Written by Dave Wegge

As we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is interesting to note the language that is being used to speak of the new era that we are entering. A couple of items have particularly struck me. I have heard several people saying, “I can’t wait until we get through the COVID pandemic and return to normal.” While I am not a soothsayer about the future, I believe thinking about the past year as an “event” and looking forward to returning to “normal” may not be what is in store for us in the future. There are a number of questions that our experiences from the past year have raised for us.

Perhaps there are two critical questions: “Do we see the COVID-19 pandemic as an event?” and “Is COVID-19 part of an era in which we will see an increasing number of pandemics that challenge us in the future?”

In October 2020 Elsevier, a global organization that “…helps researchers and health care professional advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society,” published a report based on the views of an expert panel assessing the origin, impact, and possible preventive measures of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The expert panel reached several conclusions but two are of particular importance:

  • the frequency of pandemics is on the rise with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, with each having the potential to grow to pandemic proportions;
  •  our strategy to deal with the current pandemic has been a reactive containment strategy, rather than a more proactive strategy of identifying the drivers of future pandemics. 

The report concludes by saying, “Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.”  In other words, it will be important to focus on the future by identifying the drivers of pandemics and seek ways to mediate the impact of these drivers. This is a strategic foresight issue. 

The second question is, “What does it mean to return to ‘normal’?” Another phrase that is often being used is will we be returning to a “new normal.” It seems quite clear that we will not be going back to exactly how our lives were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we can speculate about what the “new normal” might look like, it can’t be a “new normal” until we have existed in this new era for a period of time. 

There are some aspects of our personal life, (e.g., going out to restaurants, entertainment venues, sporting events, etc.) that may return to what we view as normal.  Work life for many however, may be dramatically changed. One major change, accelerated by the pandemic, is the growth of remote work or as some have termed it, Working From Home (WFH). It is unclear at this point exactly how the shift to WFH will restructure the workforce and workplace. It does however appear that for many it will not be a binary choice, rather it is likely that hybrid models will emerge. The recent Microsoft Work Trend Index identifies hybrid work as the next great disruption. A survey of over 30,000 people in more than 31 countries revealed that 73% want flexible remote work options to stay and  67% want more in-person work or collaboration in the post-pandemic period.

Locally, one company surveyed its employees who had been working from home during the pandemic and asked if they would want to continue to work from home or return to the company site.  Seventy percent  said they wanted to continue to work from home. Local organizations are being challenged to understand what their workforce and workplace models will be like in the future.

The WFH shift has brought to light many critical issues and questions that as a community will need to be addressed. Does the shift to WFH widen the equity gap? We know that those with higher levels of education who are working in more tech driven sectors are more able to WFH while those with lower levels of education are more likely to be in occupations that require them to work onsite. 

Does WFH create a competitive risk for our workforce or an opportunity? Due to WFH is the greater Green Bay area competing nationally and globally for workers who can work from any geographical location? Will we see workers in Green Bay no longer working for local companies but working for companies on the coasts and still enjoying the high quality of life in Green Bay? Or is it an opportunity for us to attract workers who live on the coasts to work for Green Bay companies? 

What are the secondary and tertiary impacts of WFH? Organizations that have a large segment of their workforce shift to WFH may no longer need large fixed physical office space. How does this impact the physical asset valuations of companies? What is the impact on capital spending by companies? What is the impact for local governments in terms of tax revenue? Much of local government is supported by property taxes. How is the property tax base impacted if companies shifting to smaller physical facilities and their workers are now WFH? 

Then, of course, there are the social, psychological and health related questions that WFH brings to light. Many of these are yet to be fully understood but have significant consequences for the personal well-being of all. 

How will organizations in the greater Green Bay area respond to the questions raised by the current pandemic? What have we learned? Will we be prepared for another major disruption similar to this pandemic? What are the elements of a new normal? 

Our experience with the COVID pandemic has raised a substantial number of critical questions that can guide our thinking into the future.