Redefining business in times of pandemic: can a restricted world offer new opportunities?

While we seem to be transitioning to a world that's less open and less free, we're also bound to come across many new opportunities.
Industries: Covid-19
  • The dramatically changing workplace
  • Manufacturing’s new normal after COVID-19
  • Remote leadership and e-collaboration 
  • Re-evaluating existing business models
  • The case for continued investment in innovation
  • The emergence of awe-inspiring lockdown business ideas 
  • Even in these times of restriction, opportunities do abound

Every conceivable industry in the world is currently dealing with the devastating impact of COVID-19. From marketing to agriculture, and from health to manufacturing, 2020 has been a year of massive shifts in the way organisations and businesses operate. Changes as a result of the pandemic will encompass an acceleration of existing trends, such as automation, e-commerce and home deliveries, and contactless everything, but also telehealth, 3D printing technology, VR and AR, and the adoption of AI. And considering how far we’ve already transitioned into the digital space, it’s hard to imagine that, post-pandemic, we will fully return to our brick-and-mortar options. The pandemic has also forced us to look at the bigger picture, not just in terms of short-term survival but also the long-term implications of our past, current, and future actions. Thankfully, we’re also seeing lots of new initiatives and businesses emerge, not so much in spite of the pandemic, but rather because of it.

The dramatically changing workplace

If companies and employees have learned anything from the pandemic it’s that they can survive – and even thrive – in dramatically changing business landscapes and fully remote working environments. Even after the pandemic subsides, organizations will realize the benefits of remote work, and we will undoubtedly see a significant increase in this regard. And when we do go back to our offices, we can expect huge changes there as well, such as social distancing and regular temperature checks, among other things. Software and services provider Ramco Systems, for instance, has developed a system that records staff or visitor presence using facial recognition cameras, while the in-built thermal camera checks the person’s temperature. The office door only opens when the temperature is within normal limits. If the system detects that the employee or visitor has a fever, he or she is prevented from entering and an alert is sent out to the HR department about the staff member in question.

The use of sensors and interconnected devices will help keep office environments safe and reduce the need for employees to touch surfaces. Organisations can use next-gen ID tags, facial recognition technology, and wristbands with sensors that warn employees when they get too close to each other to create a more efficient workplace. All these devices will also capture real-time data and transmit information to other devices. Car manufacturer Ford, for instance, is currently testing social distancing wearables at its factory in Michigan, US. Employees who come within 1.5 metres of another person get alerted through their vibrating wristband. Another company that is serious about social distancing is Amazon. The retail giant has recently implemented their new AI-powered Digital Assistant tracking system. The system gives staff members real-time social distancing feedback via a local computing device, a camera, and a 50-inch monitor. Once we go back to the physical workplace, we will have to adapt to the increased use of technology that will have been implemented, not only for employee safety, but also for increased speed, efficiency, and cost reductions. 

Manufacturing’s new normal after COVID-19

The changes in the manufacturing industry will also have a lasting impact on how products are made. The pandemic hit manufacturers in unprecedented ways as it was the very first time in manufacturing history that all aspects of manufacturing – demand, supply, and workforce availability – were simultaneously, and globally, affected. This has led to worldwide factory closures and supply chain disruptions, which have been a veritable wakeup call for everyone involved in this sector. The ‘old’ way of doing things – manufacturing goods using low-cost labor from the other side of the globe – is simply no longer secure, nor sustainable. An additional level of pressure and disruption for manufacturing is caused by social distancing measures, leading to up to 50 per cent of work forces not being able to carry out their work on-site. In order to weather the storms of uncertainty, increased automation as well as nearshoring or even onshoring – bringing production closer to home – will be the way to go forward. We are likely to see a resurgence of domestic manufacturing as part of worldwide measures to build business resilience. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that measures taken as a response to a global crisis usually lead to lasting changes. Businesses in the manufacturing industry that understand and act on this new normal will be able to benefit from its opportunities for growth. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that measures taken as a response to a global crisis usually lead to lasting changes. Businesses in the manufacturing industry that understand and act on this new normal will be able to benefit from its opportunities for growth. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that measures taken as a response to a global crisis usually lead to lasting changes. Businesses in the manufacturing industry that understand and act on this new normal will be able to benefit from its opportunities for growth.

