Can Local Commerce and Tech Work From Home?

I’ve worked from a home office since 2002. Forced into it — and initially opposed due to unfamiliarity — I didn’t like the isolation. But after acclimating, I became more productive, happier, and healthier than in any previous office job. Now, 18 years later, I may never go back.

One question is if that same realization will sink into corporate ranks now forced to #WFH. Could adjusting to working from home be a silver lining for some industries? In being forced to try new ways of doing business, could we discover habits that work better than older conventions? How might this principle play out in local businesses?

Forced Perspective

Starting with remote work, discoveries for me included things like avoiding office distractions. Anyone who says people are more “effective from the office” ignores the finite share of the day spent doing actual work. The rest is status meetings, water cooler talk, commuting, and getting ready for work.

I’ve also channeled pent-up energy from being isolated into productive directions. That includes going to the gym (or in-office TRX) consistently for 90 minutes per day for the last 15 years. Others have redeployed that time into reading, learning to code, or spending more time with their kids.

Not having to commute has been one of the great mental releases of the last 20 years. I’m more at ease and productive, and I’m not alone: The 52 minutes of daily commuting for the average American have been redeployed toward getting more work done — or the aforementioned positive activities and life hacks.

Besides benefits for individuals fortunate to be able to complete tasks at home, working from home could lead to forced realizations for larger companies as well. Those include reducing fixed costs like leases for buildings where everyone goes to work all at once. Less square footage can be leased for streamlined operations or alternating shifts in the office.

What’s more, momentum for even fully remote work had been picking up even before the pandemic forced us into social distancing. Though legacy management tendencies linger in the need to lord over a building full of employees from a corner office, that’s been naturally eroding over the past decade — exemplified by companies like GitLab, which thrives on 1,200 remote people.

As this happens, some may discover they’re more productive. Some companies may find it’s more streamlined and economical to shed square footage. With people off the roads, less transit-stressed and maybe even exercising more, they may — like me since 2002 — never go back.

Finding a Way

All of the above is admittedly from the biased position of a born-again #WFH advocate. It’s not for everyone and all companies; and it obviously doesn’t work in non-corporate functions that require high-touch interaction — everything from dentists to nail salons to air traffic controllers.

That gets us back to the question of local commerce and if there’s a “remote” version for our industry. Of course, it depends on the vertical, and some things have to be done IRL. You can’t get your teeth cleaned on Zoom. But some high-touch businesses like music lessons are getting creative and finding a way.

The answer in many cases is online ordering, pickup, and delivery, as implemented by lots of restaurants and local businesses selling hard goods as opposed to professional services. But as I wrote last month, even home-services pros can sometimes socially distance through “see what I see” AR guidance and diagnosis.

One of the underlying points here is that the need to implement technology into some or all parts of service fulfillment is accelerating. That fast-track transition to tech-forward practices could force discoveries that engender new business practices that sustain and serve local businesses long after this crisis recedes.

I’ll say again that things like AR, eCommerce and remote communications don’t apply to all local businesses. Companies will have to make their own decisions, and not everyone has the privilege of working and making their business work from home. But the point is we’ll all now get the chance to seize some degree of fresh opportunities, and more companies than we might have imagined months ago are forging digital futures in the face of the pandemic.

This all invokes the phrase necessity is the mother of invention – a foundational principle of our May editorial theme. We’ll keep our radar on for more examples that push forward not only local businesses but also cutting-edge technologies themselves – exposed and accelerated by a newfound ability to support the new normal.

For now, we’ll leave you with a handful of videos we found in a recent Vimeo series that spotlights local business ingenuity and the drive to survive in challenging times.

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Mike Boland is Street Fight's lead analyst, author of the Road Map column and producer of the Heard on the Street podcast. He has been an analyst in the local space since 2005, covering mobile, social and emerging tech. More biographical information can be seen at www.mikebo.land