The coronavirus has managed to do what all the product demos, ad campaigns, and sales pitches couldn't: It's forcing businesses to actually shift their corporate cultures so that people can collaborate and be productive when commuting to the office is no longer an option.

The promise of unified communications -- integrated internet-enabled chat, messaging, voice, and video -- has always been to bridge the gap between knowledge workers, no matter where they are in the world. Cloud-based service providers and platforms give us access to everything people used to need to go to "the office" for. Work, so the story was told, was what you did, not where you went.

The only problem, of course, was culture. Workers -- even at many technology companies that provided these services -- were expected to show up in the office, for the sake of culture. And the idea of hiring people who didn't live near "the office" was always fraught with concern. 

All this comes into sharp focus with the advent of a pandemic like the coronavirus. Now, with whole cities on lockdown in China (and elsewhere), businesses everywhere have to deal with a work reality that not only moves beyond physical location, but makes physical location a real constraint.

What is a CEO to do, with this sudden shift in reality? Here are three big takeaways.

1. Companies are abandoning "command and control."

Do you have a command and control culture, where employees are expected to commute to your office, show up at 9 a.m., and work until quitting time? Good luck. Of course, you still want the work to be done, but you also want your people to be productive, healthy, and happy. This will now only happen if you release this antiquated notion of control. You'll need to institute a very flexible work-from-home policy, and your people need to do their best to keep the workflow up while not in the office. This isn't a technological hurdle in 2020 -- but for many, many companies, it's a significant cultural one. 

The simple solution is to work with line management and get them to not just embrace collaboration technology and remote work, but put policies in place that pilot (for beginners) or expand (for the more advanced) the program as if your brand's future depends on it. Because it might.

2. Companies are rethinking the balance between "the work we do alone" and "the work we do together"

Collaboration has long been the holy grail of management steering committees, who have collectively failed to figure out productivity by promoting misguided notions like the open office environment. With the ugly dawn of this workspace devolution, workers -- being smart, sentient beings operating in their own self-interest -- adapted by buying their own wireless headsets. All this has uncovered a deeper truth: Knowledge workers overwhelmingly believe that individual productivity -- the work they do alone -- is more important to their success than collaboration is. The work we do alone, in other words, is more important than the work we do together.

With the advent of this newly-forced decentralization of knowledge work, companies must rethink how they design workspaces. Open office spaces may be cheaper than the alternative, but private spaces are better for individual performance. This means more private offices, huddle rooms, pods, whiteboard space, and everything that moves ideas from one person's head to an "aha!" moment.  

3. Companies are reconsidering the skill sets needed for a new generation of management.

With the virus shining a bright light on the shortcomings of everything from corporate cultures to workspace designs to global supply chains, business leaders would be remiss if they didn't also note that how they evaluate management skill sets needs to change, as well. New and old managers alike must be highly capable of leading teams that aren't all in the same location. 

Companies now must focus on hiring workers who can manage remote workers -- from hiring and firing to project managing far-flung teams to motivating people who aren't always available for a quick face-to-face meeting. With this in mind, prioritize crisp, clear communication skills more suited to quick calls and text messages. You'll need the ability to evaluate the performance of workers you don't see every day -- not just making sure that they're doing what you hired them to do without goofing off, but also spotting the rare promotion-track talent that doesn't work in headquarters. 

It's sobering to think that a pandemic may force you to rethink your corporate culture, but this is a clarion call to embrace what's available for the good of your people. What's possible may have outstripped what's comfortable, but this polarity may have to flip if you're to keep your employees healthy, happy, and productive.

Published on: Mar 3, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.