An upsurge in 3D printing tech

With travel restrictions in place and supply chains severely disrupted, 3D printing technology found itself in an advantageous position, particularly in the production of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as testing swabs and face masks, and medical devices like respirators, assisting hospitals and clinics that were in short supply. “There was the recognition that 3D printing is a viable manufacturing technology for medical devices. Previously, there were still lots of questions. But because the industry came together and put new products into the market in weeks, not years, it showed it could be done, ” says Luis Baldez, senior manager of market development, HP 3D Printing. One of many 3D printing companies that stepped up and filled in the gap was UNYQ, manufacturer of 3D-printed prostheses for amputees. The company converted its facilities so that it could start manufacturing emergency medical supplies. The adaptability, scalability, rapid prototyping capabilities, and decentralized nature of 3D printing technology are among the strengths that appeal to manufacturers. According to CB Insights’ Industry Analyst Consensus, 3D printing technology constitutes a $ 67 billion global market, and is likely to see continued and increased adoption, not only in the manufacturing industry, but also in robotics and automotive.

The unease about machines taking over is dissipating

Prior to COVID-19, automation was already on the increase – whether that meant using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve decision making, implementing collaborative robots in manufacturing processes, or deploying automated systems in fulfillment centers. So, human work in a range of jobs had already gradually been replaced by automation. But since the start of the pandemic, automation has really skyrocketed, and the unease about machines taking over is slowly but surely dissipating, now that we’re all focusing on minimizing physical contact to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Scrambling to deal with this global health crisis, many companies have had to face complex business dilemmas; to either keep their factories open and risk employees getting sick, or send people home and shut down operations altogether. It was a case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’, with companies like Amazon and Tesla facing harsh criticism for keeping their operations going and ‘endangering the safety of their staff members’. In many cases, thankfully, automation has offered solutions for keeping assembly lines operational and improving process optimization without compromising employee safety. Now that social distancing measures are likely to remain in place even after the crisis subsides, more industries could be prompted to accelerate their automation efforts, and worries about machines taking over important aspects of our daily lives seem to be fading. “Now that we are in the midst of massive job losses that haven’t been caused by automation, the question is: how can automation accelerate our recovery and protect us from future pandemics?” writes Shahin Farshchi for Forbes.

Remote leadership and e-collaboration

The onset of the pandemic resulted in sudden and dramatic worldwide changes in how companies operate, with social distancing measures necessitating remote working and distance leadership in most industries. This global jolt to adapt or perish is now transitioning to the new normal and is expected to continue even after the pandemic subsides. And in these new work environments, with their flexible working arrangements, leadership and collaboration will never be the same again. Not only do business leaders need to find new ways to sustain productivity, they also have to lead their increasingly remote teams through uncertain times and preserve company cultures. It’s important to experiment and incorporate technology, not only as a collaboration tool, but also as a social connection tool. 

Giving team members access to metrics to help them measure progress while working towards common goals will increase employee autonomy and lead to greater agility across the company. At the same time, we need to create new, remote company cultures with meetings for the sole purpose of staying connected, without any business agendas. These will lead to quality communication and enhanced connections, which will in turn lead to improved morale and optimised collaboration. Another key component of effective e-leadership is inviting and welcoming employee input and constructive criticism on leadership. This can be achieved by organising virtual meetings in which staff members are encouraged to ask questions and offer their thoughts. Transparent communication ensures that employees feel valued and helps avoid assumptions and speculation about the future of the company, especially during these uncertain times. It’s important for virtual leaders to have open lines of communication, as well as writing skills, that show empathy and understanding, and boost engagement and morale.

While the pandemic will eventually subside, its effects on the way we work, collaborate, and lead will be long lasting. This is why solid virtual leadership is more crucial than ever. Effective collaboration and thoughtful leadership in the new normal will require a willingness to learn, fail, and adapt. 

