COVID-19 is a social, cultural and business disruption that our generation has never faced. As humans, community members, citizens, and business leaders, we are re-orientating our lives, reshaping our businesses, and remaking our society at a breakneck pace on a global scale – all while being ordered to stay at home. Similar things were said of digital disruption just a few years ago. In fact, COVID-19 is accelerating digital disruption and transformation faster than even the digital disruptors ever thought possible.
First and foremost, COVID-19 is a killer. That makes it the most powerful disruptor. As alluring and motivating as it might be to become the next tech billionaire, staying alive and not killing your loved ones and co-workers turns out to be a more powerful, disruptive force. As a result, we as humans are adapting to find both safety and opportunity amidst these challenging times in at least four ways.
1. Changing our values and behaviors: Disruption changes what we value. During digital disruption, people elevated the values of speed, convenience and ease. During COVID-19, we obviously have elevated safety. But beautifully, we also have elevated personal connection and empathy. We see these values behind most of the macro and micro behavior changes we are witnessing.
When values change, so does behavior. In the macro sense, the increased value on safety has changed human demand patterns. We are not flying, staying in hotels, or eating in restaurants. We are driving less, and buying half the amount of clothing. We are buying even more online, and we pick our groceries up curbside or have them or delivered to our doors—all to keep ourselves and others safe. The desire for personal connection has us reconnecting with long lost friends, video chatting with grandma, and going to drive-by birthday parties. Our increased value on empathy is reflected in all of the above, and no more so than when people make homemade masks for hospital works, friends and family.
2. Accelerating digital adoption: COVID-19 accelerated adoption of numerous digital technologies and services, taking many of them mainstream ahead of schedule. Instacart, the grocery delivery app, has seen a 450 percent increase in sales since December. Zoom added more active users in the first three months of 2020 than in all of 2019. Microsoft added 12 million new Teams users in one week in March. Streaming services are up 12 percent and likely climbing. All of these digital services existed prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic forced people to adopt them earlier than they otherwise would have. For these companies, COVID-19 was like a time machine that brought them users earlier than expected. The question now is, “Can they can keep them?”
3. Stimulating innovation: The old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and when that necessity is making up for lost revenue, the inventions come fast. The speed at which some bureaucratic, conservative organizations have pivoted and stood up new offerings during COVID-19 has been remarkable. CarMax, who has been outpaced by Carvana for a few years, stood up a curbside pickup offering two weeks after its home state of Virginia issued a stay-in-place order. A week later, it released an online car auction site. The question looms if companies like CarMax can institutionalize this new propensity to be nimble and rapidly innovate.
4. Affecting policies: From the beginning, governments issued stay-in-place orders, and businesses adopted work from home policies, but those were likely just the beginning. At the behest of government, businesses have established “Distance & Disinfecting” (D&D) teams that are setting guidelines for how to keep employees and customers safe in retail and work environments. These D&D roles are not temporary assignments, but permanent teams charged with making customers and employees feel safe and rapidly reacting to future crises.
Companies are moving through the COVID-19 disruption in a consistent progression of business moves. The progression is cyclical, and different parts of your company could be navigating through different business moves at the same time, making it critical for leaders to have a clear view of where their teams are and how well they are progressing.
The four business moves of the COVID-19 disruption are:
1. Assessment: At the beginning, when business ran as usual, leading companies took a sober, analytical approach, looking at how customer behavior was changing, identifying demand and behavior changes, and prioritizing gaps and new opportunities on which to focus.
2. Rapid response: Leading companies then quickly redesigned products, offers, sales approaches and critical customer experience moments to match customers’ new values and behaviors.
3. Operational alignment: Leading companies are now figuring out how to operationalize these new experiences and offers, making changes to the workforce, technology and processes that make them more effective and efficient.
4. Planning ahead: Leading companies are now looking ahead and thinking strategically about how to win in the new environment, but planning ahead when we don’t know when or how this is all going to settle is difficult. What customer values and behaviors that emerged during the pandemic will persist, and which will revert back? Companies are looking for and leaning on employees who are collaborative, nimble, and able to work courageously in the face of ambiguity, because designing the future of customer experience isn’t about guessing what the future will be but being able to best maneuver with it as it happens.
How is the COVID-19 disruption changing what your customers value and how they behave? And how well is your team moving through the necessary business moves to position your company to survive and thrive in the new reality that will emerge?
Dan Morrison is brand vice president at Joe Smith, the brand consultancy of Padilla.