The global COVID-19 pandemic has had many impacts: from hundreds of thousands of deaths, to record unemployment around the globe, to the collapse of the travel industry, to seismic shifts in geopolitics (the results of which will likely be felt for decades to come).

Amidst this catastrophe, there are also some very interesting things to note about the response from our core societal institutions: work, family and government.

In some cases, these responses fall into the category of “why haven’t we been doing it this way all along?”

When our 2 daughters were forced into isolation, they actually played better together. When they had their extra curricular activities restricted, we spent less time driving and they had more time for unstructured play. When we were homeschooling, they spent less time involved with the bureaucracy of education and more time focused on learning. When we couldn’t go to the supermarket we finally started doing our grocery shopping online. The local library did a click and deliver service. Federal governments around the world have increased stimulus spending to stave off unemployment and prevent people from sliding into poverty and/or homelessness. Global emissions of toxic pollution that causes climate change and threatens the integrity of our food chain declined sharply.

All these are significant cases of policy and behaviour choices that had a positive impact outside of stopping the spread of COVID-19, but perhaps none was more noticeable than the global trend towards working from home.

Up until this global pandemic struck, working remotely was somewhat of a “badge of honour”. Tantalising (and probably unrealistic and usually pretty scammy) YouTube ads showed hip young guru entrepreneurs living a “laptop lifestyle”. The rise of “digital nomads” painted a romantic picture of geographical independence, and in some cases (confined to a few big tech companies such as Basecamp, WordPress, Zapier and Toptal) employees could live and work anywhere in the world.

For the vast majority of the workforce, though, this was unrealistic. In many cases the trade-off for more flexible working conditions came in the form of reduced pay for casual workers and, in the case of full time work,  busy parents eager to spend more time with family would negotiate one or two days per week from home if they were lucky.

Reluctance from employers to enable remote work environments comes from a mix of trepidation about lost productivity, increased infrastructure costs and inability to manage a team remotely. This represents a risk and there is a cost associated with taking steps to minimise that risk by putting in place better systems for remote collaboration.

The decision about where to live and where to work is a trade-off between earning potential, housing costs and commute time. Since those in positions of authority will typically earn more they can afford shorter commute times, so not only are they impacted less by the lack of remote work opportunity but they don’t actually bear the costs of their employees’ longer commute times.

Then COVID-19 hit like a freight train and many employers were forced to allow their staff to work remotely, and ultimately they managed to do it. I’m sure there were plenty of bumps along the road, that some employees found it more difficult than others and so on, but when push came to shove the task of allowing people to do all or part of their job from a location other than “the office” was doable and, for many, preferable.

What I wonder is how many staff are asking themselves “why haven’t we been doing it this way all along?”.

Why have workers been wasting 5 – 10 hours per week trapped in a commute instead of spending that time exercising, helping kids with their school work, pursuing a hobby or spending quality time with family and friends?

Now that employees have had a taste of what this is like, and everyone has seen that, when it comes down to it, their businesses CAN function in this way (even if it has some challenges) an opportunity presents itself for employers to gain a competitive edge by revolutionising their workplaces to allow employees to live and work anywhere.

While most will probably take a long time to have their systems running smoothly enough to allow people to work in disparate time zones, for many businesses large and small the barriers to effective remote work within the same time zone regardless of geography are relatively low.

Put in place some task/project management software that allows effective workflow automation to minimise data entry, improve your shared email management, task prioritisation and personal productivity habits, get a proper cloud phone system so everyone’s not using their personal mobile phones and Bob’s yer uncle: remote work.

It’s not something that can be done to perfection overnight, but it’s certainly a journey that can begin overnight – something most business owners discovered during COVID-19. The question is now: should we continue that journey and figure out how to attract and retain the best people by offering workplace flexibility, or are we just going to go back to the same old way of doing things?