The future is now – Virginia Business Magazine

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April 29, 2021




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Photo by Caroline Martin

One of the biggest and yet to be fully felt impacts of the global pandemic is the way it has accelerated trends, many of which were less apparent before the COVID crisis than they are today. Even as public health concerns might begin to subside, the impact of many business trends will remain. Much of this has to do with how office space is used and how ideas are exchanged.

When it comes to office space, traditional thinking has always been that the only place one wants to see empty desks is the sales department. After all, a company’s revenue — also known as its customers’ money — is outside the building. The sales department’s job is to be out there chasing the money.

But does this apply elsewhere?

Heretofore, the business world operated in a very office-centric environment. Pandemic conditions have tested some assumptions and stood others on their heads. The need for office space may be chief among these. We’ve proven we can survive, but can we thrive?

More than 30 years ago, what we now call working remotely was called telecommuting. Here, this movement was rooted in an attempt to reduce Northern Virginia traffic congestion along the I-95 corridor from Fredericksburg to Dee Cee. The loss of productivity and quality of life was obvious. Too many folks were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours each day.

Another popular solution back then was flex time. Workers were given scheduling choices to arrive earlier and leave earlier as a way of reducing congestion by spreading drive times over longer periods of the day.

Both teleworking and flex time have remained in place, especially among Virginia’s high proportion of state and federal employees. But these ideas never really caught on in the private sector until forced by the need to quarantine for public health reasons.

Among business leaders, keeping top talent is always a major concern. Better use of technology is another top concern. The best way to approach such problems is to see them as complementary rather than competing solutions. We’ve all made big investments in technology, so getting a better return through higher utilization of talent only makes sense.

Remote working may be great for introverts, but what about the extroverts among us? In reality, this is more than just a binary choice. It is probably fair to say that work-from-home arrangements tend to be more popular with the rank-and-file than among managers. Unlike commute time, which is easy to define, collaboration is a bit more — if not impossibly — abstract. Still, it is exactly the more abstract things that separate an organization that is competent or reasonably good from one that is great.

Over the past 12 months, we’ve gone down various little rabbit holes and done whatever was needed to survive. How’s that working for you now? Looking forward, it is time to do more than survive. It’s time to thrive.

During each previous economic recession, the phenomenon of “see-through buildings” has been apparent.  These are commercial spaces, often built on speculation, that one drives past, seeing light through the glass from one side to the other — no workers, no furniture, just empty unleased space. This is not anyone’s desired future. Empty business districts also mean empty restaurants, empty museums and empty arts and cultural venues. In other words, no shared civic life.

It’s time to get back to work. This can’t be done by mandate and it cannot be done overnight. Let’s make good use of the technology that we’ve come to depend on. Let’s make good use of the talent within our organizations. Show respect for people and how we use their time. Let’s return to the joy of organizations working well and collaborating together, not just surviving apart.

In almost all ways a successful future depends on the business community. That future is now.

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