Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Working from home: The future of business is remote

A searingly honest tech CEO tells the truth about working from home

Tech CEOs all know how to handle this leadership-during-coronavirus thing, right? Or do they? One CEO admits to the vast difficulties.

Young worried entrepreneur woman looking at laptop computer at home

The scale of the problem makes it not scalable.

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The announcements from tech CEOs always sound supremely confident.

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Of course, they confidently declare, employees will work from home until next year. Or even beyond.

Many CEOs warm to the idea. This might be a way to save a little money here and there. And there are so many fine pieces of technology they can use to follow their employees around their houses, just to make sure they're working.

Some tech leaders, though, secretly enjoy a tinge of humanity. One decided to lay bare the enormous difficulties of leading from a remote location to other remote locations.

Colleen Morris, president and CEO of Calico Energy, a small company that fixes data issues for utilities, offered a blazingly honest assessment of the challenges in a post on the company's site.

At heart she's a product manager. She wants to "run head-first towards the problem." Then, given her systems mindset, she wants to solve it. Well, doesn't every IT company promise only solutions?

But you try solving the problem of managing when your employees are experiencing a life-changing virus in disparate locations, enduring disparate circumstances and reacting in very disparate ways.

Also: How to optimize your network for remote work and learning

Says Morris: "Covid makes my go-to, problem-first approach damn-near impossible. Everyone's problems, and needs, differ. In fact, many of their needs are in opposition, and I know full well that I don't know half of the challenges my team is facing."

Suddenly, she's facing the wild human truth that she can't define the problem, never mind reach for a systematic solution. She feels "knee-capped."

Morris believes that everyone has what she calls their "Covid Acceptance Curve." But no two employees' curves are likely to be alike.

"Many possible solutions for one employee are actually counter-indicated for others," she says. "Think of your team as an overlapping series of waves, each strand representing a person and their curve. You could try to slot in a single solution across 'strands,' but it will inevitably miss so many marks, reaching people too late, too early or with something that isn't even relevant to them."

Some might imagine that one of the particular failings of tech leadership is the temptation to treat all employees with one broad free lunch. There, that should please everyone.

Now, says Morris of her employees: "Some are experimenting with how to juggle work and homeschooling, some are struggling with crippling isolation, some have been impacted by Covid personally, others are facing anxiety of so many kinds."

I wonder whether it was always this way, but leaders didn't care so much. Each employee has always been burdened with their own practical and emotional issues not directly related to work. Now, though, it's the physical distance and the constant, lonely staring at screens that intensifies difficulties -- and leadership's ability to anticipate or even understand them.

"Some of our people need hardware or furniture," Morris explains. "Some need an ear. Some need a break. Some need more meetings; some less. Some want to talk about Covid; some don't. They all need many things we can't provide."

At least she's honest enough to admit that.

Yet a good leader surely knows that it's precisely when employees are struggling the most that the company might want to help in the deepest way possible.

All too often, tech companies exist to create systems and then enveigle customers and employees to participate in those sytems -- preferably without end.

Now, however, systems thinking just isn't helpful.

"This is a moment in time when it's not about the system at all," says Morris, "but its component parts. Our people."

Shouldn't it always have been this way?

Also: The next normal: Why going back to work isn't going to work 

Doesn't this, in fact, describe one of the tech industry's greatest issues? That people -- both employees and customers -- have been regarded as merely pieces on a chessboard to be manipulated toward certain behaviors? While leaders demand that each problem along the way meets a swift solution, one that can be hacked by tomorrow morning.

The irrationalities of humanity were once nuisances that messed things up.

Now, as Morris describes it, "we have to step out of our answer-seeking mindsets. Instead, we need to follow behind our people, picking up strings and tying knots where we can."

Morris says she's looking for individual wins. She knows that's not scalable. "But right now, it's the single most effective thing we can do for our people."

Excellent leadership requires just a little humility. That's something you don't often see from tech CEOs.

How bracing it would be if the disruption of a virus made them alter the way that look at being a boss. And, most importantly of all, a leader of human beings.