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What will happen to patterns of work after COVID?  Most of my global clients are trying to guess what their office teams will want to do after the pandemic is over.  What will happen to office occupancy?  Will virtual working patterns continue, or will we revert to previous office-based behaviours?  What happens to future business travel or workplace commuting? Will today's corporate HQs and other iconic offices become redundant?

The truth is that longer term changes are slower than most imagine

I've been predicting global trends for 30 years - and here's a few forecasts for the next 10 years of work.

But before that, here is an observation which relates to the workplace and everything else: much of the world is changing far more slowly than you might imagine.

That has been the case for decades now.

Pundits come and go with the most amazing, exciting or even apocalyptic forecasts, and some are making dramatic workplace forecasts, but I have learned that the truth is usually far more boring.

Yes of course, some industries get hit by major events whatever they are, but they usually recover better than people think they will at the time.  

And the COVID pandemic is no exception.

I warned of the risks of new viral pandemics for over two decades, and this particular pandemic will cast a shadow over our world, and the workplace in particular, for a long time, but...

Companies that think COVID has changed everything will go out of business

The fact is that the world continued to turn throughout the COVID crisis, just as it always does in every other crisis.

Stock market values in 2020 remained high for example, while cash reserves are huge in many multinational bank accounts.

Most people did not stop working - they just made some changes and carried on.

Yes of course there has been huge social disruption, massive pressures on health care and on mental health, but much less damage to most businesses than you might imagine.

Part of the reason has been massive economic stimulus in many nations.

But it's also because people still need to eat, sleep, breath, work, relax and so on.

Expect catch-up travel and a flurry of face to face meetings with clients

The fact is that human beings are social creatures and building trust with people you have never physically met is really hard.

Human nature has not changed: the drive to meet, learn, collaborate, explore and share experiences together.

You may have closed new deals with existing clients during lockdown, but developing new client relationships is much harder.

Competitors who get into face to face meetings with your clients, while you stay home, will win your business.  Guaranteed.

Most businesses have a huge amount of ground to catch up - for example their normal client conferences, seminars, workshops were cancelled for months.

It is rare to close a major deal in an emerging market for example, without eating and drinking together - becoming part of family.

So expect a bounce back, as restrictions allow, in business travel, business hospitality, networking events, dinners and so on.

And the longer any nation or corporation is locked down, the greater the bounce back will be.

Expect intense team-building at work - face to face

The same with workplace teams - keeping your employees on track and motivated at work can become more difficult as weeks turn into months.

But integrating new team members, bringing major workplace changes, driving new strategy or innovation - these things are more difficult, but even more vital when any business emerges from major pressures.

It's all to do with emotion.  Emails are great for data, information, fixing diary dates, giving routine updates.  WhatsApp too, and other platforms.

And Virtual meetings are great for keeping things moving smoothly along.  But leadership is about far more than that.  

Leadership is about making the rules, not following them.  

Leadership is about bringing fresh vision and confidence, challenging perspectives, moving staff around, creating new market initiatives - and that means discomfort for workers who don't like change, for team members who maybe don't see the point, or feel threatened in some way.

So expect major investment in gathering workplace teams together - not just in offices, factories and so on, but in workshops, seminars, local and regional conferences etc as COVID allows.

And yes, working patterns will then settle down to slightly different format than before.

Expect smarter team working

Many companies only started using the virtual tools they owned when lockdown hit. In many cases the result was a leap in workplace productivity for three reasons:

- Less commuting / travel time

- Greater availability for instant virtual meetings

- Greater focus on things that really matter

For example, before COVID, most executives would say that they can write an important document at home in a quarter of the time than trying the same in a busy office.

So productivity rocketed on major project-type proposals, initiatives, concepts.

But not for everyone.  Many people have home situations which are poorly suited to virtual working.

For example young children at home, small amount of space, noisy location, shared apartment, lots of open plan living areas and so on.

Acceleration of existing workplace trends rather than radical change

I have not seen a single workplace shift during the COVID pandemic that was not widely forecast for a decade or two at least, by trend analysts like myself.

What we've experienced is acceleration of well-trailed changes.  

So for example, many of my global clients were already planning for - say - 25% less office space per 100 staff by 2025.  Now they think they will achieve that by 2022.  

What's so radical about that?

So in summary, take a deep breath and look around

You may be very surprised at how familiar things feel in a year or two.  

What you expected in five years or ten may happen in two to five maybe.

In the meantime, take every opportunity you can to restore relationships, build trust, meet face to face (safely), win new friends and influence people.

Set aside plenty of budget to gather and invest in hospitality.


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