KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US – A return to normalcy. Isn’t that what everyone craves once the coronavirus pandemic finally ends?

The thought of attending social gatherings where masks are not required, and handshakes and hugs are exchanged without fear, sounds so appealing. So does the idea, at least for some, of working side by side with co-workers again in an office setting as opposed to the isolated experience of working remotely.

Some aspects of our pre-COVID-19 way of life will return, but others may be permanently altered, including how companies conduct business.

A silver lining for many companies during the pandemic, including those in the grain, flour milling and feed milling industries, was they learned they could operate successfully but in a more cost-effective manner with at least some employees working remotely and with a significantly reduced travel budget.

Recent conversations with several milling industry executives lead me to believe that a return to business as usual is unlikely once this horrific pandemic, lingering into its second year and still raging out of control in some parts of the world, finally ends. The need to conduct business while limiting person-to-person contact forced companies to utilize their internet technology capabilities to the fullest. They found they could still provide quality customer service, conduct staff meetings and connect with suppliers, customers and other business associates with videoconferencing technology. Flour and feed millers as well as grain elevator employees also have participated in virtual conferences and meetings organized by industry associations who nimbly adapted their offerings to an online format.

Out of necessity, the pandemic accelerated the utilization of these existing technologies, and when companies looked at their balance sheets at the end of 2020, they saw a huge cost savings they couldn’t have imagined prior to COVID-19. When you can save tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars — even millions in the case of large corporations — by limiting business travel in favor of conducting business virtually, it’s doubtful companies will be eager to dedicate the same financial resources as they did prior to the pandemic on items such as lodging, airfare, mileage reimbursement and meal expenses.

Companies have found that remote meetings aren’t just a money saver, but a time saver as well. As one milling executive put it: “What used to take a couple of weeks to get a face-to-face meeting scheduled now can potentially occur within 24 hours with a virtual meeting.”

This isn’t to say companies will prohibit employees from attending industry events or scheduling in-person visits with customers, but they likely will be more judicious with the number of employees they send to conferences or how often they conduct in-person meetings with suppliers or customers. Look for industry trade shows and conferences to be “hybrid” events with a virtual, lower-cost option for those who cannot attend in person.

Companies that emphasized social distancing of employees during the pandemic may also have discovered that certain tasks could be completed with fewer workers and proceed post-pandemic with a smaller workforce.

The pandemic hasn’t just impacted the health of millions of people worldwide, it also has fundamentally changed the way we live and work. In some cases, permanently.