Lessons From Year One of the Pandemic

Smart businesses used the last year to innovate and improve. They shouldn’t stop now
By: 
Barry Cross
Lessons From Year One of the Pandemic

I know I am not alone in looking back and recalling how a year ago I assumed the worst of the pandemic would be over in 2020. Now, in the midst of a third wave (a third!), we know the pandemic is far from over. The vaccine rollout gives us hope. Yet delayed and stumbling distribution, and concerns with side effects, reinforce that we are in this for the long haul.

What have we learned in the last year?  

First, businesses that adapted are, for the most part, still here and, in some cases, they have thrived. They used the pandemic as a catalyst for innovation and for new forms of operational excellence. On the other hand, those that tried to (or were forced to) wait out the pandemic have in many cases closed permanently. I appreciate that the on-again/off-again closures imposed by government on businesses created situations that for some have been too difficult to overcome. Salons, for example, have been devastated.

Second, even a year later, flexibility is key. Announcements on changing operating conditions are frequent. Organizations with proven operating structures and processes for changing from “open but limited capacity” to “online/curbside pickup” and “work from home” can adapt quickly despite frustrating guidance and regulation. Some examples: 

Our favourite local restaurants have pivoted to takeout. They upgraded their online order platforms to allow us to choose a time to pick up our food, and they now provide text message updates on the status of our order. Anyone familiar with Domino’s Pizza Tracker knows that this isn’t new for some big-chain restaurants. But this level of operational transparency is a big step for small, local operators.

At Smith School of Business, where I teach, we moved quickly to online educational delivery once the pandemic started. While no one really “likes” a virtual classroom environment, it works. Our model continues to evolve, with a blend of synchronous (live) and asynchronous (pre-recorded) delivery, breaking up long sessions for students and providing them with some level of flexibility and control over schedules. Organizations have adapted as well, capitalizing on remote-delivery options for professional development of staff under work-from-home conditions. 

A large Canadian retailer we will call Big Red struggled early in the pandemic as its website was overwhelmed by the sudden volume of online shopping. It shut its site while upgrades were made. During this period, orders were taken by phone. A store employee ran over to check Aisle 13 to see if your goods were in stock; then the purchase was rung up while you waited. Now, with its website improved, this retailer offers real-time inventory visibility in each store and offers a one-hour turnaround for curbside pickup of online purchases.

Not all companies are adapting as well. A large American building supply store we will call Big Blue also offers online orders and curbside pickup, but often six or seven hours after an order is confirmed the customer continues to wait for notification that their order is ready for pickup.  Customers want their stuff now; not whenever the store gets to it. This same chain, by the way, is one of the few retailers out there not using point-of-sale machines with a “Tap” payment feature. Store employees indicate the corporation doesn’t want to replace thousands of POS machines for that feature alone—an odd decision given the otherwise touchless environment that we’re living in now.

Follow the customer 

Despite the progress that many businesses have made, the work here is not done. While some level of optimism on society-level re-opening is reasonable, governments continue for the most part to appropriately operate with an abundance of caution. We will not move from being 75 per cent closed to 100 per cent open in the near term.  

As we think about next steps for our organizations, it is important to pay attention to the behaviour and the mood of your customers. Understanding the customer keeps us from committing one of the cardinal sins of organization design, something referred to as “drive-by design”, where we assume our design knowledge trumps domain ignorance.

So, what do we know about our customers today?

Well, customers for the most part are staying local. If you are a local business as well, you have a shot at a share of their wallet. If you aren’t local, your online process needs to be simple and smooth. Some have commented that it seems Amazon was built for the pandemic. Probably not, but customer convenience is certainly Amazon’s mantra. Fortune Analytics reported recently that 49 per cent of adults in the U.S. are making more online purchases than they did before the pandemic. This is more than just a retail trend. Government services, education, health care and, yes, vaccination registration, are all now done virtually.

Customers are bored, looking for activities, projects, socialization. Customers are also hungry, and will continue to be hungry, so we need to feed them. Operators can apply a DIY strategy and facilitate customers with materials for their projects and food for their meals. They can provide videos, designs, recipes and advice on pairings and furnishings. Or, they can support a DIFM (do it for me) vision with contractors, designers or takeout from restaurants. There is a broad range of opportunity between “giving a man a fish” and “teaching him to fish” as well. Seek your own form of “great” and find a way to add ongoing value as customers settle into a new equilibrium.

When I teach innovation, I say that innovating in the absence of a customer will fail. At the same time, what you do next as an organization doesn’t have to be perfect out of the gate. It is important to maintain a level of flexibility in light of potential mandated changes to your operating structure, with further restrictions or shutdowns remaining possible. Today, that flexibility enables the organization to continue to provide value regardless of what is happening externally. Down the road, when restrictions are no longer a factor, that flexibility provides your customer with the ability to choose how they interact with your firm. It may also evolve to be your “best-ness” and how you differentiate yourself. Or you may decide that one element of service delivery suits current conditions or customers best.  

Let the customer decide. As more organizations offer online and remote services, it is important to look for ways to look and feel different from your competitors.


Barry Cross is an assistant professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business. He is the bestselling author of Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization.

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