To say the world has drastically changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic would be a massive understatement and, in fact, it would be stating the obvious. What's not necessarily so obvious is what happens down the road when, as some might say, we return to "normal."
News flash -- we are likely never going to return to normal or whatever it was we might have been referred to as normal. I hesitate here to use the cliché of the day -- the "new normal" -- because while we are undoubtedly heading toward new terrain in terms of life and business, I don't see anything about the future as normal.
Change, as a way of life, is more likely going to become the norm and the expectation of the future so we had better get accustomed to that. As we have all been sequestered within our respective locations and homes at this time of crisis, both out of necessity and by demand, we have some time to consider what that future is going to look like. Here are a few things that I see from a customer experience perspective, for personal, consumer (B2C) and business (B2B).
How life has changed for consumers when it comes to retail
As consumers, we've had to deal with a multitude of personal behavioral changes starting with social distancing. For some, this wasn't such a difficult thing, but for others, it was quite the opposite. This is especially true for non-essential businesses, as it basically shut them all down save for those willing and able to remain open for curbside pickup and delivery only. For those essential consumer businesses, such as banks and grocery stores, they have had to institute occupancy limits, one-way traffic aisles and structured queuing at the checkout lanes.
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Aside from the fact that interruptions in the normal supply channels have left many items missing from shelves, exacerbated by fear and hoarding at the outset, I've found these new ways of shopping actually offer a more predictable and improved customer experience. I used to travel to the market almost daily for one or two items, arriving home with much more than necessary. I've now found that by reducing shopping to a weekly frequency with advanced planning, I now focus on purchasing more healthy essentials, spending less, and enjoying the experience considerably more. I'm beginning to like this, and that's good because I see many of these operational changes sticking around for a while, if not permanently.
During a recent visit to a local pharmacy, I was delighted to see that plexiglass panels had been installed to maintain safe distancing between the customers and the pharmacist. Forced upon by COVID-19 perhaps, but one can only wonder why this wasn't the norm all along. Why would such businesses not want to protect its employees from those customers that, in many instances, are there to pick up medications precisely because they are ill and likely contagious? I see this as a permanent and welcome change for the better.
What about changes for B2B companies?
Looking at the B2B side of things, I see some profound changes likely to have a more lasting effect after orders to have employees work from home in response to the crisis came quickly to reduce the contagion and save lives. While working remotely isn't a new or novel concept, having masses of employees working from home all at one time, unable to be within their normal physical and social work environment, has proven both challenging and enlightening. Businesses that might have never considered such working arrangements have been forced into finding ways of making this work. According to a recent article by Liz Farmer, a Future of Labor Research Center fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, not only is remote working leading to an increased sense of camaraderie in some cases, many believe the experience will result in accelerating the already growing trend toward working from home.
As an independent customer experience management consultant, I've worked from home for the past six years. But even as a corporate employee, between 2010 and 2014, I telecommuted one day a week which, at the time, was a bit of an experiment in trust and productivity. My director was at first skeptical but warmed up to the idea over several months and embraced my working remotely, which resulted in a few of my colleagues also making such flexible arrangements.
According to the article, Farmer says that the work-from-home ranks have been steadily growing. More than 8 million Americans work from home full time, a growth of nearly 50% since 2005, according to research published by the Rockefeller Institute of Government earlier this year. When including people who telecommute at least one day a week, the total number grows to more than 13 million Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Further, Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO of Zapier, says that knowledge workers -- those who primarily work in a professional setting and use a computer as part of their job -- stand to benefit the most from the current remote work experiment. According to a recent Zapier survey, 95% of such workers said they wanted the option to work remotely. But even professionals like doctors and therapists who rely on face-to-face connections are finding that telehealth and teletherapy are now viable options.
Telehealth services are increasing out of the COVID-19 crisis and represent another area where forced changes could become more prevalent or even permanent. Health services such as routine primary care appointments are currently being conducted via the web, videoconferencing, landlines and wireless communications. According to the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, "Telehealth has emerged as a critical service for healthcare providers and patients alike during the coronavirus pandemic. It promotes social distancing, protects the safety of health care professionals and patients, and frees up space in healthcare facilities for those who now need it most."
I will soon have my first telehealth appointment with my primary care physician over a Zoom session. I'm eagerly awaiting to see how that all transpires and I'm quite happy about not having to make that 40-mile round-trip to his office just for a routine checkup.
Lastly, I believe there's been a "true colors" chapter for both consumer and business-to business organizations relating to how they've handled their employee experience and treated their employees during this pandemic. Maintaining a healthy and productive work environment requires considerable focus, technology and tons of communication so that employees feel they are not being cast aside and abandoned.
Now, several scenarios have occurred. Some businesses have been forced to furlough employees for a time period. Some have conducted layoffs with no possibility of return. Some have forced employees into reduced hours with either reduced pay or no pay. Some have decreased employees' hours and yet continued to pay them their regular wages.
With unemployment rates currently being the highest since the Great Depression -- it's expected to hit 15% -- and with more than 30 million Americans (at the time of the publishing date) having filed for unemployment, that creates some opportunity for soul-searching among both the organizations that weathered the storm and survived, and the employees caught up in limbo and planning their next move. Those most recent employee experiences will likely have a profound influence going forward. Organizations that treated their employees fairly and kept them off the unemployment rolls stand to benefit more significantly. Those organizations that pushed their workers to the point of risking their health in the name of maintaining revenues and profits during this crisis will have to bear the brunt of the backlash.
As many businesses could not have adequately prepared for the chaos that this global pandemic created, the way they respond to it and treat their employees will serve as one of the most significant factors in the way they will recover and get their businesses back on track. Organizations, both B2C and B2B, that focus on understanding overall needs and concerns, while preserving the safety of their employees and customers, will emerge as victors, and will be steps ahead of their competition in the coming months. Those workers who are well-prepared and qualified will also have a more competitive advantage in the future job market.
About the author
Karl E. Sharicz is the founder and CEO at HorizonCX. He brings over 30 years of skills and experiences gained in high-tech research and manufacturing B2B environments along with proven business acumen. Throughout his career he has served a broad range of roles within marketing, sales, training and training management -- developing internal and external customer relationship skills and building a decidedly customer-centric focus along the way. At HorizonCX, Karl offers professional services to organizations in two general categories: small to medium-sized businesses aiming to begin the CX journey and large enterprises on the CX journey aiming to bring it to a higher level.