Executive Forums 19 April 2021 / 5 minutes read

Back to the office…NOW what?

  • back to the office
  • Covid-19
  • new normal
  • New Normal

    Economies are slowly re-opening, sometimes in fits and starts. Millions of employees laid off for months are on the one hand desperate for stability while simultaneously feeling their employers deserted them at their moment of greatest need.

    Countless others have been working from home for the past year-plus. In many cases, they’ve gotten so comfortable with the idea of working remotely that they’ve moved to less costly locations great distances from their office. Now used to meeting on Zoom, these team members are reluctant to returning to the old status quo.

    So…what’s our collective next move?

    The Best of Both Worlds
    Many companies are actively talking about combining remote work with time in the office to get the best mix of productivity and collaboration. The key to success under such conditions, of course, is striking the right balance for both employer and employee. Dictating that team members MUST return to the office full-time could easily chase key employees out the door; sure to be a factor as vaccination rates rise, comfort levels improve, and job mobility increases.

    A Gartner poll showed 48% of employees want to work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 (versus 30% pre-pandemic). And with a significant number of executives using the imposed pause in professional activities to reconsider how many of those trips, meetings, and calls are really necessary, this seems to be the perfect opportunity for every office-based business to incorporate a healthy mix of on-site and off-site work.

    Consider the ABC Corporation, which sent Suzie home mid-March, 2020. Suzie’s gotten used to working from home, lunching with her spouse each day, and not missing the commute to her office. She’s fully vaccinated, but has co-workers at the office who are neither vaccinated nor careful. Her grown daughter lives with her but hasn’t yet gotten her shots, and Suzie remains scared about bringing a deadly disease into her home. She does everything possible to mitigate possible harm, and has only recently gone to a restaurant for the first time in over a year.

    Should ABC command she start working full-time at the office, Suzie is sure to feel resentful and physically threatened. Even if she doesn’t leave her position, she’ll harbor negative feelings that will have an impact on her workplace attitude and results.

    Instead of assuming a dictatorial stance, though, ABC could include Suzie in the discussion and provide the option for her to work from home half-time. In the short-term, this transition would allow Suzie the opportunity to continue spending time at home with her family while lessening any stresses she’s feeling from being around less cautious co-workers.

    Long-term, Suzie and ABC will be able to jointly explore whether it’s necessary to ease her back into a full-time office scenario. Suzie’s recent work experience should also enable her to provide fresher perspectives while bringing a new sense of purpose to her job. Simultaneously, ABC may recognize that long-term they don’t need as much office space, thus lowering their overhead.

    COVID-19…And Counting
    Public health remains the chief concern as we move solidly into year two of the COVID-19 crisis. Even as indications of normal life beckon, new variants threaten yet another wave of cases, and global herd immunity remains a distant dream.

    Though the global economy has rebounded from 2020’s lows, predicting its future direction is more challenging than usual. Indications abound of great optimism about both economic and corporate prospects, but continued weak demand threatens corporate growth, with pandemic-related factors remaining the biggest risks.

    The pandemic sped up many existing trends, forcing companies to shift rapidly to online channels, automating production tasks, increasing operational efficiencies, faster decision-making, and faster innovation. These combined to initiate a huge rise in productivity, and may well have laid the groundwork for significant economic growth over the next several years. The McKinsey Global Institute believes there’s potential to accelerate annual productivity growth in every country by roughly 1% through 2024.

    What of the Consumer?
    The obvious question is what consumer changes will continue after the pandemic ends?

    Analysis of consumer spending in China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States suggests e-grocery shopping is here to stay. Online shopping, in general, has also expanded significantly, with 68% of 18-34-year-olds (and 52% of all shoppers) increasing their web-based shopping during the pandemic.

    The global pandemic has inspired a greater sense of togetherness, increasing support for local and independent businesses. A study by Shopify reveals 57% of buyers overall now go out of their way to seek out local, independently owned businesses that they can support. Of those who reported shopping locally, 79% said they did so to support their communities or protect local jobs.

    Curbside pickup is also expected to be a permanent part of the retail landscape, having been both a lifeline for countless businesses and a convenient way for consumers to get items same-day without stepping in-store or paying for rush shipping costs. 40% of buyers selected curbside pickup for online purchases in the first three months of the pandemic; 31% for the first time. 40% of buyers using curbside pickup expect to continue using it going forward.

    Finally, local delivery has increased as an alternative to shipping or in-store shopping…especially critical for items normally unfit for postal mail, like perishables. With major carriers continuing to experience package delays and service interruptions and in-person shopping still carrying risks, 33% of buyers are expected to choose local delivery in the future.

    Meanwhile…At The Office
    There are a few other trends that have been sped up and can be expected to be in the workplace long-term including:

    1) Big Brother’s Watching. 16% of employers are now using technologies more frequently to monitor their employees through methods such as virtual clocking in and out, tracking work computer usage, and monitoring employee emails or internal communications/chat.

    2)    Flexible Talent. 32% of organizations are replacing full-time employees with contingent workers as a cost-saving measure. Gartner analysis shows that organizations will continue to expand this trend to ensure flexibility in workforce management, including talent sharing and 80% pay for 80% work.

    3)    Employer As Safety Net. Employers are increasingly supporting their employees’ financial, physical, and mental well-being. This promotes physical health and improves the emotional well-being (and productivity) of employees.

    4)    Increased M&A Activity. Just as M&A activity increased globally after the financial crisis of 2008, a similar pattern can be expected after the pandemic. Companies will focus on expanding their geographic diversification and investment in secondary markets to mitigate and manage risk in times of disruption.

    Looking In The Crystal Ball
    We’re not done with this thing yet…not by a long stretch. Hopes of success are dashed as frequently as they’re raised, and visions of a lifetime wearing masks and staying one step ahead of the latest COVID variant don’t seem quite as dystopian as they might have 18 months ago.

    Yet business owners need to remain vigilant to opportunities to determine what’s coming next…whenever next may actually arrive. Renaissance Executive Forums continues vigilantly watching out for your interests, providing the insights and connecting you to the resources you need to build tomorrow’s success.

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