The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed us all in one way or another. We’ve learned a couple of things about ourselves this year; how resilient we human beings are and just how much we need one another. As leaders, we’ve learned about several aspects, but most of all that when we connect as a team and genuinely care for one another, we engage, support, innovate, and inspire those around us, regardless of position or circumstances.
When the pandemic hit, business leaders faced uncertainty and, for many, unrecoverable crises. It’s heartbreaking to see the number of businesses and people suffering losses and setbacks due to the unforeseen events of this past year. Some businesses unfortunately didn’t survive, while others will not make it through 2021. These are real people with real families and real financial responsibilities that are affected, and our hearts go out to them.
There are industries like airlines that have been devastated. Delta lost over $5 billion in the third quarter alone and reduced its headcount by 18,000, while close to 40,000 took an unpaid leave. On the flip-side, Amazon reported 70% increased earnings in the first three quarters of 2020 and added over 427,000 new employees in the first 10 months. In fact, a number of non-blue chip businesses have turbo-charged their growth during this time. Shopify now sits on 160% year-to-date gains, while after losing $300 million last year, Instacart was found by Cowen investments to be the third most popular online US grocery destination, after Walmart and Amazon and is expected to go public in 2021, at around a $30 billion valuation.
Those companies all have something in common: prior to the pandemic, these teams had a development mindset and had built a culture conducive to growth. What can other business leaders learn from them?
Was 2020 the year of visual acuity for business leaders?
I know many began this year contemplating the next decade and this year’s association with vision charts and the meaning of clarity. As we reflect back on 2020, those digits may hold a new meaning, but hopefully includes some visual clarity nonetheless.
The last year has been a struggle across the spectrum for everyone in some shape and form. There have been illnesses, unemployment, distance learning, fulfillment delays (have you seen any cans of Lysol lately?), politics, protests and worst of all, the lasting effects all of this has had on loved ones. It has also been a year of personal and professional growth and development; of reflection and hopefully awareness around what really matters. The hardships of 2020 will last a lifetime and many people feel a collective longing for some form of pre-pandemic normalcy to return. But will it?
Should it, even? There’s no need to retreat to 2019. We can advance further through lessons learned, with the same resilience and strength that we’ve learned in 2020 (not only for ourselves but for each other). We’ve embraced new tools to keep business and communication moving, and there’s no reason to stop using them; though for some it might be in a different way.
One example of continuing to use new tools as we come out the other side of things is simply staying in touch. We’ve utilized video technologies heavily during this pandemic. The number of meetings via video has skyrocketed out of necessity to keep the flow of information going, but has also allowed employees to continue communicating with each other, collaborating, and staying engaged. If culture is important to your employees (and I’ll just go ahead and tell you that it is), you already know how important it is for your teams to stay in touch and how quickly they can begin to feel isolated. Companies with remote offices and workers have struggled to keep everyone connected. This year has made “Zoom” a household term, and while its technology grew in use out of necessity, its usefulness post pandemic is clear.
Another use of virtual video conference is with training and onboarding. This made it possible to continue a focus on onboarding and also on training, a key factor to many in continuing employee and company growth. As for onboarding, if you can’t bring them together, at least onboard new folks virtually, giving them the information and connection that helps them hit the ground running and become productive right away. Delivering ongoing training in this way keeps current employees engaged and learning - and here’s the real magic, they’re way more likely to be ready to take on more as your organization grows.
Video conferencing also came more heavily into play for other purposes such as customer-facing communications and sales. We can agree, I'm sure, that in-person is best but video has proven to be the next best thing. In fact, it’s clear that the use of video for sales efforts will continue to be an essential ability. That’s an area of training that we’ve deployed here, and one that is a good idea for businesses everywhere to offer. It’s created an awareness on how we come across to others.
Our employees have become more familiar with new technologies, but they are also improving their people skills. The pandemic requires that our employees show empathy and relational skills. When the pandemic ends, these skills might not be as essential, but they will separate the companies that thrive from the companies that merely survive. Create a culture of caring for your employees and show them how to demonstrate that to your customers.
How companies pivoted to meet pandemic-influenced consumer demand
Those companies that kept their eye on growth and developing their teams have in many cases positioned themselves for success during, and after the pandemic.
Pizza Hut, for example, was thinking ahead when invested heavily in mobile and online service technologies before COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, some of their competitors experienced great difficulty fulfilling an influx of orders. Now, there’s no way Pizza Hut could have predicted the pandemic but they were already focused on improving service and growing their technical capabilities. That served them extremely well when demand rose to meet their new capacity.
Instacart, a grocery delivery and pickup service through personal shoppers, brought in more than 15 new product and support features at the start of the pandemic. They grew their active personal shopper network from 200,000 to 350,000. They switched from face-to-face delivery to contactless delivery. They activated a “Fast & Flexible” delivery option that matches customer orders with real-time shopper availability. They anticipated customer anxiety about food supplies with their “Order Ahead” feature, which allows customers to place orders up to two weeks in advance.
Locally owned upholstery businesses near Jacksonville shifted from making furniture fabric to making masks to keep their people employed and productive. Will the mask business sustain them in the future? Actually, not likely. But they’ve proven they have the ability to act quickly and change to save the business and keep their people employed.
What we’re learning is not a new technology; we’re learning to apply what we know in a new way. We’re learning to be agile and quick, to be creative and sustain the business with the talent, tools, and market we’re given at any point in time. Take inventory of the skills you have in-house—you might be surprised by what you find. How can you continue to develop your people?
Baking resiliency, agility and empathy into your team’s DNA
This is a constant exercise amongst our team: what are we doing now and how can we do it better? When the pandemic hit, our customer service team phoned every customer to see how they were doing and whether their needs had changed. As some competitor routes changed or were canceled, we reached out to let customers know, “We’re still going. We’re going to get your goods there. What do you need?” The thought was never to sit still, it was to find more customers. And that’s exactly what they did.
It’s rare in our industry that each customer has a dedicated account manager. Call it old school if you will, but there’s just no substitute for personal relationships. Self-service options in addition to your customer service team are great. But if you’re using chatbots as a substitute for your customer being able to reach a real human and ask a pressing question, what kind of experience is that? Is it sustainable? Is it serving your business and its customers well?
Part of the pivot is servicing the need now, but also building and positioning and looking forward to what’s next. It’s a universal truth: you’re either moving forward, standing still, or backsliding. What are you preparing for today?
Better your leadership skills, enhance your team’s skills, identify new ways to take this situation, and service people. Diversify. Take this time to get better not only for today. What might your needs be six months from now and how can your team begin to plug into that now?
Companies that have focused on growth, development, and culture may well be the best positioned to succeed in the coming months and years. But it’s not too late for those who feel they haven’t mastered their culture yet. Model what it takes to create excellent customer experiences during a pandemic, and after. Keep your teams looking forward, encourage creativity on how to solve problems and expand the business, paying attention to what they need to do that, and always showing them that you value them and what they contribute every day.
Do the best with what you know, and prepare for what you don’t by building a culture that values learning and constantly looking at new ways to come out of 2020 stronger, better, improving, and growing. The old normal may well be a thing of the past, but the new one might just be better.