The Covid-19 pandemic, in the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, has caused the world to experience two years worth of digital transformation in just a few months. The emergency shift to work-from-home has turned even the most traditional organization into a cluster of digital nomads, whether it wanted to become one or not.
But the implications of this dramatic shift aren't so much about tools and work styles as they are about the long-term effects these behaviors will have on how we choose to work going forward.
For business owners in the knowledge economy, these implications are critical. It's not just that we use Zoom or Teams. It's that our workers have changed as a result of this instant cultural shift that has been forced upon them. Here are three big takeaways and how to embrace this new normal.
We don't have to work in the office
This is the first and most obvious change that has taken place. We can, and will, work from home--if not all the time, then at least a lot of the time. Prior to the pandemic, close to four out of 10 U.S. knowledge worker respondents reported that they found they got more done outside of their traditional office, according to the Culture and Technology Intersection study conducted by my consultancy.
What is the game plan for business owners?
First, IT security becomes a top priority. Companies must now do purposefully, with great urgency, what they were forced to do a few short months ago by necessity. Home-based workers need to replace unsecured headsets, access company servers using company-suppled VPNs, and upgrade operating systems (or whole laptops).
What else? Business owners need to think hard about physical infrastructure. Most don't need the amount of space they currently have, with a large percentage of knowledge workers opting, whenever possible, to at least work some of the time at home as opposed to the office. This means policy changes, technology platform decisions, and renegotiated leases.
What about workspace design for those who work in the office? Most of us will never look at physical space in shared spaces the same way again. Business owners need to change how they look at social distancing--killing off the open office once and for all in favor of privacy and partitions. As for workspaces themselves, business owners need a road map for rolling out antimicrobial surfaces, air filtration, and air circulation.
You don't have to only hire people who live around the office
Once the genie is out of the bottle and workers--and management--realize that it's OK to work from home, why would we still think our talent pool is limited to the commutable neighborhood? It isn't. Your new direct report can be located anywhere that your waking time zones intersect. If videoconferencing becomes the expected form of co-worker interaction--and it is, as Zoom says it is now recognizing 300 million daily active participants--then there's no reason not to hire someone who lives 100 or a thousand miles from HQ.
What should business owners do, given that the cultural expectations of face-to-face communications have shifted to videoconferencing in the blink of an eye?
First, your careers section on your website should no longer list "location." Location no longer matters. If your office is in New York City, there's no reason you can't fill your open job requisition with a talented candidate in Denver or Santa Fe. Your hiring managers will never know the difference anyway.
Second, business owners need to think about culture. Sure, it's easy to create a culture when we can all file into the big conference room once a week. When everyone is all over the place, though, we have to create events--both online and in-person--that forge the cultural bonds. This means quarterly meetings at headquarters that create the social glue, it means spending time on livestreaming so that remote workers feel a part of what's going on, and it means overdoing communication.
You don't have to think, work, or act like you did in the office
This one is the biggest shift. Not having all workers physically in the same location has allowed them to escape the typical modern office trap of constant distraction. Being away from co-workers may have a social downside, but the upside is significant: We have the time, space, and ability to think.
How can business owners tap into this new way of working?
First, embrace this cultural shift and resist the temptation to try to fill every hour of the workday with Zoom meetings. It's OK to give employees time to think. Being remote isn't a drawback. It's a feature. The feature is a reduction in distraction.
Next, business owners need to put policies in place that allow for more thinking and less distraction: No Meeting Mondays, skunk works that encourage big ideas, and an active role in soliciting and supporting individual or group innovation.
It's too easy to say that "we will never go back to the way things were"--there are plenty of ways we will go back to our previous behaviors and practices. The challenge for business owners today is to embrace the key aspects of our new way of working and build on them to create truly modern workplaces.