Our lasting adaptations will create the new normal

Our lasting adaptations will create the new normal

Monday, March 30, 2020
Robert Cooney

Nasser Sahlool has just nicely articulated the human imperative for a return to normalcy, as well as the sureness that what follows the COVID-19 pandemic will be a new normal. And it’s true: we’re experiencing an unprecedented period of forced adaptation that’s both rapid and global—as well as heartbreaking and terrifying—but it will bring out the best in us.

The human creative spirit will rise to meet this challenge. We will adapt, and once we have, we will not soon forget what we have learned. On the other side of this emergency, we look forward to a world in which the following will remain true.

  1. We will be more mindful of the need for resilient systems

    Many of us have met someone who lived through the Great Depression and subsequently carried with them what we thought of as a laughable frugality—perhaps it was the grandfather who would wash and reuse plastic bags, or darn his tattered socks. Our own collective experience of a sudden collapse of just-in-time systems will remain similarly ingrained for us. This means a painful reckoning with everything from how many people are living paycheck-to-paycheck, to just how difficult it is to depend on the availability of everyday essentials when our supply chain is overburdened by a demand spike.

    Some have observed that at the peak of this demand, grocery pickers who were fulfilling orders placed online actually outnumbered regular shoppers attempting to buy for themselves in-store. The modern grocery store is useful not only as a pure retail experience, but as a local distribution center. Other businesses may increasingly look to set up locations that serve a dual retail/distribution hub purpose in order to make their supply chain more resilient than it would be under a purely just-in-time model.

    Distribution warehouse with trucks awaiting loading.

    In 2011, right before US e-commerce sales growth initially assumed its more rapid upward trajectory, McKinsey predicted the need for retailers to unify their distribution assets between online and retail in order to meet expectations for rapid local fulfillment. “Many of today’s retail supply chains are simply not set up to handle this demand for speed and convenience in a cost-effective way, and are already creaking under the strain of the new multichannel world.” Nearly a decade later, this statement of problem and recommended solution is stunningly relevant.

  2. The ecommerce growth trend will record a step-change

    In some local markets, we have seen search interest for “grocery delivery” spike to more than 20x normal volume. Many have not purchased through this channel previously, perhaps because the potential convenience incentive did not outweigh the psychological resistance to change, or justify the perceived learning curve. Apptopia, meanwhile, reports that downloads of grocery delivery apps are also surging.

    With these first experiences under our belts, a significant barrier to adoption has been eliminated. The growth trend for online ordering is likely to experience a lasting step-change, as opposed to the gradual, year-over-year growth we have observed up until now.

    It has long been accepted that modern retail is an omnichannel experience, but we are now faced with a new understanding of “channel fluidity”—that is, there can be a rapid swing in how customers transact, and how those orders are fulfilled, essentially overnight. This has implications not only for the role of customer experience design in facilitating a seamless switch, but how well businesses are operationally equipped to respond. This may lead to staffing models under which employees are cross-trained to either support retail shoppers in store, or suddenly switch to enabling order fulfillment.

    Models such as this, while more complex to implement, would provide more resilience to both business continuity and employment of retail and service workers. Walmart has been successful in rapidly scaling its hiring to support this new demand, while priority is given to reallocating existing employees.

  3. We will rapidly scale our investments in real-time data and insights

    When everything can change overnight, how can we know that we are doing the right thing? Thus far, the businesses that have most successfully navigated the COVID-19 crisis are the ones with the most insight into what is changing—and, most especially, what their customers need from them. We’ve helped several businesses use digital channels to achieve two-way communication with their customers at scale, find out which needs are most pressing, and deliver against them.

    Demand-capture channels such as search have given us incredible insight into how consumer behavior is changing, and these insights are remarkably differentiated when viewed through a lens of local granularity. Often, these insights run completely counter to what we may assume. For example, in this time of great economic uncertainly, a significant number of people in the US have suddenly become bullish on investment, looking to buy stocks, open investment accounts, and more.

    Google Trends graph showing a spike in interest in "buy stocks"

    Recovery will ultimately happen at the local level, and unevenly across different customer segments. The ability to turn data into audience and local market insights, with at-or-near-real-time frequency of update, will allow businesses to chart the most effective course.

  4. Remote work arrangements will receive more serious consideration

    For those of us fortunate enough to be able to continue working from home, there will be conveniences we grow accustomed to rather quickly. Many employers will have realized already that the transition was far smoother than expected and occurred without productivity loss.

    Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of the US workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with working from home, while only 3.6% worked from home half of the time or more prior to the pandemic.

    Woman working from home, using phone, sitting on the chair and writing into the book.

    On the other hand, businesses that did experience technology or distributed workforce operational hiccups will need to invest more heavily in the pre-planning and infrastructure that will enable cutover when required. According to Vikram Verma, CEO of 8×8: “2020 will be about assessing readiness and resilience in the way that businesses ensure continuity during a contingency period, without any impact such as hurting productivity or engagement.”

    In either case, this experience will reinvigorate an ongoing conversation.

  5. We will welcome a more conscious capitalism

    Businesses are universally being called upon to consider how their resources may be applied against creating the maximum positive social impact, at a time when their usual ability to commercially transact has either come under serious threat or been immediately suspended. At every step of the way, this has also meant articulating for customers why decisions to either remain open or closed have been undertaken, and what new protocols are being followed to ensure safety.

    CVS is an example of a business that could very directly act against the spread of the virus with quick innovation to deliver COVID-19 testing in their parking lots so those who were feeling ill would not have to enter a location and risk infecting others.

    While Under Armour may not have been as well-positioned to jump directly into the fray, the brand’s COVID-19 response is nonetheless excellent—leading a “Healthy at Home” initiative they can credibly own while delivering significant value in physical and emotional health to anyone whose usual activity routine has been disrupted. Coupling that with a $1 million donation to Feeding America demonstrates Under Armour’s willingness to directly apply resources against the most pressing concerns, even if the best resources the brand can offer in that capacity are financial.

    Many of our clients were already heavily invested in comprehensive programs of Corporate Social Responsibility, and have frameworks to help guide them through this time of uncertainty. For others, particularly those operating at a smaller scale, this has been an opportunity to consider the higher purpose of their brand, the values it is most aligned to, and ultimately how customers expect it to respond in a time of extreme need.

    Customers will remember how brands behaved at this time, and anyone concerned with brand identity should remain mindful of this duty of care.

We’re more connected now than ever before

Experience may be the most brutal of teachers, but the rapid, global spread of a highly contagious virus serves as a reminder of our interconnectivity that is not to be ignored. The nature of this interconnectivity is present both in the problem and in the paths to recovery. We will come out of this by sharing more—insight, innovation, resources, experiences, stories, solutions. This sharing will be increasingly enabled by technology, but driven, as always, by our indomitable human spirit.

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