COVID-19 and the Future of American Business for 2020 and Beyond
The year 2020 will forever be marked by an unforeseen lesson in vision. We didn’t see it coming, but we all must now recognize where the lesson is leading us. And we, the business and organizational leaders, are obligated to confidently embrace this time for improvement. We must be creative, innovative, and progressive in offering improved employee and customer experiences, more successful business strategies, far more efficient operations, and stronger local, national, and global economies.
Some businesses are healthy and thriving, while countless others will never reopen. Some workers are lamenting their return to the office, while others enthusiastically prepare for a new normal. We, the business leadership community, need to acknowledge the facts of what was, what is, and the future we need to create. Leaders are challenged to set new standards that focus on people at every level, that serves every investor, employee, and customer, and delivers excellence at every product and service interaction.
The American experience has always been fraught with the tension between bold individualism and entrepreneurship and the establishing of a national community to ensure a common good. The interplay between government, business, education, and non-profits is a hallmark of our American economy.
Today, the CEOs of America, small business leaders in every state and entrepreneurs in every community have a new responsibility. 2020 marks the year in which we, the business leadership community, must provide a new vision for the American economy and confidently carve our own path in this new adventure that none of us could have foreseen.
The starting point is innovation of service to employees and customers. How do we serve a marketplace full of new demands with increased technological engagement and exacting expectations of convenience and safety? Our lives and our businesses are being largely remade by this global pandemic which has impacted our businesses, families, employees, customers, and other stakeholders. We can cooperate, compete, and improve. To that end we have diligently gathered a wealth of wisdom and insights from our contemporaries—CEOs and leaders from around the country— who are sharing their understanding of this sea change that is the intersection of commerce, customers, convenience, and caution. Additionally, we have scoured numerous articles, essays, and briefs being drafted in response to this ever-changing time. We have prepared this paper which we hope will guide us all toward quicker success in the coming months, years, and decades.
This paper is crafted for the great leaders we need during this critical time. Leaders need insights, understanding, and strategies for the future. We are in a time of great challenge and transition. The current global pandemic is forcing companies, organizations, and leaders in all areas to move in new directions toward new goals. Some businesses will collapse. Some will thrive. There is no question that all businesses will be different.
It is our desire to provide leaders with ideas and realities in six fundamental areas that will determine future success. We outline some of the most significant challenges CEOs are facing today, including relating to the health of their workers and customers, ensuring the continuity of business operations and distribution channels, adopting new technologies and processes, and adapting business strategies to a new and evolving marketplace.
This paper also shares insights and ideas on how to successfully emerge from this crisis. We present various strategies and solutions to aid you in navigating the changes from unprecedented work stoppages, lack of consumer confidence and spending, new legal requirements and limitations, and ever-changing work from home (WFH) expectations.
The most successful businesses are those that are able to pivot quickly, adapt to new technologies, and lead their people through necessary transitions. Some organizations will not be able to adjust to these new realities brought about by this pandemic, and sadly, they will risk closing. Organizations willing to move quickly, think strategically, and find new opportunities will capitalize on a new talent pool, new resources, and fewer barriers to entry.
The four of us hope these insights help!
Technology alone will not save us. Bill Gates famously cautions, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” The intersection of talented people, definable, repeatable, amd measurable processes, and the acquisition and allocation of resources shape the future. The precise implementation of the correct technologies accelerates the progress.
The surprise arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced business leaders to face a change already happening all around us. We live in a moment of rapidly accelerating technological change. This shift was already happening. However, many businesses have suddenly had no choice but to intensify their rate of change to survive in an environment that shifted overnight. It was a forced acceleration of technology adoption. While some businesses struggled, others took advantage of the opportunity.
These changes in business go beyond merely adding more technological tools. The adoption of things like virtual meetings, touchless client interaction, remote collaboration, and process automation was already in progress. The shift that is happening now is about something deeper. It is now about allowing the possibilities technology has to offer to become part of our overall business strategy. In the past, leaders often developed strategies and then looked for technology tools to implement them. Now, a business strategy must begin with an understanding of technology.
What is novel is how we started leaving technology out of strategic thinking. Previous innovations—printing presses, industrial machinery, manufacturing automation, and even early robotics—required businesses to revisit their approach. Now, as we travel through one of the most significant leaps of innovation, too many leaders are failing to adopt a technological worldview that guides decision making. In the coming years, leaders will thrive or struggle, based on their ability to make this shift.
Challenge: Increasing and Improving Employee Training
Prior to COVID-19, change in business already occurred at a rapid pace. Post COVID-19, your employees will need even more skills to thrive.
Opportunity: Employees are learning that the old is gone and the new is coming and are likely to be more enthusiastic for and even demand training on new hard and soft-skills, which is great news!
CEOs revealed that the pandemic has exposed countless technology and training needs—remote selling, remote customer service, leading remotely, new delivery methods, new technologies for online ordering, new accounting and payment system needs, etc. And in a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 87 percent of executives revealed they were experiencing skill gaps in the workforce or expected them soon.
COVID-19 created an explosion in online learning opportunities as many world-class trainers and training companies expanded their virtual offerings. What once may have been cost-prohibitive may now be affordable, as were in the past you needed to gather your team at a physical location, now you can bring top-notch training right to your employee’s desktops.
Solution: Combine technological learning, development, and human resources into a cohesive strategic position in your company. Mandate both virtual and in-person training. Many companies are creating just-in-time short learning sessions to get employees and leaders through this crisis. Many quickly shifted to virtual learning and onboarding.
