is that 10 percent of any company is doing an hour and 38 minutes of work a day. That’s it. 

Audience Q&A:  So what about the productive employees who you measure? Are they more productive in the office versus at home or does this kind of change?

David Powell: It depends. We’ve just added location to the data that we’re tracking so that we can begin to track location-based productivity. Within the remote worker group, we separate settlers and nomads. Settler is that person you get on Teams and he’s always in the same place and has got a dedicated home office space. The Nomad is always in a different coffee shop, park, etc., e found that Settlers are much more productive than Nomads. 

Audience Q&A: Do you think your clients, after seeing data, feel like there’s a heightened level of trust with their employees? Do they feel better about what the path forward, fully remote or mostly remote looks like? 

David Powell: Yes. I think the best analogy for that isLife360. I have two kids, my son is 22 and he didn’t have Life360 because it wasn’t a thing at the time but my daughter is19, and she did. 

And if you talked to them,  my son felt like we micromanaged him anytime he changed location. But my daughter, since she had Life360, she never had to check in because if it was curfew time, I could pull it up and see where she was. So, having visibility into where she was allowed us to not have to inspect quite as much.

What we find is that managers who have Prodoscore don’t feel the need to call you at 8:00 a.m.. to make sure you’re really working. And then call you at 4:50 p.m. to make sure you’re still working. They can just log in and see if you’re doing a good job. 

But yes, once they have that data, they don’t have to guess. For example, I had a client, where the CEO assumed that this lady who worked in Nashville and had two young kids weren’t doing anything. Well, the manager goes into Prodoscore and finds out that she’s killing it. So, the manager brings the report to the CEO and gives him the peace of mind that yes, she is working. So, it gets you away from guesswork and into more data-driven conversations.

Audience Q&A: Can you talk about if people game the system? 

David Powell: Yeah. So we’ve had people put in a bunch of calendar appointments for themselves–we don’t count those. Some companies tell us that they have got a camera on policy, right? And so you don’t get credit if your camera isn’t on because we can pull that from the Zoom API, the team’s API. Some people have a lot of automation where you’ll queue up like 500 emails to come out of your system constantly.

If there are way too many emails in a certain timeframe then we kick that out and don’t track that against your score. So, we’ve figured out most of the tricks. 

Hunter Strickler: We’re in the middle of this downtown district, we’ve been talking a lot about this flexible work environment, brave new world of work. What impacts does this, “work wherever, whenever, as long as you have dedicated space,” have on all of these tall buildings out here? And what is that going to look like?

David Powell: I think that, as a society, we suck at second-order impacts. We don’t think really good about the unintended consequences that an event can trigger.

Now, most of the research is showing that essentially 30-50 percent of the workforce is going to have some remote aspect. And if this is true and hybrid work becomes the norm,  then what does that do to office space? It used to be all edgy and cool to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with somebody in an open-concept office space, you know? Corporate real estate people will tell you that the people who like open-concept office space the most, were the people writing the checks because you could shove more people into that space.

But now you’ve got seasonal allergies and they’re sitting next to me and coughing all day, so, well, how does that change office space? There’s this big push to go back and have private offices. Andhoteling becomes a bigger deal to where people can rotate through on certain timeframes. But then, what does that do to restaurants? Or attire? 

I just think that there are all these unintended consequences that no one is thinking clearly through. Now, a lot of your home buildings land for your big national home builders are starting to include two home offices, for both spouses to work from home. Some of those planned communities are now looking at not building the tennis court and the clubhouse, but about putting coworking spaces into that area. So, there’s a lot that is coming from this. I think the most interesting study that we saw was a 7,000 person study. When they asked, would you come back to the office full-time for $30,000 a year raise And 63 percent of them said no. 

You also talk to people who are just saving money by working remotely because for some of the childcare is cheaper, and in a lot of places, you have to pay to park in downtown environments, which can be a couple of hundred bucks a month. It’s interesting how it could play out.

Hunter Strickler: Well, thank you David for all of your insight today on the future of work. If you are reading this and have any other questions, please get in touch.

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