The coronavirus pandemic has caused significant hardship and has forced us to look at much of life through a new lens. But it’s not all negative. There have been many positives that have come from this experience – and we shouldn’t ignore them. Personally, I’m thankful for the extra time I’ve been able to spend with my family, and I miss nothing about the 100-odd days I spent in hotel rooms last year. There’s no question the closure of schools and daycare facilities has created significant challenges for working parents. But I’ve also heard from employees that they’ve been able to focus on their health and fitness more than they ever have before. Others appreciate how they have been able to recycle their commute time to pursue new hobbies.
Even if you leave aside the persistent threat from the virus, for these people, a return to pre-pandemic office life is largely unappealing. If I told them they had to start coming into the office most days of the week again, they would ask, “Why?” And I don’t have a good reason. The pandemic has raised a pressing question that business leaders must address: Do most employees need to be in offices to do their jobs well?
I don’t think so – and haven’t thought so for some time. Even before the pandemic, Sikich was putting in place the infrastructure to enable most of our professionals to work whenever and wherever they want. As a result, the transition to remote work during the pandemic has been seamless for our company. Looking forward, we won’t go back to the way things were. Instead, I envision a future where professionals are more empowered to make work fit their lives (as opposed to the other way around).
Transforming the work-life relationship
Business leaders of course must verify that their organizations can sustain a high level of productivity in a remote work environment. But, if they can, why wouldn’t they give workers more flexibility and allow them to find better work-life integration?
For individuals, the ramifications of this shift are exciting. For example, many professionals will now be able to live wherever they want. Some will seek a lower cost of living. Others will move closer to aging family members. Still others may just want to live near the beach. Some professionals may not want to move but will enjoy having their commute time back. I believe letting professionals decide what work arrangement is best for them and their families will boost morale and productivity. Tradeoffs between family and work and quality of life and work that office culture forced on people will no longer exist.
Another major consideration is that office space is expensive, and companies earn no return on these costs. Leaders should be looking at ways to minimize these costs, but that doesn’t mean eliminating offices entirely. After all, some employees prefer to work in offices regularly, and we should accommodate them. Others may want to use offices for client meetings from time to time. But companies that embrace a remote-work model won’t need space for everyone, all the time. Therefore, many companies will be able to reduce square footage dramatically.
The pandemic has also forced us to challenge conventional wisdom when it comes to business travel. Some business travel is necessary and will return. But, let’s be honest. Much of it is unnecessary, and virtual meetings can be a more-than-adequate stand-in.
Leaders would be foolish to simply pocket the savings they realize from eliminating office space and reducing business travel, though. Companies that move to a remote-work model should apply a large portion of these savings to culture-building initiatives and professional-development efforts. After all, culture still matters. And with a distributed workforce, business leaders must more proactively build their companies’ cultures. How this looks will vary from company to company. Some organizations may see value in hosting big, annual events. Others may opt for more frequent, regional events, or creative virtual events. But alongside an embrace of flexibility, it’s important to invest in efforts that enhance camaraderie and collaboration. Professional development and training must be a large part of these culture-building efforts. The companies that develop their employees and show them a path to professional growth and advancement will still be the ones that retain and attract the best talent.
Companies that move to a remote-work model will also expand their talent pools. With access to prospective employees around the world, teams will be able to build more diverse and talented workforces. I believe the businesses that seek to return to an office-centric model of work will fall behind more forward-thinking organizations when it comes to recruitment and retention.
So, where are we headed? Our professionals are asking us as leaders to envision a better future for the business and for them. Even before the pandemic, many organizations, including our own, were working hard to help employees achieve better work-life integration. The pandemic has propelled us more quickly in a direction we were already headed. We’re continuing to move forward aggressively. I believe other business leaders should do the same. Work has fundamentally changed in ways that are irreversible, in my view. It’s time to imagine a better, more flexible work environment that enables our professionals to thrive in work and life – and make it a reality.