mural depicting collaboration between an  artist and a scientist
PHOTO: Giulia May

Before I wandered into the world of technology, I spent much of my life immersed in the world of competitive softball, first as a player on the US Women’s National Softball Team, and later as a coach and instructor. If there’s one thing softball teaches you — and teaches you quickly — it’s to focus on what you can control. The next pitch. The next at-bat. The next chance in the field. Spend too much time dwelling on how you went 0 for 3 yesterday, or fail to adjust your approach, and you’ll likely go 0 for 3 again today.

That lesson is more valuable than ever today, as the crisis brought on by the spread of COVID-19 forces us to rapidly rethink how we live and work. Overnight, even the most office-centric workforces have become almost entirely remote. There is fear and confusion, as people try to adjust their daily lives to fit this new “normal,” with little insight into how things will progress.

Much like yesterday’s 0 for 3 in softball, the circumstances that have created this sudden and perhaps disruptive shift are beyond your control. What you can control, however, is how you adapt and adjust to best position your remote workforce for success.

Much of the initial expert guidance on adjusting to an all-remote workforce has focused on tangible, infrastructure-related concerns. Some are obvious, like ensuring connectivity, security and continuity of service. Some are less obvious (though equally critical), like ensuring you can test your web and mobile apps from anywhere, without relying on device carts that are now collecting dust in an empty office. But amid this justifiable focus on keeping the lights on, it can be easy to lose sight of cultural considerations that are less tangible but no less important to the success of a suddenly all-remote workforce. And in these uncertain times, the companies best set up for success will be those that bring employees together to think in new ways.

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New Challenges Demand a New Approach

For years now, I’ve given talks about the importance of bringing “techies” and “fuzzies” together to create a richer workplace experience. A techie is someone with an educational background in the hard sciences. Think statistics, engineering, chemistry. A fuzzy comes from a liberal arts background. Think music, theater, literature. In the past, actively combining the ingenuity of techies with the creativity of fuzzies was a great way for companies to gain a competitive advantage. Now, however, it’s likely a matter of survival.

Everything we thought we knew about how products and services are made, marketed and consumed is changing in real-time. Much of the business and consumer landscape is built around constructs (such as corporate headquarters and retail store locations) that may not exist for the foreseeable future, and we have no choice but to adjust our thought processes and workflows accordingly. New constructs such as the all-remote workplace and social distancing demand new ideas and solutions, and perhaps the most powerful way to create them is by bringing together your techies and your fuzzies.

When techies and fuzzies collaborate, great things happen. Just look at Apple, which originated from a partnership between a techie (Steve Wozniak) and a fuzzy (Steve Jobs). Now, we probably won’t need to build the next Apple, but we almost certainly will need to start thinking outside the box, and to do that, you need different perspectives. We may need a more humanistic approach to the way we design and build software, one that accounts for new concepts like social distancing. Or we might need a more pragmatic and technical approach to build creative marketing campaigns. And we’ll definitely need a little bit of both to figure out how to best function now that we’re all working remotely.

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Encouraging Diversity of Thought

So, what are some steps you can take to bring techies and fuzzies together in the workplace? If possible, start at the beginning by rethinking who and how you hire. Resist the temptation to think of humans as binary. Being a techie or a fuzzy isn’t an either-or proposition. When interviewing for technical positions, look for candidates who also possess empathy and understand the needs of the customer. When interviewing for creative positions, look for candidates who understand and can make sense of data. And don’t be afraid to make out-of-the-box hires, especially with entry-level positions. Some of the best developers and testers I know are English majors. Some of the best marketers I know are data scientists.

If that’s a step too far, start by simply adding new voices to your weekly meetings. A fuzzy may see something that your technical team is missing. A techie may see something your creative team is missing. Make sure there’s a handful of each in every meeting. Diversity and inclusion is a top-of-mind initiative in the corporate world (as it should be), but we shouldn’t forget diversity of thought. It’s a powerful problem-solving tool, and now is the time to embrace it.

Related Article: It's Time to Change Our Thinking Around Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Taking Control of What We Can Control

When I played softball, there was nothing worse than being in a prolonged batting slump and feeling like I’d never get another hit again. But, painful as those slumps were, they forced me to focus on what I could control and consider different approaches and ideas to make the necessary adjustments. And when I finally broke out of the slump, I was better off for it.

I can’t help but feel like similar dynamics are at work with how this crisis is changing the workplace. There are many things about it that we just can’t control, some of which are frustrating. But if we focus on what we can control and drive more collaboration and diversity of thought, then we will eventually break through it. And when we do, the hits will come in bunches.