Each day we are learning ways to adapt to working from home as we social distance and self-quarantine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in the U.S., while many speculate on how long this shutdown will last and when we will return to normal work lives, the reality is that this crisis is permanently changing how we work. There is no going back as the workplace is being reinvented in real time.
The pandemic has shown more people they can easily work from home, relying on email, chats, and videoconferencing to quickly communicate with colleagues. Many employees won’t return to the office even after the pandemic is under control—and the need for physical workspaces and paper files will decrease. Instead, many more people will work from home, fully wired on mobile phones, laptops, and other devices.
Being online all the time will also change the typical workday—eight-hour workdays no longer exist. This requires employees to set clear boundaries, apportioning their family time, personal time, leisure time, and sleeping hours. Otherwise, they risk an unbearable day and decreased quality of life.
In other ways, the new work-from-home reality will offer creative ways to form work communities and friendlier relationships with colleagues. Virtual happy hours, more comfortable one-on-one video meetings, and blurred work versus personal identities all increase employees’ ability to be authentic and alsofoster camaraderie.
But as employees’ work lives have changed, so have the companies themselves, as the pandemic has shown them how to operate more effectively.
Revaluing frontline workers
The pandemic has emphasized the importance of frontline employees, reversing trends of recent decades when businesses focused on decreasing the cost and compensation of their frontline workers. With the onset of COVID-19, firms like Walmart, Kroger, and Target stepped up with special bonuses or wage increases for their frontline workers, while employees at Amazon, Whole Foods, and Instacart went on strike for improved safety conditions and better pay. As more firms like Amazon go to $15 per hour minimum wage, the yawning pay gap with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour creates a dichotomy that should not continue, even for small businesses.
Increased use of temporary and part-time workers
While tens of millions of people in permanent jobs are being laid off or furloughed, thousands of others are being hired by large firms like Walmart, Amazon, Target, Domino’s Pizza, FedEx, and UPS into temporary and part-time jobs due to increased demand as people shift to shopping online and ordering food delivery. While these jobs will lack stability and benefits, they will nevertheless become more common even after the virus is contained. Companies scarred by the response to the pandemic will be reluctant to add full-time roles when they could add flexible roles instead.
Accelerated digital transformation
COVID-19 is forcing companies to accelerate their transformation to be all-digital globally. Everyone should have access to the same information to do their jobs, which can eliminate a lot of presentations covering known information, enabling people to focus on resolving important issues in shorter, online meetings. There is no need for those long powerpoint presentations, as agendas are more focused, enabling meeting times to be cut dramatically.
Fewer middle managers and consultants
In the past two decades, focus on systems and processes to reduce costs of frontline workers has led to more layers of middle managers, analysts, and consultants. With their digital transformation, companies will need far fewer middle managers, project managers, and executive assistants. Managers’ jobs should be changed into team leadership roles where the managers produce and coach, as sales managers become sales leaders managing key accounts. With easy-to-use calendar toolsand video conferencing systems, there is less need for administrative support. Instead of consultants that do management’s work, companies should give the challenges to their own employees who know the business far better than any consultant.
Cutting back business trips
The pandemic has shown us we don’t need to fly to Shanghai or Zurich for business reviews. Using videoconferencing programs, like Zoom or Skype, meetings can be just as effective online. And not having to travel to meet in-person not only saves companies money, but it makes their leaders much more efficient, while reducing the stress of travel.
Renewed focus on outcomes instead of controlling employees’ time
The role of leaders will shift to further attention on empowering their employees, energizing them around a common mission, and measuring the outcomes of their work. Instead of measuring employees’ inputs, companies will shift to results and forward-looking metrics like market share and customer feedback.
For all the terrible tragedy caused by COVID-19, this turmoil is unlocking innovation. These new ways of working more efficiently not only will change the nature of the workplace but will make companies more effective. Companies who figure out how to use today’s adversity to invent tomorrow’s workplace will be the ones that prosper in the long term.
Bill George is senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. He is the author of Discover Your True North.
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