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What will happen to the workplace beyond COVID? Over the past few months / years I have delivered a large number of virtual keynotes for global corporations, with up to 800,000 on a single live event  - and everyone is now asking about the same thing.  

What is the future of offices?  Do we still need the same office capacity? Will teams go back to commuting to work, or remain virtual working most of the time?  How much office space will we really need post-COVID?  And what will happen to corporate events?

I have been forecasting global trends for over 25 years now, working with hundreds of the world's largest corporations, who invest billions of dollars each year in offices and expensive HQs. History shows that most major historic events almost always turn out to have smaller long term significance than people usually think at the time.

Most debates about the future in board meetings are NOT about what is going to happen, which is usually obvious to those in a particular industry, but are issues of timing - by when. COVID has accelerated many pungent term workplace trends. 

So what does all this mean for workplace management, human resources, leadership development, change management, virtual working, distance learning, agile decision-making?

COVID has accelerated many existing trends

The truth is that COVID / coronavirus has accelerated the timing of many trends including workplace changes, without fundamentally altering our world.  

And a prime example is Virtual Working. 

Many of my global clients made a gigantic switch from office to home working in less than 4 weeks, because of COVID-19. 

And many tell me that their team productivity rose significantly, together with increased speed of decision-making, increased agility, and better risk management.

But what next?

Limits to Virtual Working - hard to grow rapidly or change

The truth is that human beings are social creatures and while it is easy to run established teams without any physical meetings, it is harder to build trust with strangers, harder to close major deals, harder to create radical changes in thinking - when all you have are remote calls.

So you may think your business is doing fine under lockdown - but look under the bonnet and you may find a different story.

Take a look at major new client relationships you have landed in the last 6 months.

Or the integration of newly hired senior team members - or interns come to that.

Physical meetings matter more in emerging markets

And if these things matter in developed nations, they are even more mission-critical in many emerging markets.

The truth is that if you want to close a great deal in a country like Saudi Arabia, or Malaysia or Russia or Nigeria or China, you'll be aiming to become "family" with those you want to work with.

That means eating meals together - and if you are in Russia, drinking Vodka.  Virtual meetings are not enough.

If your biggest competitor is regularly flying 5000 miles into a major emerging markets city, and your team never even get as far as an airport, I can promise you that you are likely to lose out, contract by contract, and even the contracts you win will regularly hit more problems.

So let's not overdo all those predictions about the end of offices, the end of client meetings, the end of global events.

Having said all that, as I say, COVID has undoubtedly accelerated fundamental changes that we Futurists have been talking about for years.

Rapid shifts in workplace are not exactly a revolution

For example, many of my clients had strategies in 2015 to encourage home working, hot-desking, more flexible office occupancy, streamlining their real estate portfolios, and so on.

Those same clients moved more in that workplace direction in three months than they expected in three years.  

While working patterns will become more mixed once more as lockdown eases, we need to take into account the underlying trend. 

It's exactly the same for areas such as online food ordering.  The longer term trends have been absolutely clear, pointing to growth in most developed nations.  

COVID caused a step up in an otherwise smooth curve. We can expect a smaller step down, and the upward curve to continue.

Corporate Events will remain important in building tribes

Many major corporations have been working hard to pull people together in virtual forums, virtual workshops and virtual events, and some have been very successful.

The key is knowing how to make magic for virtual audiences.

Sharply relevant content, rapid pace, high energy, authenticity, passion and above all, interactivity - all cameras on, reading body language, inviting true dialogue - even in groups of 1000 or more.

And when people are in lockdown, or working from home a lot, they can often be persuaded to dive into an attractive virtual event for an hour or two.

Keys to world-class virtual events

Junk everything you ever knew in the past about creating successful physical events.  

It's a totally different world, different format, requiring different timetabling, different styles of communication, different messaging.

The good news is that you can achieve far higher engagement on well-planned virtual events than you will ever see at the equivalent physical events.

Believe me, I see it happen every week.

The bad news is that you can be out by just 1-2% and lose 90% of your audience in five minutes - yes they may be pretending to be there but they are mentally absent, diving into another part of their virtual worlds.

Demand for physical corporate events will return 

But nothing can really substitute for real, physical meetings when it comes to building tribes - internally or customers.

That's why, when COVID fades away as one day it will, sooner than you may think, we will see a huge amount of catch-up in corporate events.

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