In the first weeks after the coronavirus really hit the United States – as the number of cases, closings and cancellations piled up – it may have seemed hard to think of what a return to normal would look like.
A pessimist might say there is no returning to normal, everything has changed and social distancing will be the new norm. An optimist, on the other hand, might expect things to snap back to where they were before everything changed.
The reality is likely somewhere in between and the ultimate outcome will depend on how long the outbreak lasts. If it lasts a few weeks, returning to normal might not be difficult. Six months? A year? Longer? The way business gets done could be permanently changed.
While businesses are confronting the challenges of today, leaders also need to give some thought to what life will look like after the coronavirus.
David Zach, a futurist and author of the forthcoming book “The Fog of Progress: Finding Clarity and Connection in Uncertain Times,” said the easiest way for anyone to be a futurist is to consider the implications of decisions or choices multiplied by three.
“We’re really good at going ‘if this, then that’ but where we fall down is ‘and then what?’” Zach said.
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Online education and remote work are two obvious areas the coronavirus could influence. Thousands of students and employees were thrust into online learning and working environments and, while neither is a new phenomenon, it seems possible the coronavirus could make those practices standard practice.
Zach, however, emphasized the importance of classroom learning and human interaction.
“We are social creatures and we learn socially to a great extent,” he said. “Yes, you can learn an awful lot online, but it is the interaction and the physical shared space that is essential not only to learning, but to us as humans.”
Todd McLees, founder of Hartland-based management consulting firm Pendio Group, said the sudden influx of online students creates an opportunity for distance learning companies to improve.
“They’re going to learn a lot because the customer base is bigger right now, they’re getting a lot more data in terms of what went right, what went wrong,” he said.
Tracy Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin, said it is tough to know how the spike in remote work will influence demand for office space, noting the long-term nature of leases insulates the sector from sudden changes.
“Who knows if this whole open office concept is going to be a thing of the past,” she said. “People need their private spaces – are they smaller spaces? Are people even going to want to come to the office anymore? Are we even going to need the number of workers?”
The way the virus has spread, starting in China before branching out around the world, has also put a spotlight on the problems of relying on one area for goods. Both Zach and McLees pointed to the potential for the virus to bring more manufacturing back to the U.S.
“Don’t mess with nature, it will always win,” Zach said. “It provides lots of role models and examples in terms of diversification and not concentration. You have monoculture species; a single thing can wipe them out.”
McLees said the push to bring production to the U.S., spurred by disruptions in the Chinese supply chain, could boost the idea of manufacturing-as-a-service, where a contract manufacturer sells its expertise in setting up operations to customers struggling to localize their supply chain. He said cheap capital and the ability to start up operations faster would allow a manufacturer to run the operation for a customer, turn the factory over once it’s built or transition it over a couple years.
“That’s a definite possibility, but I’m not exactly sure how it happens yet or how soon it happens,” he said.
McLees said the coronavirus could also spur faster adoption of 3D printing and automation. If the virus leaves companies working with a skeleton crew, it could essentially act like a sped-up version of the demographic trends manufacturers have faced in recent years.
He also said the potential slowdown in business created by the virus creates an opportunity to invest in employees. If companies aren’t running at full capacity, employees could spend 20% of their time learning a new skill or experimenting with new ideas.
“It could actually create a culture of innovation so that when we come back together in 90 to 180 days, my company is way better at that than yours is because you were focused on productivity monitoring and costs,” McLees said.
He also noted that remote work could create a challenge for companies that either have a wild west with no connectivity or police state-like monitoring.
“I’m not sure I want to be a part of that culture six months from now when everybody is hiring up,” McLees said.
Of course, focusing on training and culture isn’t an option for all industries. The hospitality and retail sectors are focused more on survival.
“The longer this goes on, the worse off the retail sector will be,” Johnson said. “People are worried about cash flow. The good, strong companies that would survive anything will survive this, but the ones who are kind of in this weird place, you might never see them open again.”
She noted that there is also uncertainty about how willing people will be to go to public spaces, which could hurt a retail sector that has shifted toward entertainment options.
In hospitality, Johnson recalled watching prices for event spaces climb year-after-year following the Great Recession.
“It will be interesting to see what they do to get people back,” Johnson said, floating fewer seats per table as one possibility.
McLees suggested the future of densely populated places could depend on how long the outbreak lasts.
“It’s just a function, I think, of how long it lasts, how many people suffer loss. I think that will help establish these norms just like the Depression and the wars did those generations,” he said.