Image source:

Across Zoom calls, Slack chats, and Twitter threads, perhaps the most commonly debated topic during this shutdown has been exactly what is about to change in our business world when we return to work.

It’s easy to think of this period of time as a hard break, a time when the world stood still. It’s just as easy to look at the other side of the chasm as a whole new world. We imagine we’re going to recreate everything about the way we do business, and build new and more productive habits. Of course, when we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that’s not necessarily the case. We all know that humans crave few things more than normalcy and routine. We are eager to get back to the offices, gyms, restaurants, and shops that we left behind back in mid-March. Like a rubber band that’s been stretched past its comfort level, we will quickly snap back to life the way that we remember it.

Memory is a funny thing, though. Even when looking back a month or two, we see a snapshot of what was. We remember the markets, strategies, and workdays we had become accustomed to. We forget that the business world we were all a part of was changing rapidly, that January 2020 looked very different from January 2019. We were adopting new technology, adapting to globalization, and always looking to react to the shifts in user behaviour.

The business world that we’re about to walk back into is going to be the same one that we left: one that’s constantly and unpredictably changing.

Business as (Un)Usual

Our return-to-work period will accelerate some of those changes. Over the past six weeks, it’s been amazing to watch all of the ways that brands, both large and small, have taken this opportunity to move quickly. Where there used to be the need to be perfect, now we’re figuring it out in public, and it’s not always 100% polished. Where we used to need sign-off from every senior person in the company, now we’re being given the green light to make things happen on the fly. We wrote about some of those examples in our article, What Can Brands Get Up To During A Downturn

All of that creativity and activation of good ideas has caused years of digital transformation in just a few weeks. The impact of those projects is going to be lasting because we’ve finally put our ideas out into the world, refined them, tested, maybe failed a bit, and now have entirely new assets, or even business units, that didn’t exist at the beginning of the year. Pair that with the fact that customers haven’t had a choice but to order online, stream services, and try new ways to communicate.

The new business world is, indeed, going to be the same one that we left, except that several of the shifts that had already begun just got super-charged. Let’s take a look at a few of the changes that are going to have an impact and create opportunities as soon as we open up again:

Post-COVID Changes to Plan For

  1. Office Work
  2. It’s been an ongoing conversation for years that the typical 9-5(ish), commute-based, 40-50 hour per week structure of work is not only archaic, but probably inefficient. What many knowledge workers have learned is that conversation was right. Many of us have worked more comfortably, more creatively and, in some cases, more effectively. We’ve been forced to be more organized because we can’t just walk down to a co-worker’s desk to ask for a file, or interrupt each other in order to push a project forward. We’ve learned about the value of organized digital files, a well-run Zoom call, and the complete waste that is time spent sitting in traffic.

    Will we go back to the office? Absolutely. But any corporate culture that isn’t reconsidering the way that they organize work will be missing a massive trend. We’re all going to spend more on collaborative software, we’re going to have more flexible schedules, and bosses are no longer going to be able to tell us that it’s impossible to work from home because “that’s just how we do it around here”.

    I predict that the offices of 2021 will include more flexible hours, a much greater investment in remote working tools, and a re-appreciation for the office as it becomes less of an obligation and more of a resource.

  3. Business Travel
  4. Airplanes are a regular part of many people’s work lives, especially in marketing, sales, and leadership. That has always seemed to be a bit ridiculous to me – these are supposed to be some of the most creative people who are most likely to be early tech-adopters, yet in order to get work done, we feel like we need to move our bodies thousands of kilometres. I’m one of the guilty ones, by the way – I had over a dozen business flights booked in the first quarter of 2020.

    Over the past few weeks, we’ve found ways to get by. Imagine the creative ways we can solve problems when we consider that many of us were literally spending dozens of hours, and thousands of dollars, on travel when 90% of the same results could be achieved with a Zoom call.

    What if we were to look at that cost we had invested in long-distance business relationships, and simply reallocated it? How could we use it to delight clients, add value to a project, or show support for our teams by re-using those hours and dollars? If it was a worthwhile investment to spend 12 hours and $1000 to travel to a client’s office for a presentation, what if we were to re-invest that into a high-quality video asset that they could watch, re-play, and share with the other decision-makers in the organization?

