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How the pandemic changed office work forever

May 13, 2021, 9:00 PM UTC

Office life will be forever changed, even after workers are vaccinated against COVID-19.

More remote working? Definitely. More flexible hours? Probably. More empathetic bosses? Maybe.

“Now that you have let the genie out of the bottle, all sorts of things are going to come into question,” Bill Schaninger, senior partner at business consulting firm McKinsey, said about the post-pandemic office. “Do I have to be there every day? Do I have to be there at the same time?”

How businesses and their workers will adapt to the new reality was the main theme during Fortune’s recent Global Forum Leadership Roundtable discussion. The details are still somewhat fuzzy—workers in many cities are just starting to return to the office, if they have at all—but some of the broader picture is coming into focus.

How people do their jobs will be different, speakers predicted. The skills that many workers need have changed, making it necessary for businesses to retrain their employees.

On one hand, Alain BejjaniCEO of Majid Al Futtaim, the Dubai-based shopping mall and leisure company, said that many consumers want to return to a sense of normalcy, such as visiting his company’s indoor ski slopes and hotels. But it’s also true, he pointed out, that people are spending far more time online, which changes the equation for some of his company’s employees.

During the pandemic, workers at Majid Al Futtaim’s cinemas, which were closed, were quickly shifted to fulfillment centers to handle the boom in the company’s online retail and supermarket businesses.

“It came kind of naturally,” Bejjani said. “Everyone threw themselves at it.”

Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis, a producer of medicine and vaccines for pets, spoke of the need for companies to adapt their policies. Being flexible by letting workers do their jobs remotely isn’t enough. Companies must be flexible about when remote employees do their jobs so, for example, parents can pick up their kids at school or take them to doctor appointments.

“I would argue we need flexibility policies that flex,” Peck said. “Not just allow people to work from home, but also being flexible about when people work. Workers have earned the right to do work differently.”

Considering all the pain the world experienced since the pandemic started, workers may also notice a change in their bosses: more empathy. Some leaders, at least according to those who spoke during the session, will be more understanding of their workers’ plight, in contrast to the hard-nosed image bosses have cultivated for, well, since the beginning of history.

Peck talked about the huge impact on business leaders of holding Zoom meetings with colleagues while they worked at home. Virtually, at least, bosses got to know their workers better by peeking into their lives outside of the office.

“Once you ended up in people’s living rooms and, in some cases, their bedrooms, it changed, Peck said.

Marta Martínezgeneral manager for IBM’s Europe and Middle East region, conceded that some bosses aren’t very touchy-feely. “Obviously some are not good at this by design,” she said. But she added about empathy, “The employees want to have this today.”

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