Re-evaluating existing business models 

Not only do we have to look at our immediate business processes, and the way we collaborate with our employees and lead our businesses, sometimes we even need to completely overhaul our existing business models in order to survive and thrive well into our new, post- pandemic future. 

One example is shifting from a short-term and limited, advertising based focus to a totally different, long-term model – such as in the case of Spotify. Pre-pandemic, the music streaming giant basically acted as an intermediary in delivering music, relying largely on free users listening to advertising. The limited business model previously seemed poised to support the development and growth of the company for many years to come. But the pandemic caused major advertisers to have to cut their budgets, turning Spotify’s previously profitable business model into a virtually useless one that led to major revenue loss. The company, however, decided to follow Netflix’s success formula of creating original content, and managed to smartly pivot towards producing its own content, such as podcasts. This shift turned out to be enormously successful, with their podcasts seeing an incredible increase in numbers as well as popularity this past year. While Spotify is not likely to ever become or create its own record label, the pivot to being a source for original content for its customers is both a brilliant and probably a long-term one, enabling the retention of a much larger profit share, which is expected to be a much better driver of growth in years to come.

Flexibility is another key ingredient for success during trying times like these. Economic volatility or downturns, disruptive technologies, and global competitiveness are all factors that require increased innovation, agility, and flexibility in order to rapidly adapt to unexpected circumstances. A great example of a flexible and social business model is the US prescription eyewear and sunglasses company Warby Parker. By cutting out the middleman, Warby Parker gains revenue directly from its customers. And to help people in need, the company cross-finances donations by donating a pair of glasses for every one sold. Warby Parker sends customers multiple pairs of eyewear to try on, and they keep only the pairs they like. Warby Parker’s business model was a huge success, but the pandemic required the company to rapidly pivot and start experimenting with virtual try-on technology to eliminate home try-ons and minimize shipping costs. The company also developed an app for vision tests that connects customers with an ophthalmologist who can write remote prescriptions. And to help meet the enormous demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), “We started distributing masks, gowns, face shields, gloves and relief kits to healthcare workers as well as communities in high risk countries,” says Dave Gilboa, co-CEO and co-founder of Warby Parker.  

The pandemic has intensified the need for companies to adapt and become more agile, and accelerated all kinds of trends, such as work-from-home, pickup and delivery services, online retail, and telemedicine (in fact, tele-you-name- it), leading to the fast emergence of Everything-as-a-Service, or XaaS. XaaS extends to any activity, process, or function that can be provided as a service, such as software, data, infrastructure, platforms, or experiences. XaaS is on a COVID-triggered upswing with a projected market value set to reach a whopping $ 344.3 billion by 2024. In this COVID era, product, service, or experience offerings need to be brought directly to the customer and be consumable via the internet. It’s critical to align brand values ​​with those of customers, and to remember that their values ​​have been turned upside down by the pandemic. Also, it’s vital to realize that customers now have much more control over the purchasing cycle. According to Deloittes’ Everything-as-a-Service (XaaS) Study, the transition to XaaS continues to transform the enterprise landscape. Eight in 10 adopters agree the pandemic has accelerated their organization’s shift to XaaS, while 55 per cent report that the crisis is causing their organization to invest more in XaaS than previously planned. A further 86 per cent believe that XaaS is critical to strengthening their organization’s response to business and workforce challenges caused by the pandemic, and 88 per cent believe XaaS will be crucial as their organization recovers from the pandemic.

The case for continued investment in innovation

In the beginning of the pandemic, worldwide IT leaders invested around $ 15 billion extra (per week!) In technology in order to enable a safe and secure transition to home working, according to the Harvey Nash / KPMG CIO Survey – one of the most significant surges in technology investment ever. A McKinsey & Company survey, however, shows that many other organizations are currently not prioritizing tech investments and innovation, but instead focus on minimizing risk, conserving resources, pursuing only known opportunities, and generally ‘waiting it out’ until things are more clear. The one thing that is crystal clear, however, is that what made a business successful prior to the pandemic may now no longer be applicable or even possible, and many companies will no longer be able to continue operating as they did prior to the corona crisis . And the reasons for this are many, such as facts or assumptions that were the basis of predictable, stable growth that may no longer be relevant. Or customers that may no longer be able to honor their financial commitments. Or changing regulatory contexts that may have created new opportunities. 

