Russo: N.J. must become desirable ‘home’ for those working remotely

As the former CEO of Alcatel-Lucent — and a current member of numerous corporate boards — Pat Russo thought she had seen it all in the business word.

Then, she saw remote workers flocking to her home-away-from-home, Florida, during the pandemic.

Russo quickly realized we may be in the middle of a shift in the workplace. One that may have a great impact on New Jersey.

“I am associated with four public company boards, so I had the benefit of seeing where people were working remotely from during COVID,” she said. “And there were a large number of people who had chosen to work from Florida.”

“The ‘aha moment’ was that there’s no distance parameter that makes ‘remote’ any more or less remote, when you’re working from home.”

Russo, who was honored Monday night with the Leadership in Public Corporate Governance Award at the 2021 Director of the Year Awards from the New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Corporate Directors, said remote work will be a huge issue moving forward.

“There are many companies that are adopting a hybrid model,” she said. “They are figuring out how to embed culture and create opportunities for the face-to-face meetings without necessarily having to have you live around the corner.”

The state of New Jersey has an opportunity, she said.

“New Jersey isn’t a place that folks have been flocking to, in part because companies haven’t been flocking to New Jersey,” she said. “The cost of living and the tax structure is pretty high.

Russo said she’s rooting for the state to succeed.

“New Jersey has many assets,” she said. “The key is to create incentives for businesses to want to base themselves there, and for people to want to live there. Without that, New Jersey risks losing people to more attractive states.”

The latest trends in business are not going to help, either, she said.

“Boards didn’t forego all the things boards have to spend time on — strategy, talent, operational oversight, capital allocation, investor interaction and all of those kinds of things,” she said. “But, what COVID did is bring an appreciation of what type of impact something like a global pandemic has not only on companies, but on their employees. That is huge.

“Employees want more flexible work arrangements. No question about it. And there is now evidence — that is irrefutable — that companies can function without having to have everybody in the office.”

The corporate genie, so to speak, is out of the bottle, Russo said.

“If you’re a mother of two and you were commuting an hour and a half each way, it’s pretty easy to say, ‘I’d like to have a situation where I commute one day a week,’” she said. “What I’m seeing is an expectation of greater flexibility to make life a little bit simpler — a desire to get back some hours that are important to the employee to spend time with their family.

“I think the realization of, ‘Wow, it’s nice to be home for dinner with your kids,’ is what the workforce will want and demand in a talent-tight environment, which is what we have right now.”

Those demands may soon evolve into requests to work — and live — anywhere.