It’s almost impossible to overstate the seismic impact the novel coronavirus has had on the workplace this year. For those companies that are still able to operate in some fashion, many have sent employees home to work remotely until further notice. In fact, a recent McKinsey report estimates that in early April, 62 percent of employed Americans worked at home, compared with just 25 percent during the same time two years ago.
Time Magazine called the coronavirus outbreak “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment,” and reported that many companies suddenly found themselves scrambling to implement a coherent and effective remote-work strategy on the fly.
By now, however, millions of people around the world are becoming experts in daily videoconferencing on platforms like Zoom, staying in touch with team members via Google Hangouts and Slack, and virtually delivering project status updates to clients located across continents.
The technology isn’t perfect, by any means, and countless people have created social media posts about embarrassing meeting interruptions by restless children or curious pets, or getting caught on camera not wearing pants with their dress shirt and tie. There’s even a feature in Zoom called Touch Up My Appearance that gives videoconferencers the soft focus treatment to smooth out skin tone and make them look more polished.
Now that many companies are forced to make videoconferencing work despite its glitches and frustrations, some are beginning to decide that the new normal could remain the standard even after the pandemic is no longer keeping people in quarantine.
Many companies are expanding remote work options.
Take Twitter, for instance. In May, CEO Jack Dorsey announced that all Twitter and Square employees would have the option to continue working from home indefinitely. It turns out that the majority of people working from home enjoy it, despite the sometimes frustrating technology and physical separation from colleagues.
There are lots of benefits to working remotely. When you work from home, you no longer have a commute. For some people, that can add up to a couple extra hours a day to spend on more interesting or productive activities. You spend less on gas, and reduce pollution. There’s less pressure to dress up. Work-life balance can improve. With kids doing school remotely as well, parents can be there to supervise. Some people even work better—a recent survey of Nutanix employees who are working from home revealed that 80 percent of them felt they were equally or even more productive than they had been at the office. Executives are seeing potential cost savings, too, such as reducing or even eliminating the costs of large, expensive office leases and perks such as free food and holiday parties.
Even once the pandemic is under control and people go back to working in offices, things will certainly be different than before. Many companies are planning on reducing on-site staff to maintain 50 percent capacity in physical offices through rotation of employees or designated “in-office days.” A continual large percentage of remote workers can curtail effective collaboration, which turned out to be the main reason some employees—such as those surveyed recently at Nutanix—want to return to the office at all.
Some companies are rethinking the need for an office altogether. Without an office and staffed with people scattered across states or countries, organizations could significantly reduce or eliminate the need for regular travel to headquarters. A virtual workforce would also enable companies to seek out the best talent wherever they can find it, and not have to be limited to one specific geographical region.
Despite the many perks, some experts still say the concept has its flaws. It’s one thing to be forced to work from home and make it work well enough for the time being, and something else entirely to adopt a permanent remote work strategy as an integral part of company culture. What is good enough in the short term can become laborious or ineffective in the long run when the technology isn’t improving as quickly as you want and methods for driving strong communication and building trust among virtual team members, for instance, haven’t been well thought out or clearly defined.
Remote work doesn’t work for everyone, so companies get creative.
Regardless of whether they end up working from home forever, employees at Twitter, Square, and other technology companies are fortunate that they even have that option. In addition to the tech sector, other industries are well-suited to at least partial remote work capabilities, including finance, insurance, administrative and professional services, management, marketing, and government.
What about other industries, however, whose success relies heavily on in-person experiences? What about the hospitality industry? Or arts and entertainment companies, event planners, healthcare organizations, and travel agents? Businesses in these industries have to get a lot more creative and actually redefine the nature of their business. It’s not easy, and many companies can’t or won’t make that change.
Here are a few inspiring examples of companies that are finding innovative ways to survive—and thrive—amid a global economic crisis.
Healthcare – Atrium Health
Operating in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, Atrium Health is a nonprofit healthcare network that includes hospitals, emergency and urgent care clinics, and a wide variety of medical practices. The organization has greatly increased its capacity for telehealth and virtual visits, allowing thousands of people to avoid having to leave their homes for healthcare services. For example:
- Before COVID-19, only 1 percent of Levine Cancer Institute patients had virtual visits. By April of this year, 43 percent of patient visits were virtual.
- Staff at the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute converted 95 percent of in-office visits to virtual visits, either via telephone or videoconference. With 60 percent of the institute’s patients on Medicare, that meant the virtual visits allowed more than 300 patients per day to receive specialty care from the comfort of their own homes.
- While telehealth isn’t new to Atrium Health’s Surgery Care Division, the organization was able to quickly expand its existing virtual video visit platform during the onset of the pandemic—so caregivers can conduct more pre- and post-operative appointments virtually. That means patients don’t have to go out to have a physician look at a healing incision or drain.
