There are two ways to read the title of this article. “COVID changed some things for good,” could mean that some of the pandemic’s effects will be permanent. Or, it could mean that some of the changes that businesses have adopted due to the pandemic are for the better, and that the pandemic resulted in some positive advancements for businesses. Let’s look at both interpretations:
Pandemic Changes Will Have Permanent Impact on Firms and Business
This topic has been discussed quite thoroughly. The most notable change for most professional firms and their clients has been the full-on adoption of remote work strategies. While the total in-person office shutdown mode lasted only a few months for some (up to a year for others), it was an instant and monumental disruption that even technologically advanced firms had some challenges with. For these firms, it was more a matter of polishing workflow and developing best practices for video meetings and staff management.
For firms that were less tech-savvy, the pandemic meant quickly moving to cloud systems for virtually all of their firm management and client service functions. Oh, and the biggest disruption happened in the last month of tax season. (Until the tax season was extended by three months in 2020.)
While most staff seemed to like the freedom of remote work, firm management were frazzled by the unstructured nature of work, and challenged by project management that used to be measured more by the hour than by the project. As the pandemic dragged on, many still-at-home workers started to also crave the need for the interpersonal contact that offices provide, as well as greater structure, guidance, mentoring, and more traditional training options.
As most offices have reopened in some capacity, many firms are not returning to the old normal, but are instead implementing hybrid workforce models where staff rotate into the office for a few days a week, while others may continue to mostly work from home, and still others return to the office full-time. Going forward, things won’t be the same as during the height of the pandemic, nor will they return to the way it was in 2019. Instead, modern workflow practices will continue to evolve, but with a major kickstart from the measures adopted due to the pandemic.
Among the key technology-driven work transitions that are most likely to stay with us, are video calls, remote work, virtual conferences, and better cyber security. All of these existed prior to the pandemic, but adoption increased dramatically as a result. Also, many firms or their remote workers will now have the ability to move out of higher-priced and congested city centers into the suburbs. This will decrease real estate costs for firms, while also improving quality of life for workers, with less commute time.
Pandemic Technology Changes are for the Better
According to AICPA executive and accounting thought leader Tom Hood, CPA, technology adoption advanced by as much as 10 years during the last year and a half. Not the technology itself—but the implementation of it by firms. As an example, it took 15-20 years for the paperless movement to eventually achieve a place in a majority of firms. It could have taken as long for most firms to have all or mostly-all cloud technologies. Pre-pandemic, most firms had a few cloud systems, but still relied on many legacy systems that were installed on workstations or servers at the office. The pandemic made these firms immediately evolve and adapt to total cloud or remote-access systems.
Small business clients and individuals also faced the same improve-or-perish situation. Restaurants had to instantly go to delivery and takeout, radically changing their staffing needs. Wholesalers had to instantly change their distribution methods. Retailers had to quickly build out their online stores. Service providers had to radically change their client interaction models. Staff meetings became Zoom calls. Education went online. Unfortunately, most live entertainment venues had no alternatives, and so were forced to shutter and hold out for federal loans and grants in the future.
Even with the Paycheck Protection Program and other aid programs, many businesses did not make it through the pandemic, of course. But those that did developed leaner, more strategic workflow models. As the economy continues to recover, consumer spending is increasing dramatically as pent up demand is coupled with higher savings rates from the last year.
Businesses are going to experience a once-in-a-generation boom that may be amplified by the improved efficiencies they developed during the pandemic, along with more remote work flexibility for workers. The effects are already apparent: According to a July 2021 Goldman Sachs report, productivity has increased dramatically, with output per hour rising 3.1%, up from 1.4%.
The rapid technological evolution spurred by the pandemic will help businesses in the long run, and dispersed workforces may help reduce the effects of possible future diseases. However, no compassionate person can look at the overall pandemic in positive terms. More than 600,000 lost their lives in the U.S. alone, thousands of businesses closed, millions were without work, many faced food shortages, and many struggled with psychological challenges as a result.