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Picturing the New Normal

new norm.jpg

new norm
(Source: Unsplash)

We’re all anxiously awaiting the time when the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, and we can start getting back to normal. But the reality is, plenty of things will never go back to the way they were before.

As we adjust to the new reality and work in physical isolation, many long-held beliefs—about our colleagues, our customers, our infrastructure—are suddenly up for debate. What can we learn from this experience? Which parts of how we’ve been operating lately should we retain, and which should go back to how they were? What should “normal” even look like?

Working with companies in many industries, we’ve had the benefit of speaking with business and IT leaders across the spectrum about these questions. Based on those conversations, here are some of the changes this crisis has forced upon us that are most likely to stick.

“Digital transformation” just became priority #1.

You’ve probably seen this meme going around:

It’s a good joke, but it’s grounded in truth. Analysts have been talking up the need for digital transformation in every industry for years. But in most sectors, large-scale transformation initiatives, backed by concrete investments and timelines, were mostly items on a CTO’s wish list. In just a few weeks, digital transformation went from buzzword to basic business survival. And people were forced to make far-reaching decisions in a very short time.

At my company, we went from an almost entirely onsite workforce to 100 percent remote, literally overnight. As a digital company, we were probably better prepared than most. But we still found ourselves facing questions we hadn’t considered:

  • How many of our employees can actually work from home? I’m not talking about childcare or IT security, just the basics: Do you have a laptop and a broadband connection? A surprising number of our people did not.

  • Can our IT stack support a 100-percent remote workforce? Once again, just basics: Do we have capacity for that many users? Do we have enough software licenses for all our applications?

  • How does this change our basic IT approach? Security posture, access, performance, application mix—everything must be reevaluated.

This conversation is happening inside every company now and will continue long after “normal” business has resumed. Whatever efforts you were pursuing—moving to cloud, shifting to as-a-service applications, curtailing reliance on physical data centers—need to kick into high gear. Even after we restart onsite operations, every company must be prepared to shift to remote work at any time.

Offices will look very different.

If you’d asked most CTOs last year if their company could accommodate a 100-percent remote workforce, most would have laughed you out of the office. But if nothing else, this pandemic has proven, we can make this work if we need to.

So, if many more people can work productively outside the office than we thought, does the office still even make sense? Do we need to keep spending millions on facilities? Could we operate mostly remotely moving forward? Or, even just move specific departments and roles to virtual work? What effect would that have on employee satisfaction, commute times, work/life balance?

Even inside facilities, things will likely look different. Are open floorplans still the best setup in a post-pandemic world? Will we see a return to cubicles? Individual offices?

Most businesses probably won’t shift permanently to all-remote workforces. But there’s an optimal mix of onsite and remote for every company, and it likely looks very different than it did six months ago. Every business is calculating that mix right now.

eCommerce strategy will be more important than ever.

Digital commerce was already enjoying a tailwind. Expect that to grow to hurricane force.

First, consumers have had to get used to buying everything digitally—including things like groceries, household items, personal care, restaurant orders—that many never bought online before. As we all expand our eCommerce comfort zones, how many of us will continue even after stores reopen?

Keep in mind, it’s not just the most digitally savvy segments of the population doing this like it was in the past. Tens of millions of older, less plugged-in consumers have gotten a crash course in eCommerce and other modern digital tools. Now that this generation has gotten their hands dirty with digital buying, they’ll feel much more comfortable with it in the future.

These trends will have a huge impact on brick-and-mortar retailers. Companies large and small will have to embrace hybrid models and funnel more resources to digital. Judging from the struggles we’ve seen from many businesses during the crisis, many will have to completely reinvent their digital presence. If you’re not prioritizing the performance, reliability, and usability of the digital face you present to your customers, you won’t be able to compete.

At the same time, these trends create huge new opportunities. For example, as seniors close the digital chasm, how does that impact IT security? Payment methods? Accessibility? It’s easy to envision whole new industries arising to cater to these consumers, whose online behavior is now permanently changed.

Don’t fear the future.

These represent big, far-reaching changes for almost every business. It would be understandable if people were afraid, even resistant to some of them. But in talking with business and IT leaders, we’ve been surprised by their optimism. Many recognize what’s happening now for what it is: an incredible opportunity—and maybe a much-needed kick in the pants.

This is no time to sit back, plug your ears, and wait for the crisis to be over so you can return to exactly the way things were before. Learn from this experience. Find new ways to do things. Take it as a much-needed pause in the day-to-day grind of business, a chance to step back and think deeply about how you work, communicate, and transact.

The biggest mistake you could make is to fall into complacency and let this opportunity to transform your business slip away. Who knows what the future holds? Another pandemic is certainly possible. Climate change, extreme weather events, and other disruptions can and will force closures of physical locations for extended periods. Your business’ very survival may depend on how well you embrace new digital realities. No company can afford to be taken by surprise again.