Maru/Matchbox Canada held its first Canadian Roundtable, bringing together leading insights experts across Canada to learn from each others’ experiences. As we hit the three-month mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, three themes emerged:
- Digital trends that were already underway have been fast forwarded by years, and everyone is scrambling to keep up.
- Companies are trying to keep company culture alive through constant communication but working from home presents unique challenges for different people and some situations are not sustainable.
- COVID-19 has battered existing business models in ways that no one planned for, but the open question is which changes are permanent and which are just detours?
I was fortunate to recently lead a discussion with insight leaders from a wide range of fields including retail grocery, not-for-profit, media, durables, utilities, and financial services. The discussion was free-flowing and thoughtful and gives us a unique window into some of the challenges businesses and insights leaders are facing. The article captures some of the key thoughts and feelings expressed in this discussion.
Fast forward to the future
Movements toward digitization that were already underway have suddenly forced organizations to make years of progress in a matter of months. In many industries the digital portion of their business has exploded, in some cases surging to levels they had not expected to reach for many years. Handling such an abrupt shift is an incredible challenge. So much has dramatically changed in the sales and services channels that it is amazing infrastructures have met the test as well as they have.
Keeping culture alive
It sounds like all CEOs got the same memo: communicate, communicate, communicate. Weekly updates, townhalls and Q&As are proliferating in an attempt to keep company culture alive. But we are facing Zoom overload and Webex fatigue. Using video calls as an occasional way to connect is one thing. But them becoming the main way to communicate is weird and wearying. “There are good reasons why we function well in person. It’s harder to have the same dynamic virtually,” one participant acknowledged.
“We’re still pretending like we are going to get together like we did before. And we’ve not yet come up with plans for how we’ll do business,” another suggested. But there is consensus that there is no going back to the old ways of working. Things have changed, and the office will never be the same.
The shift to working from home has not had an equal effect on everybody. It is obvious just how hard it is for those with young children. Some people are time-shifting their work, but it is a reality that people simply cannot maintain the same level of productivity as when their children were at school. And, it was noted, the work you are doing at 9:30 at night might not be as stellar as if you had been working on it in the morning over a large cup of coffee.
Working from home is hard, and especially difficult for some. Some companies are more empathetic than others, and those that are more understanding are building bonds with their staff that will endure. Each of these people leaders are going out of their way to pursue the “art of the possible,” by accepting that some people have greater challenges than others. That sense of understanding and acceptance will strengthen their work culture more than 1,000 town halls.
The model is upended
The shift to digitization is just one way in which business models have been challenged. In the world of media, most radio listening occurred in cars, during now-abandoned commutes. And sports, a mainstay of media content, are gone for now. In the world of durables, people have paused on purchasing large appliances, but smaller appliances—especially for home cooking—are seeing a surge of orders.
In the non-profit sector, the end of in-person fundraising events has left many organizations with huge shortfalls. Approaching people on the street to support a not-for-profit was always a challenge, but now it is impossible. While corporations have stepped in to fill some of the gap, the question is what are the long-term repercussions?
And what about investments in sponsorships? Without events, do sponsorships make business sense? The not-for-profit sector is reeling, and the forecast is foreboding. Even the Toronto Zoo has had to shift their model to a drive-thru experience, so that they have enough money to feed the animals. But which of these changes are permanent and which are simply detours?
There is no question that when dishwashers, stoves and washing machines wear out that they will need to be replaced. And as one person said, “you only need to remember the Colosseum in Rome to realize that sports will come back. People have always wanted to watch, and they always will.” But not everything will return to the way it was. Pandemics have always left their mark on societies.
The challenge organizations are facing is where to invest? “What does the roadmap look like?” a participant wonders. “Everything is changing on the fly,” another notes. Understanding which changes are long term and which might be shorter-lived is an incredible challenge. But perhaps short vs long term change is not even the right question.
The bottom line is that people’s relationship with brands and organizations have changed. Even if everything returns to “normal”, the reality is people’s lives have been altered. Their perceptions, their experiences, their feelings about the future have been transformed—inexorably. And that has implications for your organization.
One thing that is certain is that, in times of change, organizations need to look forward and see where people are headed. What worked in the past may not be what works tomorrow. We need forward-looking insights now more than ever.