Back to the future?

Through all the conversations I have had with businesses over the course of lockdown, several themes are emerging, all of which in some way point to significant social change. The most obvious of these, of course, is ‘working from home’, which has become a necessity for most businesses and was enabled by IT departments at blistering pace. This however, is just the tip of the iceberg and the changes that it signifies. We have been in the grip of a digital revolution it seems for over a decade but when things started to go wrong this year, many businesses were still way behind the curve and some may never catch up. Others have been able to accelerate their programmes to great effect; more than one CIO has admitted to me recently that they have been able to overcome twenty years of technical debt in several weeks. This trend will deepen as we spend more time in our homes and the longer it goes on the more embedded it becomes in our culture. What does this mean for the future? Working from home was once the preserve of the special case, the exception to the rule when I started out. The Global Financial Crisis was largely responsible for bringing WFH into the mainstream, as City firms and large corporates as well as small businesses, sought to reduce overheads. As communication technology improved, so did our acceptance of it as a means of doing business and so theses days, at least in leadership positions, the odd day working from home is a given. This crisis though is smashing through the last taboos of WFH. Banks are proving to themselves that they can still deliver with a distributed workforce and remain compliant. Call centres are coming back on line (literally), without the need for hive like communal spaces. Even my industry is learning that heads (and shoulders), can still be hunted, as long as you can see and hear them.

So, what happens when the lockdown ends, will it be back to normal? Our own recent history teaches us that this is unlikely. Consider the case of equality between the sexes if you will. The suffragette movement in this country began in 1903 but half of our population were still denied the vote until after their contribution to the great war was recognised in 1928. It took yet another crisis (the Second World War), and the necessity of radically different working practices, to really begin the march towards equality in the workplace. However, once the dust settled on these terrible events, our culture was forever changed. To a lesser extent, the same is true today, as businesses that do not adapt in the crisis will not win their battle to survive and those that do should expect those changes to become the new normal. One of the most pronounced impacts that this is likely to have is the way that businesses think about office space. One FTSE100 CFO recently suggested that their weighting for desk requirements was likely to be adjusted, from 0.8 desks per person, to as little as 0.4 desks per person in head office. Having proved that they can operate successfully with most of the workforce permanently at home, many businesses will now be considering the cost benefits of basing more of their workforce away from expensive offices, or large costly call centres. This in turn will have an impact on supporting industries, from business attire retailers expecting a continued drop in demand, to food service providers trying to adjust to feeding us in different ways. Another is the need to adjust to a radically different information security landscape. More than one of my clients has suggested that businesses will swing heavily towards thin client environments in the aftermath.  Everything as a service is likely to become more attractive to a wider audience as we evolve and there are no lack of potential solutions, waiting to attract the PE investment that is bound to come.

As a society we have been edging towards a better work-life balance for decades. We are told that this will become more a necessity when AI eventually delivers on some or indeed any of its promise. We may not be crying out for change like the suffragettes, we may not be at war with each other. But one thing is certain, we will adapt, we will survive and eventually thrive again. If along the way we see at least a little of our ‘cottage industry’ past return, it can’t be a bad thing, can it?

If you would like to confidentially discuss how The Norman Broadbent Group  could help you overcome your business or people challenges, please contact, Neil Pilkington, on 07979 700 739 or via neil.pilkington@normanbroadbent.com