The Rise of ‘Conferencing Competence’ and the Decline of Fancy Footwear

By Scott Kirsner |  July 13, 2020

Thornton May contends that many leaders — and many organizations — are moving too slowly in responding to the dramatic changes that 2020 has brought. 

Thornton May

“This event has compressed the future into the present,” writes May. “Trends have been accelerated. Companies and industries that were on a slow path to ruin have sailed straight to the end-of-life stage.”

May is a futurist, author, and founder of the Digital Value Institute, a think tank for CxOs. We emailed with May as part of our research report, “What the Future Looks Like.” Edited highlights from the exchange are below. 

What Changes Most About Our Work Lives…

The end of “Office Think.” Post-WWII, to work was to “go to the office.” Big bosses had “offices” on the top floor – the lower down on the hierarchy you were, the lower floor you worked on. The spatial (i.e., where your desk sits) signals of power are disappearing. But the visual signals of “how nice your house is,” which manifests itself as the “background” during video conferencing, will change home design.

We have inverted the “where work happens” decision tree, such that instead of asking, “Is there a reason to do this online?” we’ll be asking, “Is there any good reason to do this in person?”

Commute time/cognitive dividend. There will be a permanent decline in the number of middle-aged folks who regularly commute 9-to-5, five days a week. This has benefits, such as no commute cost (circa $10,000 per year for many), no commute time (circa 120 minutes per day), and no “dress up” time (circa 30 minutes per day) which all adds up in money and wear-and-tear.

With fewer people needing to be in the office, we will either see a socially-distanced redesign of existing office space, or, over time, a more substantive downsizing in the footprint the typical corporation has.

Conferencing competence. As we move out of the initial [aka crisis] stages of a pandemic-aware world of work, one of the things all futurists agree on is that more work will be done remotely [via collaboration software]. Gone is the Manichean/Shakespearean question, “to remote” or “not to remote.” 

Some people are quite competent and effective working via Zoom, Google Meetings, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Fuze – whatever. Some, not so much.

“Conferencing competence” now becomes an attribute of executive success.

In the post-pandemic world, human resource/talent departments, which historically have lagged reality by five to seven years, will develop ways to measure and improve employees’ conferencing competence.

We have inverted the “where work happens” decision tree, such that instead of asking, “Is there a reason to do this online?” we’ll be asking, “Is there any good reason to do this in person?”

Collaborative pods. The pandemic has not changed human nature. It may nudge us in a certain direction. Six million years of evolution can’t be rewired in three months.

People need to be together — to co-create, to build deep relationships and trust, to fully understand one-another, to achieve great things. There will continue to be magic interactions of certain individuals. There is no substitute for “the room” where high-potential super-performers collaborate.

Simplified Work Environment. Chief Information Officers are doing “spring cleaning in a big way.” They are culling through the thousands of software tools and hardware devices in the “IT garage,” and jettisoning those that no longer deliver value. This will materially impact many software vendors.

Health Surveillance. When workers are required to actually “go to work” physically, their health (e.g., temperature) and health practices (e.g., how far away they stay from one another and whether they wear a mask or not) will be monitored.

Large organizations will create a CHO/CSO (Chief Health Officer/Chief Safety Officer) who is charged with ensuring that “hygiene” and safe (i.e., anti-pathogen) work practices are followed. These new C’s will help create “health passports” certifying that workers are not infected.

A New Baseline. Executives may not like the virus, but they do like the reduced costs associated with a virus-sized headcount and corresponding compression in required real estate. Not everybody is coming back to work. And the ones who do come back may do so as contingent workers. 

What Changes Most About Our Personal Lives?

Socializing. The pandemic is impacting relationships. I am a hugger. I came to my managerial maturity in hyper-crowded Tokyo and commuted to Wall Street on the always crowed “Lex Line” in NYC. My concept of “appropriate distance” has changed.

The pandemic has not changed human nature. It may nudge us in a certain direction. Six million years of evolution can’t be rewired in three months.

Mental models. How we think has changed. The pandemic has expanded our appreciations and awareness. We appreciate the outdoors more. How we think about indoor spaces has been changed forever.

Historically, one had to wear a military, police, or fire uniform to be considered a hero. American heroes has been democratized and de-militarized to include doctors, nurses, and grocery and delivery workers.

In large tranches of society, we are seeing a return to a new seriousness, or at least a movement toward the idea that government is a matter for serious people.

Inventory-ing our homes.  Because we are staying at home, the quiet practice of “inventory-ing” is on the increase. “Inventory-ing” involves going through garages, attics, closets, boxes, and trunks, and figuring out what we have. People are discovering they have a lot of clothes in their closets. 

Fashion. If one isn’t going out, what role does fashion play? Does one just buy tops, so you look good on video conferences? What about shoes? I and my best friend, who is a finance professor, have spent a fair piece of coin on quality footware. Has this investment materially declined in value?

Working Out. Personally I don’t think I will be re-upping any of my many gym and yoga studio memberships. I have migrated to a web-assisted mode of at-home exercise regimen.

Scenario Planning and Leadership 

There are an infinite number of scenarios. You can’t prepare for all of them. What most organizations who have a non-toxic approach to future-ing do is create a portfolio of scenarios: Best Case, Worst Case, Most Likely Case.

Regarding the “Worst Case” Scenario – I like to call this one vu  (the inverse of déjà vu, something you never want to happen) – what you do is create a series of reasonably low-cost mitigation strategies that increase personal and organizational resiliency.

I originally thought that in a totally uncertain world, everyone has to be a leader. This is not the case. In an uncertain world, everyone needs to either lead or be led.