This year Covid deniers have battled lockdown zealots, with most of us trapped in between. The next argument is over what the world will look like after the pandemic.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has committed time and money to map a way out of the crisis, is convinced that business will be conducted differently on the other side. He predicted this week that more than 50 per cent of pre-Covid business travel and more than 30 per cent of days in the office would not return.
“It will be a very high threshold for actually doing that business trip and there will be ways that you can work from home a lot of the time,” he told the DealBook conference, arguing that people were no longer impressed by long-distance visits: “‘Yes, you flew all the way here to sit in front of me.’”
His is not a minority view. In the past six months, on 2,280 investor conference calls, according to data from S&P Global, executives have peered into the future and uttered the leaden phrase “the new normal”.
Like many of them, Hal Lawton, chief executive of US retailer Tractor Supply, is in the Gates camp. His 1,900 stores sell every product you could desire in this pandemic year, from patio heaters to gun safes.
“While many of us may return to the office, there’s going to be a hybrid work environment for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever,” he told investors this week. “And so people are going to be around their animals more frequently. And they’re going to be continuing to buy food for those animals, and they’re going to be continuing to buy sundries and toys and snacks for those animals, and upgrade their beds and the crates that they’re living in and those sorts of things.”
This cutesy nightmare is called “pet humanisation” in the jargon of the trade. It is even better for Mr Lawton’s bottom line than the record 11m chickens he sold in the past two quarters, a result of a surge in demand for backyard poultry keeping.
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Yet for all the confident predictions of a changed world, there is a different view: the new normal might look just like the old one. Unsurprisingly, the loudest proponents are commercial landlords, some of whom debated the future at a conference this week.
“I think the first investment bank that gets everybody back in the office is going to win a lot of business because they are getting back to having these face-to-face meetings and meeting with their clients,” predicted Brian Kingston, head of real estate at Canadian property giant Brookfield. “And I think as soon as the other ones see [Citigroup] or Goldman or a couple of the others who are bringing people back, starting to pull away, that will be some impetus to get them back in the office.”
Victor Coleman of Hudson Pacific Properties reckoned people would willingly return but work more flexible hours, lured by facilities such as gyms and food. “I think the office space will convert to a 24-hour 7[-day] office space that’s going to be much more amenitised,” he said.
The early signs from cities that have been able to reopen, such as Shanghai, is that the second camp is right: the pull of the office is strong. And unlike the never-ending debate over lockdowns, we will hopefully soon see which side prevails.
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