The precautions brought forward by COVID-19 have been a catapult into the future of work. The past three weeks have been warm up act for a future workplace that was inevitable. Long before the virus, people were touting remote work as the future, not as a public health precaution but for its convenience and cost effectiveness. In 2014, Fast Company predicated that half the population might be working from home by 2020. Granted, a global pandemic is not what they likely had in mind.
Most life sciences companies have gradually adopted remote working for years, especially in those areas most challenged by barriers to relocation or intense daily commutes. However, others have stayed true to having employees in the office every day. The policies at those companies were often founded on personal preference, based on the whims of executive leaders or corporate culture. Whether your company was on the leading edge of alternative work solutions or hesitant to adopt any changes to its traditional policies, what has always been known is that while certain roles require an office or laboratory presence, the majority do not.
In the past four weeks, employees are learning to adapt. Considering how screen reliant we have all become in the past five years, operating in in this self-isolating environment was already somewhat commonplace. As Tony Cornett, Senior Vice President of Talent Acquisition at Medidata, shared: “Employees are experiencing work-life integration as opposed to trying to manage work-life balance. This has been born into their daily routines with the benefit that their business outcomes are taking priority over their presence in the office.” And, if this way of working has taught us anything, it is that in this new world fueled by Slack, Zoom, corporate VPN’s and virtual collaboration, almost everyone can be effective remotely.
Forced upon us by mandated social distancing, could this new way of working linger long after the virus is gone? If so, the advantages would be enormous. The effects on commuting, housing prices and overall efficiency would be substantial if large swaths of society stopped driving into the office and began working from home. The biggest benefit would likely come to those regions within our industry most strained by the density of companies and employees matched with a lack of housing. Consider Cambridge or South San Francisco. Even as we have all settled into this new normal, it may still be conceivable that this is all just temporary and that we may return to office life by Memorial Day. But that seems unlikely.
The Covid-19 response represents an opportunity for many organizations to modernize infrastructure and processes. Once employers and employees realize that they can function largely as normal without gathering in an office every day, odds are that both will want to try more of that. As companies realize they can stay afloat with a remote workforce, they’ll likely be more flexible in the future. People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way. Managers who didn’t think they could manage or trust teams that were remote will have a different perspective.
The longer we stay in this current environment, the more likely that the changes we have all adopted over the past month will stick as part of our consistent work structure moving forward. Assuming we do see a permanent shift in the acceptance of remote employees, from a recruiting perspective, entirely new talent pools immediately open up. Hiring managers will have the ability source talent from anywhere, easing the overwhelming pressure on overly dense regional hubs. Talent levels would elevate as companies search for the absolute best candidates, not just those willing to relocate.
We are already seeing these assumptions play out in the most forward-thinking companies. Weary from competing for the same talent in markets oversaturated with demand for highly sought after talent, early adopters are building a significant advantage in pipelining candidates not previously considered as viable due to location. These proactive thought leaders, rather than just treading water, will emerge from this period with a significant strategic talent advantage once restrictions are lifted and companies begin to chart their new path forward.