Beyond The Headlines
Two More Cents
The Biggest Disruption -- The Remote Work Revolution (Part 2)
Last month, the New York Stock Exchange president penned a historic opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal with an attention-grabbing title: “The NYSE Isn’t Moving—Yet.” The author shared how the new local tax ideas could force this over 200-year-old New York institution to find a new home. NYSE wouldn’t have had this kind of freedom of location independence had the last 12 months of remote work never happened. He writes: “We’ve proved, by pandemic-driven necessity, that we can close the physical trading floor on a moment’s notice and maintain service without missing a beat. Similarly, the broader financial services industry shuttered offices and shifted workforces, without hiccups to remote locations.” – we can’t help but notice that something immensely important has changed.
With the first anniversary of the biggest ever experiment in remote work upon us, I recently took on the topic of this possibly most significant disruption of our lifetimes. As a contrarian at heart, I would have been slightly disappointed if it hadn’t stirred a mild controversy. I have received a wide range of reactions, and I felt compelled to add at least two more cents to the discussion.
The Remote Work Revolution is a bottomless topic. We are just learning what it could mean for us as business owners, investors, employers, employees, consumers, or just people, human beings. I think there are some already obvious and even more yet unforeseen consequences of this new phenomenon.
There are at least three big themes here that I’d like to follow-up on 1) The Talent, the People, 2) The Office Space Conundrum 3) Inter-Company Dilemmas.
The Talent, the People
I have no doubt that the companies that will win in this new work/life revolution are those that will be the most agile, open-minded and that put people first. I remember a CEO tell me once that his biggest assets leave the office at 5 pm. Today those assets are dispersed and free to roam.
We already see many new and old businesses that emphasize freedom and flexibility and meet the talent where the talent wants to be, live, and prosper. I see some faint voices from a smaller group of executives whose tone is the polar opposite. They call work from anywhere an “aberration to be corrected as soon as possible.” I got chills hearing it because it sounded more like something I would have heard on TV growing up in 1980s Cold War Poland rather than in the 21st century United States of America – “The land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Some executives say they will apply “a carrot and stick” method to round up employees back to the desks. In the 19th century English-language literature that’s a reference used to describe donkey races with a jockey using sharp and painful blackthorn twigs to motivate his steed (archaic: a horse being ridden). I have one word for them: yikes!
You don’t have to ask me twice who I’d rather work with or invest in.
I immediately think of what a Georgetown University professor told me almost twenty years ago: “people will vote with their feet.” If you have one company that insists on hiring only those in the commuter radius of their office, while the other company spreads its arms wide-open to all talent no matter where they choose to live — it won’t take long to see whose employees will be happier, healthier, and more productive, and who will get a competitive edge here in no time. It’s the 21st century, and the best talent is independent, free, brave, and has the ability to dictate the terms of employment.
The Office Space Conundrum
It’s fairly obvious that office space needs are about to shrink, and if not for the multi-year leases, we’d see a lot more of it already. Most recently, Conde Nast the publisher of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair refused to pay rent at One World Trade. Last year, Pinterest chose to pay to get out of their leases. NYSE might think it doesn’t have to be in New York City, but there are companies that go a step further and believe that they don’t need an address to do business and even get listed on the stock exchange.
On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to have a profitable business with a multi-year lease, you’ll likely wait until the lease is up to rethink your needs, and my guess is that they will be even smaller in 5 years than in 1 year. The last 12 months showed that we definitely need a reliable laptop and strong Wi-Fi, but we can surprisingly easily get by without an office with no apparent loss, quite the opposite.
I think the landlords will see delayed consequences of remote work. The best they think they can do right now is demand the profitable tenants to honor their leases until they expire. It doesn’t sound like a sustainable business practice to keep any customer, including a tenant, and expect him or her to pay above-market rates for something he or she doesn’t need or use. Those customers remain captive for as long as they have to, and once free, they’ll act, too.
If rent is often (outside of earlier mentioned talent) the single biggest line expense for many businesses, I can only imagine what it means to reduce it. The cost of starting and running a business drops significantly, and the profits end up in business owners’ pockets (where they belong) rather than the landlords’ who happen to own a formerly prime location.
In investing, it pays to see where the proverbial ball will be, not where it is now. When it comes to commercial real estate, office spaces, in particular, it’s not that hard to see where the ball is headed.
The Inter-Company Dilemmas
I heard opinions shared by experts about the possible demise of the informal side of work in this new remote work world. One of the pundits remarked how much used to get done within companies outside of the formal channels relying on favors.
I have researched many businesses in my investor lifetime. I would be hugely worried if any serious business operated exclusively or predominantly relying on informal favors, lucky run-ins. If anything, I witnessed how the last 12 months have formalized processes to make sure that nothing falls between the cracks. Communication channels have been established and improved. Paper-shuffling has been effectively reduced to zero.
As a firm, we have had several big advantages; we have operated remotely at times before. We have a small but mighty tightly-knit team. We also had a chance to build a business structure from scratch, and select software, tools, platforms, and service providers that could potentially allow us to work remotely. We knew we are building a 21st-century investment firm. I was invited to speak on the topic over two years ago at a remote work conference.
Becoming independent and starting a new company in 2016, we made a deliberate decision to focus on what we do best: investing and serving our clients to meet their needs, while we outsourced everything else from IT, accounting, compliance to trading, and reporting.
Things get done at Sicart Associates, not because of a lucky run-in with a colleague from another department; there is a process, it’s followed and completed.
We might be a mighty team of seven, but we have strong, dedicated teams work for us at half a dozen service providers who value our business and who stay on top of their game in their respective fields. All seven of us are working remotely, and all those outside teams have effectively worked remotely for us for years, and only now they are remote from their own offices and often dispersed around the country and at times the globe. One late night I had to address a software glitch, and the service provider’s Tokyo team stepped in to handle it and walked me through. I couldn’t help but be amazed and impressed. That’s how problems are solved by serious businesses.
I think the remote work revolution showed which companies have their act together, systems, and processes in place, and which are bursting at the seams holding the show together with the informal arrangement and favors.
To conclude, Warren Buffett famously said: “I am a better investor because I am a businessman, and a better businessman because I am an investor.” I’d count my last four and a half years as a partner of an investment firm, a business owner as very formative, and greatly helpful in my investment career.
I’m convinced that the remote work revolution is shaking up structures, assumptions, and routines that have been stagnant way too long. In the spirit of Nassim Taleb’s book “Anti-Fragile,” some prosper in moments like this; others call it “an aberration to be corrected” with “a carrot and stick.” The biggest asset for all forward-looking companies is talent. The talent craves freedom and flexibility. Before investing in a company, soon enough, I’d expect that I won’t even need to ask about their remote work policy anymore. Everyone only with “a carrot and stick” in their hands will have either caught up or gone out of business, losing to a much more agile and open-minded competition.
The NYSE president’s WSJ opinion piece is one for the books. It made us think that something important has indeed changed. As investors, business owners, and human beings, we notice it and pay attention.
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