Geography Is Friction

For smart companies, remote work could be most promising management development since the GI Bill birthed the information economy of the 1950s and 1960s.

I was walking through the Indianapolis airport ten or so years ago when I noticed a huge banner welcoming United’s new non-stop service from San Francisco as if it was the arrival of food in the Berlin airlift. “Why the big fuss?” I asked one of the CEOs I was there to visit. “VC guys don’t change planes,” he said. “No non-stop, no investments.”

What difference a global pandemic makes. For nearly two decades, we’ve had the essential technology and infrastructure for millions of us to work from literally anywhere we could plug in a computer. I can recall reading, back in 2004, a book by Forbes publisher and friend Rich Karlgaard with the sunny, techtopian title Life 2.0: How People Across America Are Transforming Their Lives by Finding the Where of Their Happiness. The premise was today’s promise: want to live in the Rockies and code for a Wall Street bank? Go for it. Move back to your beloved Indiana hometown to raise kids near grandma and grandpa but still want to keep that Silicon Valley marketing job? Can do. Alas, it never really came to pass en masse. Until now. 

THANKS, COVID

Make no mistake: For smart companies, remote work could be most promising management development since the GI Bill birthed the information economy of the 1950s and 1960s. We’re no longer bound by geography in the great talent hunt—which changes the rules of the game completely. 

In a world where access to great human capital is at least—if not more—important than access to venture capital, it’s a massive competitive advantage if you can master the art of remote work (to help, we’ve launched a new resource site for C-Suite leaders. Check it out at RemoteWork360.com).

Because geography is friction. 

Relief from the tyranny of location also promises to help bridge painful economic divides in our society. “The innovation economy has really been limited to a few people in a few places,” Steve Case, the former CEO of AOL, said at a recent Yale conference. He has worked for years to bring opportunity to areas outside of the nation’s traditional capitols of capital. “I think over the next five or 10 years, we may see a dispersion of talent, more of a dispersion of capital and more of a dispersion of some of these big jobs, creating companies, not just in Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, but all across the country. So hopefully that’s something that will be a positive coming out of this terrible pandemic.”

That doesn’t mean every employee or every company or every industry can take advantage, of course. Some 60 percent of all U.S. jobs cannot be done remotely (not yet, at least). Many CEOs may find remote work a poor fit for their particular culture (and have the cash and the stock options to do exactly as they like). But for others, this new reality represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. For the first time, you can hire who you want by letting them live where they want. All you need to do is make remote work work.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.