The pandemic has significantly accelerated and intensified the disruptive force of digitization and innovation. Many businesses have, for instance, turned to various forms of digital customer engagement and employee collaboration, and are discovering that digital and virtual tech enables them to accomplish things that were previously almost unthinkable. This shift also enables smaller startups to compete with much larger companies. Businesses that understand these shifts and the opportunities they present can gain significant long-term advantages. In fact, history has shown that organizations that maintained their innovation focus prior to and during a crisis emerged from these crises more successful, showing increased performance and growth even in the long term.

The emergence of awe-inspiring lockdown business ideas 

While 2020 and the first couple of months of this year have embodied unprecedented economic misery for many, for some the pandemic has actually provided new opportunities. It’s nothing new, really, to see companies starting up during times of crisis. In fact, some of the biggest brands we know today started up during a recession, such as General Motors, Microsoft, FedEx, and Burger King, to name but a few. Even now, during this raging pandemic, various countries are actually experiencing a ‘startup boom’. And this is not really surprising, as we all know that necessity is the mother of invention, and recessions cause problems that require (new) solutions. John Haltiwanger, an economist at the University of Maryland who has been working with the US Census Bureau to measure new business creation, says : “When the coronavirus pandemic began, the data showed what you might expect: a collapse in new business applications. But about six weeks into the pandemic, the numbers started rising. At first, we had to double-check that the data were correct. We were, like, what’s going on here? But the new business applications just kept rising. ” 

Some people starting new ventures share their thoughts: “It was a sink or swim moment,” “the lockdown put fire in my belly,” or “I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose.” While it’s safe to assume that many new startups have emerged out of desperation to generate income after a job loss, this has not necessarily been the case for all new ventures. The lockdowns also offered unique opportunities to explore ideas that had been lofty dreams up until then, forced people to look at their long-term goals and priorities, and gave people time, space, and clarity of mind to finally take steps to follow their passion .

From tour guide to organic food delivery

British startup Ashdown Organics is a good example. As a result of the chaos of the pandemic, founder Oliver Loveday was no longer able to continue his previous job as an expedition leader in adventure travel for the Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro. Loveday had to quickly pivot and find a new way to make a living. As he had previously worked in the wine industry and spent several years in France, a return to his love of food and drink seemed like the obvious move to make. After having delivered some emergency farm shop food parcels to people who had gone into quarantine, he discovered a new niche. Soon, there was an increasing demand for his carefully selected boxes of local produce from customers across London and Sussex. The rest, as they say, is history. Ashdown Organics now delivers more than 70 parcels containing farm produce, freshly baked goods, and flowers every week.

L’Oréal’s Perso launches at-home makeup printing device

The new, personalized Perso makeup concept from skincare giant L’Oréal is a 3-in-1 device, prints lipstick, foundation, and skincare at home, based on personal preference, skin analysis, and environmental factors. The system enables clients to use augmented reality (AR) on their mobile phone to decide on the perfect lipstick or foundation color, after which they can create the product themselves, at home, using a printer that blends the makeup with special color cartridges. First, the customer will take a photo of her face with the Perso app, which will use AI to identify skin conditions like dark spots, large pores, or wrinkles. Then the app crunches location data to adjust for environmental concerns that affect skin, including pollution, pollen, and UV index. Finally, the user enters her skin-care goals, like eradicating dark spots or dullness. The data is pulled into a custom formula and, using its three-ingredient cartridges, the device will cook up your formulation and dispense it in a single-use dose. The device predicts what your skin will need and creates it for you, no shuffling through your entire serum collection or Googling articles on how to protect your skin from pollution, ” writes Leah Prinzivalli for Allure magazine. The AI ​​learns as it goes to further personalize the cosmetics experience, so the longer the device is used, the more accurate the results will be. The first Perso version was launched at CES 2020, before the pandemic really started, but the company has continued developing and perfecting the concept, and will soon be launching a beta version, priced at $ 299. At this price point, as well as the YSL branding, the cosmetics behemoth is clearly aiming for the high-end market. As is the case with most other companies, the pandemic has increased L’Oréal’s dependence on ecommerce sales. Online revenues increased by over 60 per cent in 2020, accounting for 26.6 per cent of the total group sales. Lubomira Rochet, L’Oréal’s chief digital officer, says the aim is for ecommerce to make up 50 per cent of the company’s total sales.

