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Removing friction from the world in 2021

In my October column, I grappled with the utopia and dystopia of building a business today, where social distancing and remote working brings a set of challenges but also very significant opportunities and broader horizons than ever before. One of my closing points in that article was that it was now more likely you’ll be able to hire the ideal candidate even though they have no intention of leaving their sleepy fishing village, rural community, beach house, or even secondary city or town away from your HQ. They could be based on the other side of the country or the world, and it would still be entirely feasible for them to be an active and valuable part of your team.

This got me thinking about how the world could and probably needs to, change beyond our immediate workplace to facilitate the post-pandemic world. Because even with a vaccine, now, fortunately, a short-term reality, it is unlikely that former workplace habits will be restored lock, stock, and barrel. Certainly not for the people who have made significant lifestyle changes such as relocating their families given that good schools are now at the end of an internet connection, rather than at the end of their street. Nor, based on the popularity of several local hiking spots, for the people who have replaced onerous commute times with leisure activities and exercise.

It’s great having your star hires based hundreds or thousands of kilometers, and potentially several time zones, away from you when everything goes smoothly. IT can set up their devices remotely, support them with software issues, and remotely manage their machines to troubleshoot and fix faults. But what happens when a piece of hardware fails and needs to be ordered and installed by a technician? How do you get a temporary replacement device to the employee to avoid downtime? Or the internet goes down, and there are no alternative access options thanks to the remote location?

One thing is for sure, delivery services, options and costs to far-flung and remoter parts of the country are going to need to improve to better support a dispersed workforce. And not only for IT support, but also for the regular e-commerce purchases these people will be making. It’s not going to be good enough for e-commerce providers and platforms to have one delivery schedule and rate for metropolitan areas, and another for out of town.

Likewise with internet access technology. The fastest speeds and latest technologies typically launch in metropolitan areas and spread from there. They also follow the money, so if there isn’t enough demand, they simply don’t go there, and people have to make do with older, slower access methods.

But now, power users are going to be anywhere and everywhere. Consider the data scientist, for instance, living and working in a rural area and needing fast internet access, and lots of it. Unfortunately, the data scientist is not the exception proving the rule, this example applies to all of us, with our reliance on cloud services for work, online education services for schooling, and streaming services for leisure.

These and similar frictions will be removed eventually, which is good news for people who have previously had less access to affordable services. And for regional businesses who had been paying a premium in time and money to serve a more remote customer base. It’s also good for the future of the workplace, making it easier for some of our new improved, remote working habits to stick. And finally, there is a great opportunity for service providers to proactively address these frictions and achieve a first-mover advantage in 2021.

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