As we move into winter, apprehension over COVID-19 remains high. The novel coronavirus, after all, is transmitted most easily indoors—and that’s where people tend to congregate from October through March.
Still—thanks in large part to the highly effective vaccines now in distribution—the virus will ultimately recede. Our return to normality will happen incrementally, gaining momentum as increasing numbers of people acquire immunity. By this time next year, we should be able to work, socialize, and shop without imminent fear of infection.
That’s not to say the economy will revert to its pre-pandemic status rapidly; it’s clear that full recovery will take time. Hundreds of thousands of businesses, both large and small, have shuttered. Budgets have tightened. Shopping behaviors and tastes have changed. The businesses that thrive post-COVID-19 will not necessarily be the businesses that prospered prior to the pandemic. But there’s growing evidence that the successful companies of the future will share some qualities in common. Here’s a rundown:
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A commitment to digital. Brick-and-mortar will continue to decline, while ecommerce will increase its already meteoric momentum. The time to invest in digital assets and the data requisite for optimizing them is now. COVID-19 forced shoppers online out of necessity—but now they’re comfortable buying in the digital realm. This is a secular change, and retailers must make the virtual shopping experience as “real” as possible via video-etailing, live sessions with associates, and other online options. 3-D design is proving essential for slashing the time from idea to market and minimizing supply chain dilemmas. This isn’t to say that physical stores will utterly disappear—but they are no longer the sole foundation of retail. Depending on the vertical, a hybrid brick-and-mortar/ecommerce approach makes consummate sense.
Acceptance of remote working. A funny thing happened when everyone started working from home: productivity remained high, largely due to advances in digital technology. Zoom transformed the workplace to the point that central offices are no longer necessary—or, considering the financial burden of maintaining physical space and the expense and stress to commuting staffers, perhaps no longer desirable. Yes, some things are lost by remote working. It can be more difficult to maintain company solidarity. But “difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” Regular online meetings can sustain staff unity. Moreover, many staffers have discovered they prefer working remotely. And a growing number of large firms—including Google, Airbnb, REI, and Uber—are actively embracing the remote model. Such flexibility is a likely marker for ongoing success.
The quick or the dead: your choice. Market conditions have always and will always evolve, but the rate of change has accelerated dramatically due to COVID-19. Strategies that worked well prior to March are now dated and inadequate. Indeed, “strategy” may be an outmoded concept, at least as it applies to defining company priorities. As a recent Gartner report noted, company executives should focus more on objectives than strategies: identifying where you want to go, then devising flexible strategic templates that will accommodate constant updating and adjustment.
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These frameworks should allow the seamless embedding of new initiatives and the unceremonious and rapid jettisoning of established approaches that show signs of waning effectiveness. It’s an adaptation of the old Facebook motto, “Move fast and break things.” We don’t want to break things post-COVID. On the contrary: we want to build powerful, resilient structures. But to do that, we will have to move fast and hit our marks, preserving what is functional and implementing new elements when necessary.
Staying liquid. Keep as much cash in reserve as possible. Don’t skimp investment in critical assets—particularly digital assets—but look for opportunities to save or reduce unnecessary expenses. Companies bereft of working capital or saddled with heavy debt have foundered during the pandemic. More than 100,000 small-to-medium businesses have gone under, and many large companies—Neiman Marcus, JCPenny, and J. Crew among them—have filed for Chapter 11. Liquidity allows you to ameliorate sudden problems and exploit unexpected opportunities as the pandemic wanes.
The relentless pursuit of talent. Sydney Finkelstein, the faculty director of the Tuck Executive Program at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, noted in a recent interview that long-term success in business requires the ongoing cultivation of talent. That message is often lost, Finkelstein says, because the old bromides that “people count, people are our most important assets . . . make [everyone’s] eyes glaze over.” But these clichés happen to be true—and never more so than now. Ultimately, post-pandemic success won’t hinge on the most elegant algorithm or the perfect product; algorithms and products are only ideal for specific timeframes. Success will depend on the people who continuously create the algorithms, design the products, interact with customers, manage the supply chains. In other words: people really are your most important asset. Treat them accordingly.
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