Eco-friendly products gone online

Born from the wish to “ create a brand with a vision to end the plastic revolution and the throw-away mindset of our generation ”, the Wood Life Project was launched in 2019, producing and selling beautiful, innovative, and practical wooden tableware for eco-conscious families. Within a year, the founders, husband and wife team Hazel and Jimmy Russell, were supplying their products to 45 retailers and negotiating business deals with various major brands. But with the arrival of the pandemic, all of these developments came to a grinding halt. They used this downtime to focus their efforts on online sales via their own website and online marketplaces, publishing blogs and posting on social media platforms to increase brand awareness and sales. “We have found a way to run our business openly, and more socially and environmentally aware, that won’t detract from our profitability,” says Hazel Russell. In the meantime, the Wood Life Project has become Forest Stewardship Council and Grown in Britain certified, and is in the process of becoming B-Corp certified as well.

Wine in a can

Mark Woollard, part of a group of friends from East London and co-founder of the startup Hun, says : “We loved the convenience and environmental benefits of cans, but couldn’t find any canned wines on the UK market that offered the same quality and flavor of their bottled counterparts. ” The friends decided to launch their business without having any prior experience in the beverage industry. They did, however, manage to put together a professional team through their network that includes connections like James Bailey, executive director of Waitrose, Andy Shaw, former MD of Redbull, and Formula 1 racer David Coulthard. The wines are supplied by South African exporter Origin Wines and originate from the famous Stellenbosch wine region. The wines are all vegan and fair trade, and are canned in the UK. Woollard says “the team never expected to be launching in the midst of a global pandemic, but our brand aims to build a community based around supporting and entertaining, so what better time to put these values ​​into practice? We had planned to launch at festivals, but with all events canceled, we quickly had to change our strategy. ” David Coulthard adds: “There was still a lot of snobbery around wine in a can, and with Hun we hope to shake up the industry and prove that canned wine can be just as good – if not better – than bottled wine”. The team ran a tongue-in-cheek campaign that appears to mock the idea of launching a new product during lockdowns, with phrases like: “Look everybody! We’ve just launched a new wine. Anybody? Anybody? Anybody? ” as well as a campaign offering free wine to people whose birthday, anniversary, or wedding celebrations have been disrupted as a result of the pandemic.

Even in these times of restriction, opportunities do abound

As we seem to be transitioning to a world that is – at least, for now – less open and less free, with virus containment measures likely to persist across the world for the foreseeable future, we’re also bound to come across many new opportunities . 

The pandemic has, for instance, shown us that things can easily be changed, provided there’s a strong enough stimulus. The crisis forced many companies to break through rigid systems of bureaucracies, slow procedures, and old-fashioned hierarchies. It has shown us that it is possible to skip or accelerate procedures, sidetrack rules, and make decisions quicker. It has also made us realize that employees canwork remotely, without any direct supervision, and still be productive. The pandemic is actually offering a myriad of opportunities, not only when it comes to new innovations, but also in terms of changing deeply rooted convictions and habits. Rapidly changed rules have made pandemic life a little easier for everyone. It has helped startups launch and companies innovate. It has given rise to new solutions to keep operations going and serve customers in different ways. And the ripple effects of these changes may be profound and long-lasting. 

The pandemic has also offered us a rare and valuable opportunity to see what a different pace of life and a transformed economy could look like – one that’s less focused on consumption and growth and is slower, cleaner, and more sustainable. It enables us to reconsider and reorganize our businesses and lives in such a way that they have less impact on our planet. It also offers us a valuable opportunity to take on a more modest role, and accept that a lot of things are actually beyond our control. In fact, the longer this worldwide crisis lasts, the more significant are the opportunities to make lasting changes to our deeply rooted habits and convictions.

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