- Caregivers can remotely monitor babies born to mothers infected with COVID-19, via telemedicine carts that are equipped with high-resolution cameras and virtual stethoscopes.
- By sharing critical data and live video over the organization’s network, patients can get the same quality of care at the hospital closest to their home, even if it’s a smaller facility. This helps minimize the need for patient transfers between critical care units.
Food Service – Cloud kitchens and more
While the coronavirus has all but obliterated the restaurant industry, many eateries are managing to survive by offering takeout and delivery-only services while their in-house dining areas sit vacant. However, some businesses are foregoing the dining rooms altogether and focusing solely on takeout and delivery. These establishments are often called “cloud kitchens” or “ghost kitchens” and they are taking off in the era of COVID-19 because of the dramatic increase in delivery orders and the proliferation of food delivery services such as DoorDash and GrubHub.
The economics of cloud kitchens can be attractive. A recent article gave an example: “A brick-and-mortar restaurant in New York City costs $1 million to $1.5 million to set up, while a cloud kitchen can get up and running for $100,000.” Some cloud kitchens are shared spaces, with more than one “restaurant” operating within them, which makes the costs per business even lower.
Beyond a sharp focus on food delivery, some restaurants are digging even deeper to find new ways to attract diners. In April, for instance, Red Lobster offered Date Night Deals, which allowed people to order meals for two (for takeout or delivery) – plus tap in to the restaurant’s Date Night Playlist on Spotify, which featured more than four hours of love songs. They also provided 10 downloadable Zoom backgrounds to complete the ambience, with choices that included an ocean surf, a Red Lobster bar, and a pile of their famous cheese biscuits.
While the “meal for two” meant you would likely be with your special someone in person, the restaurant suggested that the playlist and backgrounds would make it possible for you to “double date” with friends who were located elsewhere.
Travel – Pack Up + Go
Pack Up + Go is a travel agency that offers full-itinerary surprise vacations, in which you tell them some general preferences, your budget, and who you’re traveling with, and they plan a complete trip for you. The surprise is that you don’t know the destination until it’s time to depart.
The pandemic was its own surprise, and brought with it severe travel restrictions and serious lack of consumer interest in even domestic travel. The agency started thinking and came up with a creative idea to stay in business. It’s called Staycations and allows people to explore their own cities so they don’t have to get on an airplane or train. The short trips of one or two nights include hotel, valet parking, and personalized itineraries based on the interests of the travelers—plus one surprise attraction or activity.
Initially, the company introduced the Staycations concept to existing customers, and got a lot of positive feedback and interest in the idea. As people tire of sheltering in place and cities begin to open up when and where they can, a brief exploration of their own city can be a welcome break. Pack Up + Go is now offering Staycations in more than 80 cities across the U.S., and is continually working to add more cities in the future.
Higher Education – University of Arizona
In 2015, the University of Arizona launched its first “microcampus” at Ocean University of China. The idea was that students in China could earn University of Arizona degrees through a unique combination of online classes offered by UA and in-person classes at the partner university in the student’s own country. The program included the assignment of a local faculty mentor from the partner university to guide and counsel the student throughout their time in the program.
It was a huge step beyond simply taking online classes, and was primarily designed to provide educational opportunities to students who can’t afford to go to college in the U.S. or travel internationally. The program took off and quickly grew to include universities across the world.
When the coronavirus put a halt to international travel and the ability to procure student visas, the university doubled down on its commitment to provide a quality college education to international students. Now its Global Campus stretches across 34 countries in five continents.
"This rapid implementation is possible because Global Campus builds on two existing strengths: our network of microcampus locations and our top-ranked Arizona Online," said Liesl Folks, University of Arizona Provost, in a recent article on the university’s website. "We want to help students achieve their dreams of a U.S. degree, whether it is from the University of Arizona or another U.S. university.”
IT technology is the underlying force that makes it work.
There’s a common denominator across all of these examples of how companies are having to adapt to the new normal, and it’s IT technology. It’s what enables people to work remotely—and now that remote work is becoming so common, that technology will naturally evolve and continue to get better at empowering the anywhere, anytime approach to work.
IT technology powers creativity – it’s what allows health organizations to develop virtual solutions that deliver the care people need without requiring them to leave the house. Fast, easy food delivery applications keep cloud kitchens profitable. Ever-improving online reservation and booking systems make it simple for travel agencies to customize trip itineraries. And robust educational networks and collaboration solutions allow students from across the world to tap into the resources of an American university.
These are unsettling times for every business. The future of the pandemic and where it will end is uncertain. But here’s what is certain: Technology keeps us hopeful, because it empowers businesses and people to adapt and evolve, to find innovative solutions to our challenges, and to stand up to what happens next.
This article originally appeared in NEXT magazine, issue 8, Fall 2020.
Erin Poulson is a contributing writer who specializes in IT and business topics.
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