Any major event with substantial economic impact and unprecedented shifts in market expectations naturally accelerates change—but a “major event” may be an understatement when history looks back on the global COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the U.S. and the world since early 2020. Not only is the pandemic causing serious health issues and dramatic loss of life, but its economic impact has been devastating for so many.
However, despite lockdowns, business closures, job losses, supply shortages and other events that directly impacted companies of every shape and size, there also came opportunities that are almost certain to remain a lasting part of the way things operate as we start to recover from the pandemic. Remote interaction (RI), artificial intelligence (AI), big data, a dramatic increase in e-commerce, a rise in entrepreneurial intensity, the re-analyzation of workplace culture—and even drones delivering to the front door—are just some of the things that are likely to be permanent in the new normal.
To get a greater picture of what to really expect, we asked the experts—members of the faculty from each of the nine undergraduate business majors at the Whitman School— to share their insights into the future of the post-pandemic business landscape.
At the start of the pandemic, shutdowns happened almost overnight, and businesses of every kind had little choice but to find innovative ways to stay alive, keep people employed and service customers and clients. These ideas and innovations have, in many cases, now become the cornerstone of businesses that will survive the pandemic, even though some of them seemed no more than a pipedream before the world came to a screeching halt.
“In some cases, these things were going to happen eventually, but the timetable would have been much slower,” says Professor of Management Natarajan Balasubramanian. “The pandemic only accelerated changes that were already occurring, as newer entrants and technologies were slowly replacing older players, like clothing retailers and movie theaters.”
“The usual adoption patterns of new ways of doing things that typically include early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards simply didn’t have time to develop during the pandemic. Instead, it was full speed ahead,” adds Assistant Professor of Management Cameron Miller.
A big piece of this has been industries that enabled RI (remote interaction). The pandemic forced almost everyone who wanted to stay in business to be an early adopter, as there were few alternatives. There was no time to watch things grow, see standards emerge or give businesses time to slowly transition from product innovation to process innovation, as they learned to manage requirements from various customer segments.
“As an example, a year-and-a-half ago, would most people have ever imagined that elementary school student would be learning remotely?” asks Miller. “But there was really no choice. Children needed to be educated, but they also needed to be kept safe.”
As the world begins to return to a new state of normal, it is likely that some companies and industries will adopt and manage RI-enabling technologies better—or more practically—than others. Telehealth visits for routine medical issues will be a more common practice than ever before, while remote learning for K-12 students may be a more acceptable option under certain circumstances but will likely never be the desired option for most.
As the world returns to normal, will technologies like Zoom or Slack remain? “We think they will,” says Miller. “Many businesses and organizations have now integrated these technologies into their value propositions. They have found ways to interact with customers remotely and run their operations with fewer employees. Ignoring all of this learning as normalcy returns is not likely to make good economic sense.”
And, while it’s been established that working remotely is doable in many businesses, what will become of office culture?
“Organizational culture is the guide rail for an organization,” explains Assistant Professor of Management Lynne Vincent. “But it may be difficult to replicate that same organizational culture when employees are not in the office and are working with colleagues from behind their computer screens at home.”
Assistant Professor Joel Carnevale foresees a workplace culture that will likely forsake perks like free lunches and on-site gyms for those that give more value to employees, like flexibility and autonomy. “Each organization will have to analyze its culture and its employees to determine what they truly value and how to best emphasize and deliver on these values,” he says.
While the history books are not quite yet closed on the pandemic, there are many glimmers of hope and the certainty of change on the horizon. Those who intend to succeed in a post-COVID-19 business landscape will need to plan, adapt, accept and learn from both the painful and the productive lessons they’ve witnessed—all while being open to innovation, entrepreneurial intensity, data-driven decisions and the resiliency needed to continue to thrive.