Many signs point to 2021 being a year of significant change as the world reopens. What are you doing to get your company and your staff ready?

Image: iStock/sam thomas

Most of us likely recall the half-page or so of our elementary school history textbooks devoted to the dark ages, when the Roman Empire fell and textbook authors seemed loathe to invest much beyond a paragraph or two describing the years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance as a Hobbesian existence: Nasty, brutish, and short.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Most of the world is still gripped in a modern-era version of the dark ages, as new cycles of lockdowns and increasing COVID case counts flood societies around the world. However, aside from the usual hopefulness that accompanies the start of a new year, there are signs of medical, economic, and societal hope, from the rollout of COVID vaccines, to stabilizing and improving economic indicators. While the conditions of the moment might appear grim, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Planning for the “unlockdown”

For many, the immediate response to the COVID pandemic was sudden and swift. Whole societies closed their doors, the travel industry imploded, and workforces shifted seemingly overnight to remote and gig-based work. While vaccines and other mitigation measures are unlikely to roll out on a global basis as quickly as the initial waves of COVID infections, by all accounts they are progressing at a rate somewhere between “as planned” and “imperfectly,” certainly a superior alternative to no vaccines whatsoever.

SEE: Big data’s role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Just as COVID made what seemed like overnight winners out of companies like Zoom and Peloton, so too may the effects of the world reopening create a new set of winners. There is obvious pent-up demand for services like travel and restaurants, and closer to home, many employees are yearning for a return to the office and physical interaction.

From a tactical perspective, disused real estate will gradually become active, and technology infrastructure that has been operating at single-digit capacity may suddenly find its usage returning to full capacity. A year’s worth of hardware failures, firmware updates, and glitches that would have been identified quickly by an office full of users may be lurking in infrastructure that was disused while the majority of the workforce was remote, and IT staff were more concerned with updating Teams than fixing that flaky switch on the sixth floor.

Perhaps even more interesting and potentially challenging than dusting the cobwebs off the Wi-Fi access points is how work in general will have changed during the pandemic, and which characteristics will be maintained. It will be amusing to see if yoga pants and sweats become the new “business casual,” but perhaps the more pressing question for IT leaders will be when, where, and how staff interact.

SEE: How IT can prepare for the coming hybrid work environment (TechRepublic)

Most workforces have proven beyond a doubt that they can function productively while remote; will you continue to allow 100% remote working, and if not, how will you justify any prohibitions? If your employees used personal devices to perform their jobs and the world didn’t implode, can you enforce your policy that the clunky corporate desktop is still “required due to security reasons,” when an employee’s sleek MacBook worked just fine for the last year? Will an employee who performed their job flawlessly while working all manner of strange hours to accommodate their childcare schedule be forced back into a 9-5 schedule?

Rethink rather than enforce

While the pandemic visited horrors upon the world that still haven’t been fully accounted for or understood, it also seems to have unlocked a resilience and newfound flexibility in organizations that might have felt like they lost that ability decades ago. From century-old automakers and their usually adversarial unions figuring out how to collaborate to make medical equipment seemingly overnight, to local businesses setting up creative curbside and home delivery, there was an unprecedented willingness to experiment, be flexible, and abandon long-held beliefs around what could and could not (or should not) be done.

SEE: The micromanager’s guide to remote working: Help your team stay productive without hovering (TechRepublic)

Few people believe that the world will return to exactly the way it was pre-COVID, which in many ways is a blinding flash of the obvious. However, many leaders are underestimating the changes that your workforce will demand to the very nature of its work, changes that they’ve proven are feasible, sustainable, and beneficial. Pause for a moment and consider the fact that you’ve asked your workforce to convert part of their homes into an office, invite coworkers, vendors, and a motley assortment of complete strangers into their homes (albeit virtually), forced them to expose their pets, children, partners, and design sensibility (or lack thereof) to this ragtag bunch, and keep working hard while they worry about everything from job security, to their children’s education, to the safety of their family.

The overwhelming majority of these people rose to the occasion, and they will rightfully demand fundamental changes to when, where, and how they work. Savvy leaders are already considering how they will accommodate rapid change due to “unlockdown.” Are you?

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