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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

COVID-19 Pandemic Will Change Our Work and Lives Forever

Each day we are learning ways to adapt to the new “Working from Home” reality as we self-isolate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As people speculate on how long this shutdown will last and when will we return to our normal lives at work, the reality is that this may never happen.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, we won’t go back to business as usual. Here are some ways this crisis will permanently change our lives and our work:

Work from Home on demand. COVID-19 has shown people how they can get their work done from their homes and use videoconferencing to communicate with their colleagues. When the pandemic is under control, it is unlikely they will go back to working as before. Far fewer people will have their own office or private workspace. Almost all their work will be done on-line, so there will be no need to keep paper files in office files. Instead, many more will work from home or a shared office in which they use shared desks and workspaces, with enclosed conference rooms for meetings. Most people are finding they do not need the same level of administrative support as they schedule meetings through easy-to-use calendaring and video conferencing systems. Already, enormous firms like Accenture have moved to this form of working for its 500,000 employees.

Online, all the time. The workday will change from 9 to 5 to 24/7, as people will be connected through their devices all the time. As one manager told me, “My company would take 100% of my time if I let it.” That means people must set their own boundaries between home and work – apportioning family time, personal time, leisure time, and sleeping hours. If they don’t, work life will become unbearable and the quality of their work will decline. To accomplish this, all employees – with the possible exception of factory and warehouse workers – will need to be fully wired with mobile phones, laptops, printers and a full range of accessory devices.

Shift to online shopping. While not a new trend, COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to online shopping and away from shopping malls and big box stores. The initial impetus is avoiding germs, but many shoppers are finding going online is easier and more convenient. The same goes for grocery shopping as people have their groceries delivered to their door. With same-day and next day delivery, people are finding little reason to drive to a mall.

Shift away from restaurants to eating at home. After decades of eating more meals at restaurants and fast food places, people are enjoying cooking and eating at home – and saving money while doing so. Many restaurants will never reopen after the virus is contained because demand will continue to be down, partially offset by the increase in take-out and home delivery.

Telemedicine. Being able to communicate directly with your doctor via telemedicine has obvious benefits over having to set up an appointment many weeks in advance and then have to drive to your doctor’s office. However, the shift to telemedicine has been impeded by archaic reimbursement rules requiring in-person visits. With the COVID-19 crisis, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is finally approving reimbursement for telemedicine and many insurers are following suit.

The effectiveness of telemedicine can be greatly enhanced with patient monitoring systems in the home that can transmit patient data to physicians over the Internet in real time, enabling people suffering from COVID-19 as well as heart failure, diabetes, etc. to stay at home yet still be in close touch with their physicians. In this way, only the sickest patients will have to be in hospitals.

Self-care becomes the new primary care. We know that 50-70% of all health care costs are the result of lifestyles that people can control themselves, yet unhealthy behaviors persist. The threat of COVID-19 offers a unique opportunity to improve the immune system to cope with the virus by engaging in five essential self-care practices. If we follow them, self-care will become the new primary care.

1. Eat a healthy diet, with emphasis on vegetables and fruits and limited meat.

2. No smoking, recreational drug use or excessive alcohol consumption.

3. Get an hour of exercise every day, including 10,000 steps.

4. Get 7.5-8 hours of sleep every night.

5. Have a daily practice of 20 minutes of mindfulness, meditation or prayer.

Meanwhile, the crisis will also change how companies operate:

Revaluing front-line workers. For decades businesses have worked to decrease the cost of their front-line workers and have substituted layers of middle managers and consultants analyzing and controlling the work. The time is long overdue to reemphasize the importance of first-line employees. Firms like Walmart and Target stepped up early with special bonuses for their front-line workers, while employees at Amazon, Whole Foods and Instacart have gone on strike for improved safety conditions and better pay. As more firms like Amazon go to $15 per hour minimum wage, the yawning pay gap with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour creates a dichotomy that should not be allowed to continue, even for small business.

Reducing middle managers, project managers and consultants. In the past two decades, focus on systems and processes to reduce costs of first-line workers has led to more layers of middle managers, analysts and reams of consultants, creating an “analysis paralysis” and a proliferation of complex power point charts.  It is time to refocus on front-line workers and eliminate much of the cost of managing them. Middle managers, for example, can become district sales leaders instead of district sales managers, in order to concentrate on their most important accounts. Instead of engineering project managers, we should have project leaders, and the same for all other functions. Instead of using consultants to do the work of management, companies should give the challenges to their own employees, who know the business far better than any consultant could.

Curtailing travel. Because of the Coronavirus, we have learned to have meetings online. Systems like Zoom and Skype are working well, even for large groups. Because everyone can see their faces, attendees tend to be more present and less distracted than on conference calls.  Think about how much of your time is required to fly to Shanghai or Zurich for a business review or customer meeting, to say nothing of the wear-and-tear on your body from changes in time zones and loss of sleep. Or even to fly from LA to New York for a meeting? How much more efficient and effective would people be if they could use this travel time productively?

Shortening meetings. Home-bound use of Zoom or Skype for meetings is teaching us more efficient ways of doing things. How would the work schedule change for all of us if we rarely traveled outside our home and office, and cut our meetings down to average of 45 minutes? This alone would free up our time and enhance our family and personal lives.

Increasing the use of temporary and part-time workers. While tens of millions of people in permanent jobs are being laid off, millions more are being hired into temporary and part-time jobs by firms like Walmart, Amazon, Target, Domino’s Pizza, FedEx and UPS as people shift to shopping online and ordering food delivery. These jobs bring their own share of problems like impermanence and lack of benefits, but they will become more common even after the virus is contained.

Accelerating digital transformation. Now is the time to accelerate every company’s transformation to be all-digital globally. Everyone should have access to the same information to do their jobs. This can eliminate a lot of the power points to present this information. Digital-first companies will assume employees have reviewed the data and focus their time on resolving important issues.

For all of the terrible tragedies brought on by COVID-19, turmoil inevitably unlocks innovation. These new ways of working more efficiently not only will change the nature of the workplace, but will make companies more effective. Companies who figure out how to use today’s adversity to invent tomorrow’s workplace will prosper in the long-term.