As COVID-19 cases continue to escalate across the country – and the world – organizations are grappling with how to sustain business while social distancing and self-isolation become the “new normal.”
During this period of heightened uncertainty, which has drastically changed the way many organizations operate, remote work is becoming an increasingly viable opportunity for companies – and in many cases, the only option. But the shift to working from home is not without some complications. This rings true even for organizations with a host of digital resources at their disposal, never mind those with more traditional notions of the nine-to-five office role.
As more companies actively seek out new ways to interact with their employees and customers, and conduct day-to-day work in the current climate, they are being forced to implement business continuity plans – quickly, effectively and transparently – in order to keep employees and stakeholders safe and minimize disruptions to the business and bottom line.
Tech players such as Shopify, Google and Amazon are prime examples of companies leading the way in responding to shifting workplace dynamics. They encouraged employees to work from home in the weeks preceding the government’s announcement to self-isolate. And Shopify went a step further to ensure their team’s needs were met by providing each employee with a $1,000 stipend to cover the cost of supplies while working from home – truly an example of strong leadership. Meanwhile, Amazon pre-emptively tested VPNs to ensure a smoother transition to remote work for their staff. Many financial and professional services organizations soon followed suit, encouraging the use of digital collaboration tools to replace in-person interaction. However, other companies may still be struggling to maintain some semblance of “business as usual” while their teams, customers and other stakeholders are suddenly dispersed.
With the shift to working from home, coupled with the closure of schools, community centers, restaurants and numerous other retailers across the country, we are also seeing the emergence of more consumers at home. This has created a unique set of challenges and opportunities for those organizations that rely heavily on consumer research, and are now being pushed out of their comfort zone to seek out new digital solutions to stay connected to their customer base and keep business moving forward.
The reality is that companies still need insights about their customers, and turning to online data collection is one way to connect with and gain invaluable insights into customers’ ever-evolving needs and preferences, while respecting physical distance that the pandemic has mandated.
Technology is a powerful tool that can help businesses thrive during this uncertain time and beyond, particularly those that rely heavily on qualitative customer research. Online research panels, for example, are a useful way to engage consumers quickly from the comfort of their homes. And with market research moderators largely unable to conduct interviews face-to-face at the present time, leveraging newer digital tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can enable companies to conduct chat-based interviews at scale, so they can collect the qualitative data they need quickly while eliminating the need for in-person interaction.
There is also vast potential for AI to create virtual “personas” – who exemplify a target audience – to replace in-person focus groups more traditionally used in consumer research. This is one way to gauge and anticipate the attitudes and behaviours of customers, which may prove especially beneficial at this time.
So where do we go from here? The current situation has undoubtedly cast a light on the need to for companies to accelerate their digital transformation agendas. It seems inevitable that the shift to working from home and the increasing reliance on technology is part of a larger future of work trend, one that I expect will have a lasting impact across myriad industry sectors. For example, more companies may opt to forego physical offices altogether in the future, or rent smaller offices or shared workspaces to accommodate fewer employees at any given time.
With social distancing becoming the norm, business continuity preparedness is of critical importance to ensure that companies can efficiently manage operations when the unexpected does occur. This includes: Being equipped with a technology-driven work-from-home strategy that can be implemented at any time, testing that technology on an ongoing basis to mitigate strains on the network if and when teams are once again suddenly required to work remotely, having greater access to digital resources, and ensuring proactive, open and transparent dialogue with employees and key stakeholders at every stage of the process.
Communication is incredibly important in the good times and the bad times, and the companies that will be the most successful navigating through the pandemic will be the ones to rise above the pack and exemplify strong leadership, clearly articulating to employees, stakeholders and the communities they serve how they intend to tackle the situation, and keeping them informed of any changes to their approach along the way. And technology is the enabler, fostering more seamless communication at this time, given the limited in-person exposure across businesses and communities.
What is clear is the time for organizations to act is now. When personal safety and livelihoods are at stake, not to mention a lingering threat to the bottom line, it has perhaps never been more important for companies to be prepared with a business continuity plan that leverages technology. And for those who have been struggling to catch up, it is important to start planning a “return to work” strategy now, critically thinking through the role that remote and flexible work and technology will continue to play in the weeks and months ahead. This will help businesses recover from the current pandemic and better equip them to handle the next crisis.
What’s more, unlocking the potential that technology offers will enable companies to better connect with current and prospective customers over the short-term and the long-term, while helping organizations make more informed business decisions and maintain day-to-day operations, in spite of unforeseen circumstances.