The Rubber Band Theory and the Pandemic: Will Business Snap Back to Pre-COVID Norms?

Advisory | Glenn L. Friedman | Oct 12, 2020

The rubber band theory has been applied to many areas of business and life, from investing and leadership to personality traits and dating. I’ve been thinking about the rubber band theory as it relates to the changes we’ve experienced at Prager Metis since the coronavirus pandemic took hold about seven months ago.

In other words, how much will things snap back to the way things were before? Should they go back? Most importantly, how much do people want to go back?

Cities Contract as People Go to the Suburbs and Beyond

After the pandemic hit, I spent some time in Florida before settling in my home in the Catskill Mountains. If you’re not familiar with the area, you can’t hop on a train and commute back and forth between the Catskills and New York City. The car ride is nearly three hours.

Since I started working in the Catskills, I went to the city once for a doctor’s appointment. For the first time in more than 40 years in the workforce, I can have lunch with my wife and go for a walk before getting back to work each day. I’ve also reclaimed about 10 hours of my life each week because I don’t have to commute. This is a key part of the silver lining to the pandemic I discussed in a previous article.

What I observed during my one visit to New York City, which has been reinforced during conversations with colleagues and friends in different parts of the country, is something I never could have imagined.

People are leaving cities in droves, and they’re not stopping at the suburbs. Communities in the mountains, the country, and rural areas seem to be growing and thriving. While city economies are hurting, I’m seeing new construction here in the Catskills for the first time in the eight years I’ve been here. Restaurants new and old are thriving. Home improvement activity is everywhere.

This isn’t just a temporary move until “things get back to normal.” In fact, many people see these changes as permanent. They have no intention of returning to the city. They’re becoming part of the fabric of their new communities.

Reassessing Priorities

The extent to which businesses will return to pre-COVID norms will largely be determined by what people feel is most important in their lives.

How much space do I need to live comfortably? How much am I willing to pay for that space? Does it make sense to continue to pay however many thousands of dollars each month for a small city apartment and high city taxes when I can have double or triple the space in a house for half the cost?

How much time do I want to spend with family? How much time am I willing to spend commuting? Where do I really need to be to do my job? If I can be just as productive working from home and have more time for recreational activities, why would I go back to the office? Why would I live in the city?

The work-life balance movement that has been part of the Millennial stereotype is now being embraced across generations. People who never considered work-life balance important have experienced the benefits of remote working for the first time – and they like it.

I have yet to speak with a single person who is eager to go back to commuting to an office five days a week. That doesn’t mean the office is going away. Many teams and clients prefer in-person collaboration and service. The difference today is that people want the flexibility to visit the office as needed for a specific purpose, not just for the sake of showing up.

One key driver behind the reassessment of priorities is the acceleration of certain trends that directly impact people’s quality of life. It’s not just the acceptance and viability of remote working.

For example, telemedicine, once considered a luxury offered by a small group of healthcare practices, has gone mainstream. Do you need to live in a city to have access to the best doctors?

Major retail brands that have been struggling for years to stay afloat are going out of business as more people shop online. Do you need to be able to walk to major department stores and niche shops, or can you find most of what you need online and visit stores when you’re interested more in the experience than convenience?

People are realizing that Millennials must have been onto something with their desire for work-life balance. Not only is it worth pursuing, but work-life balance is very much attainable, and it’s far more desirable than being able to say you live and work in a certain zip code.

The Opportunities for Business Leaders

There are certain industries and roles that require people to be at a certain physical location at a certain time. However, technology has enabled many people to experience new ways to work and live, even if they weren’t seeking change.

When people ask where I work, I respond by saying I work in the cloud. I’m no longer limited geographically because I have a physical office in New York or anywhere else. A great democratization of availability has occurred that makes it just as easy to access people and resources in Los Angeles or even the UK. This creates a tremendous amount of business development and collaborative opportunities.

I can refer clients to a colleague in a different part of the country as easily as someone who works in the office down the hall. Similarly, there are no geographic limitations on prospecting. Any location-based hurdles have been all but torn down since remote working became commonplace.

As I discussed in a previous article, the internet is no longer just the information superhighway. It’s an actual highway, a virtual mass transit system that allows people to telecommute from outside the city and beyond the suburbs.

Now that people have had a taste of remote working, and many have done it successfully, they’ll expect to have the flexibility to decide what type of work environment and lifestyle works best for them. Business leaders must be ready to accommodate their teams in a way their organization’s existing processes and systems might not fully support.

The ability to respond to the needs and desires of the team, just like you would respond to the needs and desires of the client, is likely to be a competitive differentiator. Just like the client experience is the top business priority, your team could emerge from the pandemic with more influence and power than ever. As a people-driven organization, Prager Metis is ready to embrace these changes.

Speaking of the client experience, certain clients will still want to visit your office, or have you visit their workplace, because they prefer to build a relationship and conduct business in person. Maintaining that flexibility and continuing to adapt to evolving client preferences aren’t just essential for post-pandemic success. You need to have these capabilities right now.

Although many people, including myself, value face-to-face interaction, I don’t see the rubber band snapping all the way back to pre-COVID norms. Time is our most precious commodity, and people have reclaimed too much of their valuable time to simply give it back because a crisis has passed.

Planning to go back to the good old days is a losing strategy. Organizations that update their systems and processes to meet the work-life balance demands of their teams, as well as their clients, will be well-positioned for growth, post-pandemic and beyond.

2020-10-21T14:20:51-04:00