Businesses Must Accept ‘COVID-stasis' and Adapt for the Future of Work
Many organizations are struggling to keep up with changes in consumer habits. Those that acknowledge and even embrace these changes are more likely to succeed.
Three years have passed since the initial pandemic lockdowns, and it's now been well over two since businesses began urging, pleading, and in some cases even threatening their employees to return to work. Only recently have many businesses seen in-office rates surpass 50%. Now, a number of companies are already changing course and making hybrid work arrangements available.
Ecommerce rates are still high - higher even than expected. Gyms across the country are struggling to gain foot traffic and restaurants or cinemas are seeing a significant drop in patronage. The same forces are responsible for all of these changes in American business.
Predictions that people would return to their routines before the pandemic have proven false in many ways. Businesses that made bets on the lockdown becoming a distant memory have the most difficulty moving forward.
Success or failure for business leaders is based on the ability to predict future events. Since COVID hit U.S. many leaders have been at a loss. They lament how 'unpredictable everything is' and shift from one "new normal" to the next. In reality, most of these changes could have been predicted. It does not take a crystal-ball to predict what consumers and employees will do in the future. Understanding behavioral science is necessary.
Most people's decisions are not rational, but instinctive. Cognitive shortcuts are responsible for these decisions. In my research and work over decades in marketing, I have explored what's inside these shortcuts.
I discovered that we all have collections of memories, associations and ideas associated with a particular brand or concept. These are what I call 'brand-connectomes', after the connectome, which is the map of the neural connections within the brain. Brand connectomes influence our buying habits, from tomato sauce to candidates. They influence the way we live, work and support causes. They control our habits, as they determine what we do automatically.
The pandemic lockdown was responsible for one of the most rapid and significant changes in human behavior. The lockdowns, shut downs, and new standards ingrained these new habits. This experience led to new positive associations, such as working from home, exercising with virtual trainers and gardening. The new associations formed a vast network of neural pathways that runs deep.
Even if you've been doing these things for many years, new brand connectomes will easily overpower previous connectomes. It's enough for new positive associations and behaviors to be repeated.
The human instinct is to adapt and adjust, in order to achieve homeostasis. As part of the human instinct to find stability, we adopt new habits quickly. COVID's long-lasting effects on some people, also known as "long COVID," have been the focus of much attention, but COVID's psychological and behavioral effects are felt by almost everyone. In 2021, I coined a term called 'COVID-stasis' to describe our new habits.
People do not always return to their previous behavior. Businesses make mistakes when they expect this. Leaders need to accept and understand this. Expect the current trends to continue, rather than expecting a major change in the way people live and work.
Traveling continues to increase, and this might appear as an anomaly. It's not surprising that more people are traveling. In fact, it's all part of the same thing. The pandemic has unleashed pent-up demand. Around 700 million people travelled internationally between January and Septembre last year, which is more than twice the number of the previous year.
The level of travel for business hasn't returned to the pre-pandemic period, and COVID says that it is unlikely to do so in future years. The pandemic showed that business could be done without double martinis, handshakes and a whirlwind tour of the world to meet clients. Are customer relationships still as strong? Most likely not. People are used to spending time at home or with their family and no longer want to compromise.
What should businesses do? Stop fighting and hoping for 2019's daily reality to return. Accept that your new habits will stick. Customize products, services, and work routines to reflect the new reality.
Walmart is an excellent example. Walmart is a good example. The company began curbside pickups early in the pandemic. By 2021, a quarter (the largest amount) of its revenues came from "click-and-collect", the biggest of any major retailer. It did not 'wait to see' but pushed ahead with a membership program, which includes free delivery. Its early moves have made it the leader in omnichannel choices for a country in COVID stasis.
Innovating ways of training employees virtually and collaborating with them should be a priority for companies. Quarterly off-sites are a great way to strengthen company relationships and progress company-wide projects. Understand your employees' new expectations. Appeal to the COVID-stasis of people. 3M launched, for instance, a trust-based initiative called "Work Your Way" that 75% of their non-manufacturing employees now participate in.
Personal I like the idea that people go into offices each day to interact with clients. As a working mother, I am also a realist. My company was the very first brand consultancy in which employees were able to work almost 100% of the time. Zoom was not even invented yet!