The Future of Work – How COVID-19 Has Changed the Way Companies Do Business
Rumors of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated.
Anyone who was still unsure about whether telecomuting could work for individuals and teams has now been forced into an experiment. Results are somewhat mixed, but it’s clear that for many people and for many types of jobs, it works perfectly well. Productivity is at least as good as in an office and sometimes better. And as an upside to both the employee and the environment, far less time and energy are wasted commuting.
Individually, many workers will be reluctant to go back into an office every day, and many companies will re-assess how much they should be spending on dedicated office space for all of their employees.
However, that’s not to say that the idea of working in an office will go away for a few important reasons.
First, although most knowledge-worker jobs can be done remotely, some are much better done in an office, lab, etc. Second, working from home doesn’t work well for everyone, particularly people who may have kids (or roommates) at home and/or those who lack a dedicated work-space. Third, most people prefer at least occasional personal interaction with colleagues and finally, some types of work such as planning, brainstorming and group problem solving are all much more effective in person.
For all of these reasons, companies will not completely abandon having traditional office space – but the amount of space and how that space is used will be much more intentional. Going forward, the focus will shift from having multiple individual offices with just a few meeting spaces to having more meeting spaces set up for the types of work that are done in person. Picture more flexible meeting spaces, white boards, etc. We will also see fewer (and more flexible) individual working spaces. Essentially, offices will be optimized for the kinds of work that people need to do together and with teams coming and going.
In addition, people will have an increased sensitivity about working in close proximity to others and companies will assume we’ll need to deal with another pandemic sooner or later. Therefore, the open floor plan, already a bane to productivity, will rapidly go out of style. The idea of a personalized space will also fade as more offices/desks become ‘hotel desks’ that people use when in the office, as people and teams rotate between working from an office or working remotely.
As companies continue to embrace remote working, there will be downward pressure on salaries in some of the most expensive locations, as companies realize they can find talent outside the commute radius of their offices. Similarly, workers will begin to choose where to live based on factors other than distance from an office or industry hub. They will base their decisions on factors such as cost of living, school quality, open space, etc. What the internet made possible many years ago will move from entirely possible to clearly preferable.
Ultimately, this shift will mean less commercial office space being built in urban centers or traditional office parks. But people still need space designed for work, so at the same time, there will be a boom in the construction of home additions to provide dedicated office space. Also, co-working spaces will spring up in more suburban locations – bringing dedicated work spaces closer to where people live rather than only existing in city center locations.
Air miles flow will cease to be a proxy for being productive
Anyone, like myself, who has traditionally traveled extensively for business has experienced a very different life these past few months. Pre-COVID, there was a certain ‘expected threshold’ of importance that would drive travel decisions, even half way around the world, for a meeting or event. It is clear now that expectations were the key driver of that behavior and those expectations are changing.
If there was a significant gathering in one of our global offices, I felt I should be there – or at least show up a certain number of times each year. People expected that. With our partners (or potential partners) there was also an expectation that if we were serious about a relationship or a potential project, that we would show up in person. Not to do so would be to indicate that we weren’t serious or didn't prioritize the relationship.
However, the expectation that people will jump on a plane for the same reasons today has dramatically reduced - and I don’t think it will come back. Going forward, people will appreciate that others may have health concerns, family commitments or other restrictions. Companies will also find it difficult to require an employee to travel.
In addition, we are all realizing that things that we thought required face-to-face meetings can work perfectly fine virtually. In response to this, companies will, for both cost and health reasons, institute policies that make it clear that if someone is going to get on a plane, there’d better be a very compelling reason. Given all of that, it’s hard to come up with much business travel that would truly be considered vital – at least until there’s widespread vaccine.
Over time, people will get more comfortable with the needed health precautions for travel, but for now at least, companies may discourage people from the outside visiting their offices.
Slowed travel will paradoxically accelerate the pace of business
At first glance, it might seem that if people can’t (or won’t) get together face-to-face, that certain decisions or initiatives will slow down. Based on the experience from the last few months, we should expect the opposite to be true.
Pre-COVID19, if we were considering a new initiative or partnership, we would wait to have that serious conversation until we were able to get together in person. As a result, we had to coordinate calendars and work around everyone’s busy travel schedule. “Unfortunately, I’m on the road that week” was a blocker. It could easily take months to find a date that worked for all parties.
By contrast, with everyone ‘grounded’, it has been very easy to get people together on a virtual call and start moving things forward. In addition, the critical meeting done virtually requires only the 2 hours blocked for the meeting, rather than days burned in travel time. Plus, when someone flies to meet with you, you tend to honor that travel time by spending more of the day together, having a meal, etc. Even though that time together has plenty of benefits, it’s important to note that the 2-hour meeting really costs 3 days. With less travel, people will be more available, meetings will occur more quickly, and time will be used more productively.
It’s worth noting that this will be much less true in Asia than in elsewhere. In Asia, the personal connection that can only be built in face-to-face time continues to be a very strong part of business culture. It will be much less likely to develop new business relationships in Japan, Korea, China and elsewhere in Asia without that in-person visit and this strong cultural element of business will be very slow to change.
Remember Conferences, Trade Shows and User Group meetings?
While Conferences and Trade Shows have been on the decline for years, especially in North America, they are still relevant and many are quite important to business activity in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. However, with companies ‘raising the bar’ for what constitutes justifiable travel, and with people’s reticence at being in large gatherings, these events will struggle. That reticence will fade, but by the time that trend reverses, most events will be dead and gone.
As we have already seen, improved virtual technologies will also make it easier for people to ‘experience’ a product without needing to go a trade show. Like office space, event-producers and attendees will re-think the true benefit of these sessions. Today, the benefits of attending an industry conference include learning from peers (which will shift to virtual), reinforcing existing relationships, and creating new ones. As a result, the agendas of the events that do survive will have more intentional and rich networking opportunities. Professional learning which is ‘taught’ will move to virtual (including ‘expert panels’), but people will still strongly value deeper, collaborative discussions of certain topics with industry colleagues and these will become a key part of future industry events. They will also seek the serendipity that comes from meeting people unexpectedly.
Meanwhile, user group events will continue, but many more will be done virtually. Being virtual will enable far more participation by users, but there will still be value in more close engagement with users. As a result, the large ‘hoopla’ user group events will fade, in favor of deeper contact with power users and those who represent the needs of the user base. Companies will also be experimenting with hybrid events where some people are there in person while many others are participating virtually. This had already begun in recent years, but the virtual experience will be given much more thought so that those participating remotely don’t feel like second-tier participants.
Manager Skills & Culture
Pre-COVID, most companies, if they were hiring a manager, may not have had ‘experience with managing remote teams’ high on the list of skills they were looking for. That will change. Similarly, whether or not a potential employee had a proven track record of being productive while working remotely will become something employers consider in hiring. Companies will also provide specific training, support and resources for both managers and employees to adapt to the new distributed environment.
One challenge that companies will have to grapple with is how to express their culture when candidates are not interviewed in person and there may not be a central ‘office’ where most people are working, which helps candidates get a sense of a company culture. Today, this happens quite a bit through osmosis and simply being in the environment. Going forward, companies will need to be much more intentional about how this process occurs. HR departments will need to learn new ways to communicate their culture to help ensure a ‘match’. So far, we haven’t seen many best practices emerge in this area, but they surely will since this will become a key way companies compete for talent and ensure a good match.
What do you think?
In what ways do you think the world of work will change in a post-COVID environment? What trends do you disagree with? What are you seeing at your own companies that may not have been covered here?