Why The Business World’s Road Back From Covid-19 Won’t Take The Same Route

Michael Litt is CEO and Co-Founder of Vidyard, a global video creation, hosting and analytics platform for businesses.

Long before Covid-19 entered the popular lexicon, one of my clients, a financial services exec, wanted to reduce his office costs and drew up a 10-year road map to move to a more distributed workforce. When the pandemic hit, however, everything was put into overdrive as the urgency of the moment forced his company to execute the plan in just six months.

He wasn’t alone. Enterprises all across the world underwent a historic software adoption curve in the last year-and-a-half, adapting to new ways of working that challenged our assumptions about how to get the most out of employees.

But now that we’re starting to (slowly and perhaps questionably) emerge from the pandemic, some business leaders seem to think that this was all a passing phase. They’re about to undergo a rude awakening.

Software Changed The Equation.

When Marc Andreessen wrote that software was “eating the world,” he was describing the structural changes that would occur because businesses and industries would increasingly be run on software and delivered as online services. Andreessen presciently understood that established industry structures were about to undergo a decade of disruption.

That process of digital transformation only accelerated during the pandemic, and organizational behaviors changed in ways that we’re still trying to fully comprehend. But this much is abundantly clear: Businesses that depended on in-person interaction were now using replacement processes that were just as good, if not better, than their pre-Covid-19 routines.

If there’s one thing we should have learned from this shared experience working under the shadow of Covid-19, it’s this: The traditional concept of the office as a place where people need to show up in person every single day is about as useful as an appendix.

Thinking about my working routine during the pandemic versus my pre-pandemic work routine, I can report that I’m holding meetings and conversations using video that I wouldn’t normally have had when most of my working interactions were in-person. My efficiency as an executive has increased dramatically because I can do all this remotely and digital technology has made this a socially accepted way to conduct business.

But not everyone is of the same mind.

On Wall Street, for instance, bank CEOs are pushing to get their staff back at their desks by Labor Day. A survey representing many of New York city’s biggest employers found that they expect 62% of workers back at their desks by the end of September. In Silicon Valley, hybrid work options seem to be the order of the day, but even then, there seems to be an expectation that this will be temporary. Elsewhere, Apple CEO Tim Cook told his employees this summer they would be required back in the office by September with workers expected to be in the office for three days a week, with two days of remote work.

While I’m sure Cook thought it was a generous offer, Apple employees pushed back with their own missive, arguing that they want more flexibility as well as the ability to decide whether or not to work remotely full-time. In perhaps what is a sign of things to come, Apple just recently pushed their “back to the office” date to October, signaling a small win for Apple employees.

Meanwhile, we still haven’t fully factored in the delta variant situation. I was talking with a fund manager recently whose company had brought everybody back to the office on a semi-regular basis. On the first day back, somebody tested positive for the delta variant. Everybody in the office was fully vaccinated — including the person who tested positive. Now, they’re all working from home again.

Technology has proven that organizations can operate without needing huge quantities of physical space. But too many business leaders remain stuck in an old mindset, seemingly desperate to justify their existing expenditures in real estate.

That’s a recipe for a culture clash given how we’re in the midst of a generational shift with the growing influence of the work cohort represented by Gen Z. This is a demographic that’s going to dominate the world in a few years and they are far more comfortable using video to interact with fellow employees and the outside world. These same employees are probably all looking for opportunities that give them the convenience that they’ve grown accustomed to in the last year. Commuting to the office a couple of days each week to collaborate? No problem. But every single day? No way.

This generation, which is different from its predecessors in important ways, expects that the same sort of experiences that drove their consumer lives will similarly inform their professional lives. They came to maturity in a convenience economy where the expectation was that everything should be available immediately, as conveniently as possible. So, how do you expect the average Gen Zer to commute two hours to a job? This is the same person who grew up in a culture where they can basically snap their fingers and have the best food delivered to their apartment, order a ride or have somebody pick up their dry cleaning.

We’re Not Returning To The Old Normal. Why Should We?

Futurists living in the 19th century believed the workplace of the future would be automated with people able to work from home if they chose. They were ahead of their time, but that prediction is coming to pass thanks to continuing advances in technology that change how we work.

The Gutenberg printing press of our era is automation, which is a big reason why SaaS companies are now so valuable; they both provide digital solutions and were able to embrace this technology faster than older rivals because they were technology-ready.

We’re all in a competitive environment, and businesses will have to choose whether to embrace the distributed model or not. I know where my company comes out in that debate. Any company that still thinks it can issue an edict and its people will happily return to the office is living in a bubble.

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