We’re all having a lot of conversations about the radical pivot the world of work has had to make due to COVID-19. But while the pandemic radically accelerated the shift, it was already gaining momentum; there was already plenty of data indicating that many employees preferred remote and flexible work arrangements.

Back in 2012 — which feels like a century ago given the pace of digital transformation in the workplace — Gallup reported that 39% of employees worked remotely in some capacity; by 2016, it was up to 43%, and the percentage of time spent working remotely increased as well. SHRM tracked a rise in companies offering options to work remotely starting in 1996. By 2016, the number of companies doing so increased threefold. 

In early 2018, a Swiss study of 18,000 business professionals across 96 international companies found that 70% worked remotely at least once a week. And in January 2019, at least 2% of job seekers on Indeed sought flexible working arrangements. Remote and flexible work arrangements drove the surge in co-working spaces: A study in May 2019 found that nearly 2.2 million people were expected to work in more than 22,000 co-working spaces worldwide by the end of the year. 

Forward-thinking employers were already strategizing on how to open the front doors, so to speak, and let people work when and where they wanted to. Remote and flexible work arrangements were already seen as attractive factors for jobseekers. But of course, the global health crisis not only put the kibosh on co-working — it completely shifted remote and flexible work schedules from being merely prospects to business imperatives. So let’s assess where we are right now:

Reopening isn’t a given

On June 29, CNN news reported that out of the states that had reopened, 12 were going to have to put their reopening on pause and reinstitute stay-at-home orders and work-from-home policies to stop the record spike in cases. Since then, the number of cases in the U.S. has continued to climb, and some states have closed the gates on those traveling from other states. 

Our goals may need to change — from thinking about work from home and flexible work schedules as temporary solutions, to seeing them as part of a true paradigm shift. The more we learn about how the virus spreads, the more we understand the true risks of having our workforce share space indoors.

Flexibility is an obvious conclusion

Even before the virus, Gallup’s research found that 54% of office workers say they'd leave their job for one that offers a more flexible work schedule. And providing that to new hires was already a key differentiator for employers before the pandemic — and subsequent economic downturn — as we raced to hire top talent. 

But at some point, and sooner than later, as the economy reboots, we’re going to be in that same competition for great hires again. Lack of flexibility — let alone few opportunities for remote working — will likely be deal-breakers for many employees.  They’ve been through enough.

Engagement will always be a factor

Overall, Gallup's State of the American Workplace — based on data collected from more than 195,600 U.S. employees — showed that engagement hinged on an ideal combination of on-site and remote work. When employees can spend some time working remotely and some time working in a location with their coworkers, engagement climbs. The magic ratio is 60% to under 80% of the workweek (usually, three to four days) working off-site; at that rate, engagement sees the more dramatic boost. 

The balance is not a matter of equal time, but opportunity for connection: engagement rises even if employees only check in with managers and co-workers one to two days a week. Note that this was also pre-pandemic — in 2017. It will be interesting to see what the next iteration of the report finds, and we'll determine whether or not virtual face-to-face connections have the same benefits. But what is already clear: engagement can happen no matter where we are. It has everything to do with the quality of a workplace’s culture and communication. 

Technology — not COVID-19 — has changed everything

Innovations in terms of technologies, such as mobile and video, were already pushing the envelope. Spurred by the need to meet new expectations by millennials and Generation Z, we were already focusing on how to create the most effective digital workspace: how to provide a sense of connection as well as autonomy, how to shift to employee self-service (ESS), and not unimportantly, how to free managers from the tedium and repetition of administrative tasks so they could build stronger relationships with their teams. 

We are so good at staying digitally connected now that most of us can name at least four of five platforms we use to work with others on any given day. We are so adept at video meetings that we’ve even found ways to combat Zoom fatigue — including not multitasking, and going back to the old faithful emails and phone calls when we can. We are strategizing best practices for onboarding to get new hires up and running in our remote space. And we’re working with a schedule that’s blown apart the concept of a “9-to-5” workday. As a colleague of mine recently said, it’s not like we’re running out to have cocktails after a long day at the office.

Moving forward, companies will have to continue weighing the pros and cons of increasing remote and flexible work arrangements in this ever-evolving story. But it pays to look back — before the onset of COVID-19 — to remind ourselves that while an emergency may have forced us to land this particular plane (ready or not), changing the way we work (the where and the when) was already well on the radar. How we emerge from the present state of affairs, no one knows for certain, yet. This is truly a case where we need to lean on science and do away with second-guessing. 

But we also need to listen to our workforce. A May 2020 study by The Grossman Group reported that 48% of employees working from home now say they'd like to continue to do so; other studies push that figure higher. The higher the risk we face of going to a physical workplace, and the more we need to change the way we shop, educate our kids, socialize and simply live, the more we need to embrace remote work and flexible work schedules. Employees are getting their work done, and they aren’t necessarily going to want to go back to what was. Really, there’s no reason they have to. Ultimately, it’s all about striking a balance. 

Meghan M. Biro is a globally recognized analyst, author, speaker and brand strategist. The founder of TalentCulture, she hosts #WorkTrends, a popular weekly Twitter Chat and podcast. Her career spans across recruiting, talent management, digital media and brand strategy for hundreds of companies, from startups to global brands like Microsoft, IBM and Google. She also serves on advisory boards for leading HR technology brands. Meghan can be regularly found on Forbes, SHRM, and a variety of other outlets. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Indeed.