One thing that we all share is that our time is limited. The pandemic has made that clearer than ever -- and it has also forced business leaders and their employees to change how work gets done.

The combination of people working from home, a fierce battle for talent (especially those who specialize in cybersecurity and data analysis), and a surge in home prices as workers move away from crowded and costly cities means that companies are reducing the amount of in-person work.

For everyone -- except for those like surgeons and grocery baggers who can't do their work from home -- this means huge swaths of the workforce will not be commuting to the office on a regular basis.

And despite the declining number of Covid-19 cases these days, those changes are likely to become permanent. That's what 74,000 employee Massachusetts General Brigham (MGB) executives told a recent business conference, according to the Boston Globe.

Their message was that with so many employees living at least a two hour daily commute away from the office due to high real estate prices, most of those workers will never resume the pre-pandemic practice of driving into work five days a week.

As the Globe reported, MGB's chief human resources officer, Rosemary Sheehan, said, "What happens to the neighborhoods around where [anchor institutions liked MGB] are, if [those anchors] don't have a lot of people coming in, what happens to those businesses?"

Sheehan's comment brings to mind a pressing question for business leaders: What should local businesses that serve these commuters -- such as restaurants, dry cleaners, and flower shops -- do to cope with a permanent decline in the number of customers?

Here are four options that come to mind.

1. Serve customers where they live and work now.

Companies that focused on creating and keeping customers should have good information about who their customers are, what they buy, and how frequently. Such companies should also know how customers' buying behavior has changed since the pandemic.

If such companies have not already done so, I'd suggest they do customer research. Business leaders should ask customers questions such as:

  • Are they cutting back, increasing, or changing the mix of products that they bought from your business before the pandemic?
  • If they are purchasing the same products, are they buying from companies closer to where they live?
  • If so, how satisfied are they with the product quality and service that these local companies provide?
  • If they are buying different products, what new products are they buying and what is driving that demand?
  • Do they anticipate returning to a regular commuting pattern after the pandemic ends?
  • If not, how much more frequently will they commute to the office, if at all?

Based on the answers to these questions, business leaders should be able to come up with a strategy. If their customers are planning to return to the office, the best strategy may be to staff up to meet the growing demand. Of course, this option may be unrealistic.

2. Cut capacity to meet lower demand.

This customer research may reveal a more painful truth -- namely that your business is likely to need fewer resources -- people, space, and technology -- than the most likely future demand.

Before reaching that conclusion you should investigate these questions:

  • Are you confident that a significant number of former customers will not return to the office?
  • Are new companies moving into the area whose employees could pick up the slack?
  • Are local rivals closing their operations -- and could your company serve its customers?

If the answer to the first question is 'no' and to the other two are 'yes' then you should match your capacity to meet the expected demand -- possibly marketing to those new potential customers and scaling up in anticipation of their arrival. Otherwise, you should make plans to reduce capacity to meet permanently lower demand.

3. Move where demand is greater.

Perhaps your conversations with customers will reveal a different result: customers are going to continue working from home and they would strongly prefer to buy from your company -- were you closer to where they live.

In that case, I'd suggest you try to assess whether there will be enough demand to make it worthwhile to open a new location nearer those customers. If you are not sure, try experimenting which offering your product or service online and partnering to deliver the product or service where the customer lives.

4. Sell or close the business.

If none of these options are realistic, you should either try to sell the business -- possibly to a new owner/operator whom you can train -- or pay off your debts and close the business.