As the Pandemic Moves Us “Back to the Farm”, What’s Old Is New Again

Advisory | Glenn L. Friedman | Jun 03, 2020

In 1993, The New York Times wrote: “One of the technologies Vice President Al Gore is pushing is the information superhighway, which will link everyone at home or office to everything else – movies and television shows, shopping services, electronic mail and huge collections of data.”

As a Senator in 1978, Gore first referenced the information superhighway in a meeting with computer industry leaders. The idea was to build national fiber optic network, which has evolved into the internet. Obviously, this is not a new idea.

Today, however, the internet has turned into an actual highway. Although the concept of remote working is hardly new, the coronavirus pandemic has forced organizations to rapidly expand this capability. As a result, more people than ever are getting on the information superhighway and commuting to work without ever leaving their homes.

As everyone tries to predict what our new normal will look like, I’ve had many people ask me “Do you believe we’ll ever return to a workplace? Will everyone go back to commuting to a physical building, all crowding together in the designated office space? If people have proven that they can be just as productive from home as they were in the office, do you think they’ll want to go right back to being in the office five days a week?”

My answer is simple: I don’t. I believe we’re trending towards shorter commutes, more space, and more reliance on the information superhighway. What is old will be new again or, in some cases, new and improved. Thanks to social distancing – which will probably, to a certain degree, be with us forever – companies will have to be more flexible and think of ways to operate with little or no physical interaction. 

Back on the Farm

For hundreds of years, people lived where they worked. Farmers worked fields on the land they owned from dawn until dusk, often seven days a week. Shop owners lived in the space above their stores so they could work long hours without losing time to a commute. Workers lived within walking distance of the factories and stores where they made their living. 

To a certain extent, we’re ‘back on the farm’, but today’s farm is technological and allows people to live where they work and work where they live. Organizations need to embrace this new trend and recognize that we’re seeing that what was the old way of being is new again. 

Not only do people like being closer to their families and pets, but they probably never realized how stressed they were due to their daily commutes. Commuting can add two to three hours or more to every single workday; it’s physically and mentally exhausting. Over the last few months however, millions of Americans have experienced a new kind of commute – the telecommute.

When you combine the thought of a stressful commute with the lingering uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, organizations that try to force people back to the office are sure to face pushback.  While some team members may prefer to be in a traditional work environment, can an organization’s leadership suddenly require people to go back to the office after months of working from home? Is that even a smart business decision?

People Want Space

Decades ago, homes were built on larger lots. When developers constructed homes in a new neighborhood, they weren’t built right on top of each other – there was ample space between lots. Urban areas weren’t as congested as they are today, and buses, trains, and roadways weren’t as crowded. People, especially in cities, have sacrificed space and tolerated congestion, mostly for the sake of career advancement. However, the pandemic has people looking to live in more space and create a better work-life balance, especially when they may have never thought it was possible. 

I’ve noticed that Starbucks has opened drive-thru locations that have no store or restaurant. They remind me of an old one-hour film developing booth that would sit far away from other stores in the middle of a parking lot. Customers would drop off their film, leave, and return an hour later to pick up their photos without entering a physical store. I truly believe Starbucks is planning to expand this model so customers can get what they want while maintaining their space.

As more customers work, shop, and eat at home, expect to see offices with fewer desks, stores with fewer aisles and displays, restaurants with fewer tables, and professional services with fewer in-person meetings. These trends have been happening slowly for the last several years, but they’re likely to accelerate in our post-pandemic world.

Because of the growth of telecommuting and the desire to avoid congestion, we could also see more people move out of cities. They could go far beyond the suburbs into more rural areas to take advantage of a more affordable cost of living and a greater work-life balance. Old manufacturing towns that have suffered because plants moved overseas could see a resurgence.

Some businesses could move out of cities, too. Many years ago, I worked for an accounting firm in New York City that moved across the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, New Jersey because city rent was skyrocketing. We were able to service the same clients in New York from New Jersey. We would pack into a car, drive to the city, and visit our clients. Today, you can use the information superhighway and video conferencing to visit clients without leaving home. 

Building Bridges to the Internet

It is no secret that our country is in need of major infrastructure improvements. In New Jersey, there is a plan to dramatically increase tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. Most of the revenue from this hike would fund the widening of major roadways. 

However, suppose 20 percent of the workforce decides to permanently telecommute after the pandemic, even just part time. Will it be necessary to add lanes to roadways when much of the traffic is moving to the information superhighway?

We should be building bridges to the internet that support the future of work. There are some areas of the country that still lack reliable, high-speed internet. If these cities and towns upgrade their connectivity, they could become appealing targets for organizations seeking to relocate. Organizations that offer teams a better quality of life and a lower cost of living could then become appealing targets for top talent.

Improving All Areas of Life

We’re not just seeing a transformation of the office workspace – other areas of our lives are rapidly changing as well. Telehealth is going mainstream. It’s not a new concept; telehealth is simply a reinvention of house calls. I highly believe that doctors will continue these services once the crisis is over. 

In addition to telehealth, the way we interact with our communities has also started to evolve. Think about virtual town council meetings and religious services using live streaming. These offerings aren’t likely to disappear after the pandemic either. When you combine in-person attendance with virtual attendance, community engagement could very well surge post-pandemic.

The Big Takeaway

An organization’s most valuable and important asset is its people. From a business perspective, organizations need to recognize their teams’ evolving priorities and start developing plans to adapt. In some cases, what’s old will be new again. In others, what’s new will be improved to meet modern society’s demands.

Many of these changes are not new concepts or ideas, but they are likely to be part of a new reality. Crisis always brings about change, often for the better. As people rediscover what is important, both personally and professionally, business leaders who embrace new trends will be in a much stronger position as the new normal takes shape.