Two years ago, I penned a piece on the fight to stay relevant as viewed through the eyes of individuals.
As we age, many of us fight to have our voices heard on a variety of fronts. That piece struck a chord with readers that I hadn’t expected.
What I didn’t know was that in the spring of 2020, I’d be writing Part Two of the need to stay relevant, only this piece would focus on businesses during the time of COVID-19. Devastation is not too strong a word to describe our current predicament. April brought with it more than 20 million job losses in America and an extraordinary unemployment rate of 14.7 percent.
The fight to stay relevant on the business front has enormous repercussions — not only how many jobs can be preserved, or how the public can be safely served, but at its core how will our lives look? Can we still celebrate a milestone moment with a gathering of family and friends? Attend a sporting event? Have a sporting event? As individuals plan for their next iteration, so too are businesses planning for theirs.
With this as background, I took to the phones to find out what was on managers’ minds as they began navigating these treacherous waters. I spoke with senior managers across industries and asked 10 questions that included:
— What questions will you need to answer as you reset the business?
— What will be one significant change in your customers’ expectations?
— What is one long-lasting change in how you expect to do business?
While this is not the whole story, three common themes have emerged that will redefine our business landscape.
Observation 1: Going Virtual Is Not a Momentary Blip
While many businesses have been using videoconferencing as a way of life pre-pandemic, working predominantly from home will stay the new normal where the job allows it. Previously, videoconferencing helped jam-packed schedules and the global sprawl of business. Today it’s about safety, cost, and proof positive that it can work. As one CFO told me, “We’ve proven to ourselves that people can be highly productive from home, and we can save costs.”
The use of a hybrid model — home and on-premise — appears to be the preferred approach for the future. Referred to as “hoteling,” offices will be equipped for transient employees who come on site sporadically. This option is viewed as maintaining the energy of collaborative teams while still controlling costs and maximizing safety.
The hybrid model poses big challenges. How to onboard new employees? Build a strong culture? Attract younger talent who particularly value socialization? This might become businesses’ new battleground to attract and retain talent.
The experience of going virtual will, however, improve. Zoom with its great GUI has gotten us started, but the betting is that companies like Microsoft will make sizable advancements.
Observation 2: “Customer-Centric” Will Take on New Meaning
Companies often claim customer centricity, which usually means, “We do everything with the customer in mind.” In the new environment, this will be put to the test in a “Put up or shut up” kind of way.
Customers will seek new pricing models, shared business risk, guarantees of preparedness, hyper-efficient training and more. The managers I interviewed expect little leniency and know they must up their game.
As one manager philosophized, “This just makes us go where we were expecting to go, but sooner.” It also means that communication professionals are going to be very busy — giving people a reason to believe in a business’s customer-centricity is hard work.
Observation 3: Companies Will Refocus Their Portfolios and Lean Toward Quick Hits
Marginal or early stage initiatives will come under more scrutiny as leaders opt to double down on what they do best. Medical device companies, for example, might delay applying technologies to other diseases if the development curve is long.
Brick and mortar stores will prefer hiring professionals who excel in delivering virtual experiences. One business owner who runs a funfest where customers paint while having a drink shared, “Virtual means fewer costs, less mess and better margins. Plus we can scale more easily.”
Similarly, technology companies will address smaller product gaps that allow for quicker rollout. At least for now, point-to-point solutions will get more attention over more integrated platform development.
It is hard to predict how long these preferences will last and what trends will follow. Managers are just finding their sea legs as they take stock of their surroundings. Flexibility, customer centricity, and hitting singles versus home runs will be guiding principles. Open-minded and open-seated teams will lead the way as we prepare to engage our post-COVID-19 world. Never has business planning bean more critical.