  5. Online Retail
  6. This one may seem obvious, but for many businesses online retail felt out of scope. Whether the boundary was the need for it to be perfect, the complexity of logistics, or just concern that e-commerce would cannibalize their core business, those excuses are gone. We’ve found ways to make it work.

    This applies to nearly any business because the post-COVID shopper will be more open to creative offerings, and they’ll expect more digital options than ever before. We can sell our sauces, accessories, or the swag we give to our best clients. Customers could choose curbside pickup for their orders, or they may want to book a virtual appointment with their favourite salesperson.

    I recently bought a couch that was built in North Carolina, then shipped 4 months later up here to Canada. Every step of the way they kept in touch via email, letting us know the progress that had been made and the current state of our new furniture. I appreciated the care and attention (even though I was aware that it was, effectively, a well-planned drip campaign) and it significantly reduced my concern about waiting a third of a year to receive my order. It also made me think: As we become more comfortable with new technology, why can’t every retailer introduce versions of this experience? Domino’s pioneered it at the Super Bowl with their delivery tracker and live video of the kitchen, so what else could be possible with some cheap tech and clever thinking?

    Online retail after the crisis will not be the only retail. We can’t wait to go back to our favourite shops and interact with our favourite people, but the opportunity for retail businesses will be to consider how they can use digital to enhance the offline experience and extend their retail offerings beyond the scope of the customer’s physical visit.

  7. Digitally Enhanced Services
  8. Services will be where the real creativity comes in. I’ve been relieved to see that very few of the workshops and training that we were scheduled to lead have been canceled. Instead, they’ve pivoted to digital, and it’s forced us to do some real re-imagining about the methods, tools, and planning that we use. When the class is online and the audience is sitting in their living rooms, you can’t just show up and wing it. Online services require more interactivity, better planning, and less reliance on the person-to-person connection that happens in real life.

    Then there’s a music festival we’re advising that is developing a creative model where they’ll be able to offer intimate, socially-distant live experiences for a limited audience, and stream the stages out to the rest of the world.

    Real estate is making use of live virtual tours that were long overdue. These are more like a Facetime than a Youtube video, where a potential buyer gets to interact with their agent at each property and could easily visit many more properties in a day. The result is that they can cut to the few that they’ll physically visit, reducing the time spent by the agent and dramatically reducing the time to close.

    Every fitness business will be expected to have a digital version, whether that’s a workout tracker, a Strava integration, or an at-home version of their classes. A Crossfit studio, for example, may find ways to organize their members in small-group workouts around the city — linked by two-way video — that take advantage of the outdoors, the gym, and a park, all while servicing the same number of clients and making them all feel like they’re receiving the personal service they expect.

    The largest category of services, which is also typically the least-discussed, is business to business and we’ll need to consider all of the use cases above, and more.

  9. The Hustle
  10. Over the past several weeks it’s been beautiful to watch friends explore what’s possible with their reclaimed time. Their workloads are unchanged, but without the time spent in traffic, moving from meeting-to-meeting, and dodging conversations in the break-room, people have started baking, spending time with their families, taking on art projects, and reconnecting with people who are most important to them.

    Many businesses are operating at a level that is as high, or higher than ever before, and we’re able to achieve that without trying to squeeze every drop out of our calendars. If there’s one trend I’m personally most excited about, it’s the realization that “hustle porn” and the glorification of busy (both movements that were started in the past few years) do not make us better, smarter, or even more productive.

    I’m excited about a time when we can all realize that replying to late-night emails, booking that extra meeting, and creating one more report just so everyone knows just how hard we’re working is not only wasteful, but it’s working against our productivity, and our happiness.

As business leaders, it’s on us to see these changes through, to be the people inside our organizations who see this time as an opportunity to accelerate change. The changes that will come out of this won’t be new, and they may not even be surprising, but there has been no greater time than now to accelerate their adoption. This is our chance to revisit old assumptions and to create the business world that is best for us all based on what we’ve learned, instead of how we’ve always done things.