This Month’s Q & A – April 2020

A screen-grab of a man with gray hair wearing a white polo sitting on a zoom call with another man in a small box at the top of the screen.


EVP and Chief Technology Officer,

Tyson Foods

WORKING @ HOME: If that’s not what we’re all thinking about, then for sure it’s the context for whatever is. To shed some light on the subject, along with a large dollop of experience, advice, and prognostication about where this moment may lead us, we turned to someone very experienced in managing remote workers, as well as having a good bit of personal experience “working from home.” He also happens to be a member of the ACDS Board. Here’s what Scott Spradley had to say.

We live in strange times. What’s your take on all this?

The world is learning here. While you really don’t want to wait for a crisis to learn, it’s good when you can learn from a crisis. And I think when we come out of this, conventional work methods are going to be challenged because of what we’re learning about our ability to have a high degree of productivity working from home. In fact, while this may be short lived, you could say that people are more productive working from home than what we see from them in a traditional corporate office.

My history of working from home starts with living abroad. In my days at Intel Corporation, I had the opportunity to live and work from China. I went over there in a regional role and soon it became a global role. Once it moved to the global level, I found myself on the phone at all hours of the day and evening. Think about it, you’re managing situations and people that are crossing all time boundaries. Then I moved to Singapore, and it was the same thing. These roles and these locations caused me to learn how to be more effective working from home, since going to an office at 3 in the morning is not practical. It was in those days that I started to develop some real “best practices” for working from a home office.

When I joined Tyson, I had promised my son, who was in high school at the time, that I would not make him move in his final two years at that school. So I commuted between California and Arkansas for two and a half years. I would fly to NWA on Sunday and fly back to California on Thursday. I did that three weeks in a row and then the fourth week I worked from home. Coming into a new company, and doing something that was largely uncommon at the time, caused me to go back to my learned “best practices” for working from home. Each day, I would keep the same schedule, and not adjust for the time zone changes. I never wanted to create an issue for someone else because I had made this choice, not them.

What other “best practices” can you share?

I worked for the late Andy Grove at Intel, so I’m a confirmed paranoid. One of Andy’s most famous maxims was, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” So my approach was to shower, shave, and dress just like I would be going to an office. Then I would sit at my desk, there in my California home, and start my day in California at the same time I would start my day in Arkansas. I would ensure that every meeting was on video. I wanted the people that I was meeting with to see that I was approaching each day just as if I was in the office in Arkansas. I never wanted anyone to ever think, That dude’s slacking. So that’s the start of the mindset for me.

Without an alarm clock, I wake up at 4:45 a.m. every single morning. It’s just the way I’m wired. I get up and start the coffee, and while the coffee’s brewing I may come in and sit down at my desk for a while. But there’s nobody operating from 4:45 to 5:30 in the morning, so I use that time to kind of set my path for the day. I think it’s important to have a plan for every day. Either do it at the end of a day or first thing in the morning. If you’re working from home, by the time you reach the end of your day—and if you’ve not had a change of scenery (which is what Working From Home can do to you), you’re probably not going to put together a thoughtful plan for the next day. This is why I like to do mine first thing in the morning.

I review my calendar. Do I need to keep all these meetings today, or are there meetings that aren’t as important now? If so, I’ll modify my calendar. Then I’ll attend to anything that came in late at night. And about here is where I’ll peek at the news. The first thing I’m going to Google is Coronavirus, Covid-19. I’m going to look at Arkansas, the World, China, and California. I’ve got friends and employees all over the place, so I want to understand what these people are going through. At Tyson, we’ve set up some pretty hardcore dashboards that are doing some rich predictions for us, so I look at all that data. Then I go take a shower, shave, and get dressed for the day.

My wife and I are empty nesters now, but as it turns out, both of our kids are here. My son, who is a swimmer at LSU, was only going to get three days off for spring break—not enough time to do much, so he flew up here. His sister works for a large global consulting firm and is based in Houston, so she flew in to see him. And on the second day that he was here, they cancelled school. On the third day, the SEC cancelled athletics—and also our daughter was told that her company was requiring their employees to work from home. So they’ve been here for a month.

The point is, I’m really impressed by how my daughter is working from home. In this house I have my office, but there’s a whole wing that never gets used. So we set her up over there—she quickly bought all the equipment she needed, so she has a full office set-up with dual monitors and everything. I see her in the morning about seven o’clock when she waves at me and holds up her coffee cup, meaning thanks for making the coffee. Then she goes up to her office and I don’t see her again until about 6 p.m. when she comes back down.

So are you saying you’d be inclined to institute a remote-work program for a lot of your employees?

Funny you ask that. I recently made a comment to a colleague (CIO of another company): “What do you think would happen if we as IT came forward and made a proposal to our executive leadership team for a complete work-from-home program? You’d probably see, in any company, a program-based approach: HR would get involved, Legal would get involved, Compliance and Health and Safety and Finance would get involved. There would be financial models, risk assessments, probably all kinds of bureaucracy, and it could go on for nine, 10 months, and then at the end of the day, we might not do it. But in this crisis we had to go—in 24 hours—from having about 1,500 remote VPN connected Team Members and immediately be able to support 15,000 to 25,000 remote VPN connections. We used this crisis to prove our scale and capability. The first day that we had a couple of issues, our Infrastructure, Cybersecurity, and Architecture Teams did an amazing job of ensuring that we could handle any scale that came our way. So, one thing we all learn in this Technology world, is “never waste a crisis.” We used this crisis to test ourselves, and to prove out the scale we had been building and preparing.