Work with professionals who have the correct expertise and designations in the industry, and who have proven experience delivering programs virtually. It’s easy for any person to create a great looking website and promotional video. When reviewing a potential speaker, trainer, and/or a training company’s website, look for real reviews, with real names.
Challenge: Managing the use of Personal Technology Devices
Several CEOs interviewed were challenged when stay-at-home mandates were enacted. Backorders of equipment including cameras for video conferencing put many managers and teams at a disadvantage. Company data was put at risk due to employees using personal computers. Employees living in rural areas struggled with slow internet speeds, making it difficult to perform crucial roles and stay connected.
Opportunity: With so many IT departments successfully integrating personal computers to their networks many companies were forced to relax policies around the use of personal equipment. This helped some employees leverage off-work hours to accomplish necessary tasks more easily, providing more flexibility to employees.
This created an artificial learning lab for millions of workers who learned how to use various teleconferencing software and file-sharing applications.
Employment candidates interviewed via online video-calls and used video interviewing platforms. Returning and new employees are likely to be better equipped to adapt to new and changing technology improvements.
Leaders need to determine which technologies worked well and created efficiencies during WFH, and which ones should be continued moving forward. In addition, it’s imperative that leadership ensure that the technologies employees used remotely are secure, as hackers see WFH as an easier means to access previously secure corporate technology infrastructure.
Solution: Leverage new skills. In the past, some resisted virtual meetings, now, most are comfortable meeting online. Even when employees return to work, assess where continuing remote work and its corresponding technologies, is appropriate. For example, in a multi-building campus, does meeting remotely decrease downtime by having more employees meet via video conference from their workspaces?
Divert resources traditionally spent in other areas (such as office space) to technology, and create a plan to be proactive to ensure a sufficient technology infrastructure, especially with regard to data safety and security. While this issue is most acute in health care and financial services, every CEO interviewed expressed concern. The opportunity goes beyond merely making data secure to using technology and security as a competitive advantage with both vendors and customers.
For companies with numerous geographic work centers, have employees identify high-speed internet localities where remote workers can have reliable connectivity and exercise a modified WFH plan.
BYOD “Bring Your Own Device” is something few IT departments have embraced, but with WFH being the norm, now might be the time to shift 100% to a BYOD environment with the right adjustment in compensation. Remote monitoring systems are needed but in a manner that does not violate personal privacy issues. Questions also need to be asked about corporate data residing on BYOD. If an employee is terminated, how will the company ensure that data on a BYOD is no longer accessible? Who owns the information on a BYOD? Decisions that were once possibly determined on a case-by-case basis now most likely need a written corporate policy, with corresponding technologies to ensure compliance. The implementation of shared company drives, automatic backups, regular IT maintenance, mandatory compartmentalized hard drives, and compulsory VPN facilitates solution for those working from home.
Challenge: Mitigating the Risk of Human-Labor Centric Business Models
In the long-term, automation can reduce costs and create massive efficiencies, but implementing automation is challenging.
Opportunity: Someone once said, “Robots make great employees—no overtime expectations, no sick time, and no complaining.” Robots don’t get COVID-style viruses, but they are susceptible to other viruses. As the cost of human labor increases, the deployment of robots and AI will as well. There is a widespread growing acceptance of the process of automation. As the cost of new technology becomes more affordable and implementation becomes more visible in the marketplace, longstanding resistance is diminishing. The worry, of course, it that automation contributes to displaced workers. Automation keeps reservations coming in, widgets being made, and accounts balanced, even if employees are unable to work.
Solution: Evaluate all organizational tasks and determine which ones lend themselves to automation. Engage employees at every level in the process of discovering what new technologies can be used to create new efficiencies. Research the automation that already exists that can be purchased off the shelf and what software as a service (SaaS) options need to be considered.
Continue to grow automated systems that result in shorter wait times and greater accuracy. Future customers will demand greater levels of automated efficiency.
Be mindful of the natural and understandable fear that automation brings to the workforce, especially in conversations within union environments. Focus on improving processes and acquiring better resources and technology to help make both the employee and customer experiences more efficient and effective. Stay away from discussing the link between automation and labor savings. Focus on the efficiency of the end-user.
When implementing automation technology, careful planning needs to be done on the front end to identify the exact processes the automation will enhance. First, create a detailed plan of existing business rules and processes, identifying areas of concern and possible improvement. Then, determine where automation will enhance performance and apply the change.
Once the technology is implemented, the leader must ensure that all those expected to use the technology are effectively trained and that each person understands their role in the process. One individual not following the processes correctly can nullify any technology and automation efficiency and profitability gains.
As one CEO with expertise in customer relationship management software automation explained, too often companies spend 90% of their budget on the technology, and leave little for outlining the business rules and processes as well as training. For technology to work—especially automation technology—the proper budget allocation should be 33% on the outlining of business rules, processes, and what the technology is expected to improve, 33% on the technology itself, and 33% on training.
Voted one of the Top 15 Business Growth Experts and Top 50 Sales Speakers, Meridith helps leaders develop strategies that turn uncertainty into competitive advantages.
Featured in thousands of publications including Forbes, USA Today, and CNN, Sam is a best-selling author, tech entrepreneur, and expert in sales intelligence and reputation management.
Recognized as one of the top 50 global sales and marketing experts multiple years in a row, Mark has taught in 30 countries on 5 continents and has written two best-selling books.
Mary Kelly, CSP, PHD
An economic leadership advisor, Mary helps leaders strategically plan and make difficult decisions. Author of 13 books, Mary has been cited in Forbes, Success, and 100s of other periodicals.