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The New Normal: No Business Travel, Permanent Remote Policies, and a Harder Look at Gender Inequalities

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Morticia Adams of the iconic Addams Family once said, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” And, while it may be normal for a virus to spread among people, the coronavirus, as we all know too well, has been chaotic for companies, albeit the world.

Now, nearly nine months in, these “short-term adjustments” have become new normals. For employees, most have settled into personal new normals that include indoor/outdoor home offices, dressing from the top up for videoconferences, and for those who are parents, the additional role of teacher and principal. The sound of barking dogs, landscaping crews, and children interrupting videoconferences are frequent and no longer awkward mishaps. One investment banking executive schedules his meetings around his neighbors’ landscaping schedules, noting “I have the days and times for each neighbor reoccurring on my calendar.”

Many companies have also implemented what were anticipated to be short-term adjustments in support of a quarantine that was expected to only last a few weeks. Now, several months in, companies are adjusting to new, longer-term normals. The following are key adjustments that companies have implemented to sustain operations through a pandemic with an indeterminable end.

Digitizing

In 2018, Alex & Red and The Alexander Group implemented a digital, ‘paperless office’ plan. We digitized records and files, utilized videoconferencing for firmwide meetings, issued laptops to every employee, and removed printers and filing cabinets from offices. We take notes on digital tablets and firm members (like me) who still have paper files and tablets are castigated. We were, fortunately, well prepared for the sudden transition to working remotely last March. Similarly, companies have digitized a comprehensive range of processes from communications, sales and marketing, and IT infrastructure to digital platforms. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, cloud-computing companies that assist businesses in digitizing are booming and are hiring by the thousands.

Business Travel Restrictions

Business travel has been down as much as 97 percent since last year and most major corporations and firms who have a high number of employees are either not permitting or are significantly restricting business travel for the remainder of the year. A recent poll showed that only 10 percent of companies will greenlight travel in the fourth quarter and that many companies have significantly trimmed travel budgets to a fraction of years past – budgetary moves that will likely restrict travel through 2021. Year-over-year, business travelers account for 75 percent of an airlines’ revenue and corporate travel restrictions have had and likely will continue to have a severe impact on the industry.

Temporary to Permanent Remote Work Policies

Prior to the pandemic, only 30 percent of companies had employees who worked remotely. Remote working policies have always been appealing recruitment and retention strategies, and industries such as information technology and management consulting have had remote working policies in place for years. Many industries that have not are taking note. Law firms, for example, rarely permitted attorneys and staff the option of working remotely – and most of those were rare exceptions. As some law firms are beginning to gradually open offices, one COO mentioned that his firm is, for the first time in the firm’s 125-year history, developing a permanent remote working policy for its attorneys and staff. He noted that the firm’s partners have adjusted “and have become quite comfortable” with working remotely and that the policy change will positively impact the firm’s bottom line – the firm will be able to reduce office space by as much as 40 percent in some offices.

A Dire Need to Adapt

Unfortunately, many companies and industries neglected to make key adjustments to support women in the workforce and the toll will likely have a devasting impact on the progress made toward gender inclusion in the workplace. A McKinsey study conducted in partnership with LeanIn.org reported that the effects of the COVID-19 crisis have exacerbated gender disparities and their implications for women at work and that as many as two million women may not return to the workforce: “In addition to being laid off and furloughed at higher rates than their male counterparts during the pandemic, women are—notably, for the first time in our research on the topic—considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether at staggering rates.” As TAG Managing Director Jane Howze wrote earlier this March on International Women’s Day, “everyone benefits from a more gender-equal society” and the call to action to accelerate gender equality is more important than ever.

Fortunately, there is reason to be optimistic and many company executives believe that circumstances will progress favorably over the next six months. As a recent McKinsey global survey of executives reported, over 50 percent of the executives surveyed believe that economic conditions will improve. Perhaps we may soon see the beginning of an eventual end.

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John mann

John M. Mann

Managing Director, Alex & Red