Like other companies, we at Tyson have used this crisis to model an approach for the future. We’ve put out the best methods on working from home: Use your cameras. Have a nice mic so you don’t have to wear a headset, because your head gets tired of holding the headset for all those hours. Make sure you’re working at a table or desk or someplace where you have the keyboard, and the mouse, and you have the ability to have decent posture, and a good monitor to view on.

What, exactly, does “model an approach for the future” mean in this case?

Now that we’re getting used to this, I think it’s going to be a serious challenge to corporate real estate. There’s no need to go out and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on buildings because we’re finding that people can actually be more productive working this way. This isn’t just Tyson-related data I’m drawing on. This is me talking to some of my friends and colleagues at different companies, people who are in CIO or COO positions. What they’re finding—what I think we were all suspecting and now finding because we’re building the instrumentation to understand it—is that people will sit down to work early. Yes, we’re also quarantined to some degree, so we’re not going to go out and have an hour-and-a-half lunch. But we’re also not going to stagger into the office after nine o’clock. We’re getting started before 8 a.m. and we’re not in a rush to get home so we don’t have to knock off at 5 p.m. We just keep staying.

There is an adjustment that needs to happen, though: Right now people are worried about missing an Instant Message or an email, and they want to show that they’re working, so they’re probably staying to close to the desktop. I encourage our team members to schedule time to go for a walk, to get out from behind the keyboard and monitor and not to worry about answering every IM or email immediately. We have to support one another, we have to recognize that this is a new normal that we’re going through—and it could go on for a while. So we need to help our people understand it’s okay to take a break.

And if that’s not enough, we’re all going to need savings when we come out the other end of this. I just sent an email to my insurance broker and basically asked the question: “Hey, with so little mileage on the cars this year, are you all looking at discounting the rates?” At my house, we’re driving fewer cars now, and on average we’re driving about eight miles a week per car, versus an insurance average estimate of 30 miles per week. I think they need to be thinking about that. Nobody’s commuting, the whole world over. Everything about this is unprecedented.

I suspect we’re coming up on a perfect storm. Lots of companies are going to suffer financially, so they’re going to look for ways to cut costs. That’s going to be the first domino that falls. Most everybody has a CapEx plan that involves some type of facilities modernization or real estate acquisition—that’s going to be one of the first things to go: Not right now, they’ll say—we just proved we can work from home. And then what they’ll look at next is, Do we need to have the same level of bureaucracy that we’ve always had? I believe there’s going to be a lot of Bureaucracy Busting, to coin a term, because when we come out of this, we’re going to need to recover revenue as quickly as possible. I would imagine people are going to go for streamlined activities, as best they can. What can we do to reduce time to market? Whether it’s an internal system process or an external go-to-market capability, I think we’ll see a lot of that being challenged.

What about your employees themselves? Do you have a sense of how they’ll feel after some sort of “normalcy” returns?

I think people who haven’t been used to working from home will learn some important things about themselves during this period. As a leader, I do a lot of what’s called MBWA, or management by walking around. Of course, now I don’t have a physical site that I can walk around in, so I jump on Skype and spend an hour a day going out and just pinging various people in my organization, and saying how are you holding up. I mean it’s tough to work from home. Are you going insane? Are you scheduling a couple of 30-minute blocks a day to go and walk around your neighborhood, or, if you have a treadmill, to go get some exercise, or to go sit outside on the back porch and get some fresh air? And in those dialogues, about 40 percent of the people I’ve visited with this week are finding that they’re more efficient than they thought they’d be. In fact, what most of them are saying is I’m working harder now than I did when I was in the office.

There’s a lot of wasted time in offices, a lot of water cooler stuff. There’s a lot of flip-your-chair-around-and-talk-to-the-guy-in-the-cube-behind-or-next-to-you. And they’re called cubes because there are four of them that share a common intersection point. Before you know it, if four people spend 10 minutes talking, that’s almost an hour of labor costs. Now you don’t have that. It’s fascinating.

But you don’t want people to feel cut off from the world. As one of my best practices around working from home, I set up a meeting where we can chat about information… a standup meeting. Sometimes we have critical information to share that doesn’t take as long (because we do it almost every day) and use the remaining time to socialize. It’s a meeting that is planned for 30 minutes, so we have about 15 minutes of real content, then 15 minutes to socially unwind. Another thing we’re trying is a “social hour,” which is an optional meeting that’s not about work. I invite everybody to come together via Zoom, and it’s totally optional. And then some people get to talking and set their own conversations off to the side, and Zoom gives you those capabilities. You’ve got to give people the ability to socialize, otherwise they’re in solitary confinement. That’s not going to be productive if you’re trying to operate an innovative mindset.

Speaking of Zoom, now that your whole business is conducted on it, do you have any concerns about security?

One of our employees recently sent me an email asking that very question. “I’m always concerned about security,” I said, “but I’m not really concerned about Zoom right now.” Then I started thinking about it and did some research. I actually pulled up the dark web on my personal machine here at home, opened up an onion browser, and started trying to find out about it. Sure enough, there were people in there that were posting Zoom sessions. So I called our head of IT security and said, Let’s do some analysis and try to understand this. Ultimately, we bundled up a bunch of patches and started patching every Zoom client to make sure they’re all locked down and closed off.

Our head of infrastructure was on the phone with Zoom recently and he said that they’ve now suspended any discussions on feature improvement for 90 days. Zoom, as a company, has been focused on ensuring security, and they have a leadership position today. I know that Zoom and Google Meets/Hangouts are seeing like 10X the volume of meetings, so they have their priorities right on managing security as a priority; there is too much opportunity out there right now, and a major security excursion could ruin their momentum.

Just another aspect of this brave new world we’re living in. One more reason only the paranoid will survive.