When Normal is No Longer An Option


What if you knew the pandemic was coming? What would you have done differently in your business?

Women sitting in restaurant eating food with table shield. COVID-19, restaurant and social-distancing concept.

As different parts of society begin restarting, many of us can’t help but look forward to the day things return to normal. When we can gather again, when we can eat out, and when we can travel the way we used to.

Realistically, however, we won’t. That “normal” is gone.

I am not a pessimistic person, but I am pragmatic. This pandemic was a generational event, with far-reaching consequences. Everything has changed. Whatever our new normal ends up looking like, we can infer a few things based on current circumstances:

Patience remains a virtue. Lineups will be here for longer than we think, as businesses limit the number of customers entering their facilities. While we’ve become familiar with lineups in retail and grocery stores, we can now expect to see them in public spaces and at outdoor activities as well.

Increased cost of living. Customer traffic is down and capacity is limited, yet many operations will need to be fully staffed and/or implement barriers and other measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19. These practices are all costly, and, combined with lower customer numbers, will lead to higher prices. 

It will be different. Imagine getting on a plane with plexiglass barriers between seats and rows. Seats no longer recline (if they did, the barriers would be less effective). Snacks and beverages are self-serve at onboard kiosks. Flight attendants are truly only there for your safety and security (that is, no service).

A COVID-19 vaccine may eliminate the need for some of these measures. Yet a vaccine’s wide availability is likely still months away or longer. And businesses need to shift now. Those that do can implement operating models that make them relatively immune from future similar events.  While I believe the old normal is gone and will not return, I also believe it is up to us to define what the new normal will look like. So, I have two questions for you to consider:

1) What have you learned?

2) What will you do next?

First, what have you learned? Organizations with cash reserves, those that deployed some form of risk management (or adapted quickly) and those that were patient with their capital and investments, fared far better than others over recent months. These are not new concepts, yet many businesses of all sizes were stretched financially and behaved as if high levels of customer traffic would always be there. While many people claim to have long memories, few operate with the guidance of experience. Take a few moments then, and make note of what you might have done differently over the last year if you knew the pandemic was coming. Would you:

• Carefully increase cash reserves and reduce unnecessary inventory?

• Think about what might happen next, and plan accordingly?

• Temper exuberance towards investment or expansion if it means stretching your credit?

• Most of all, would you remember to treat the customer in front of you now like they are the most important person in the world?

Second, what you will do next is begin to develop a new model of your business that’s resilient and robust in the face of difficult events. It is interesting to reflect on the language used by governments as they determined what could open and what could not throughout the pandemic. They deemed some services and operations “essential”. Perhaps a better term would be “safe” or “protected”. Could we design a business that way? Of course we could. We have seen retailers operate that way now for weeks, with physical spacing, barriers, touchless payment and increased cleaning protocols.

It may seem like a privileged example, but golf courses reopened recently (indeed, in some southern U.S. states, they never closed) with scheduling and spacing restrictions, contactless game rules and different “operations” around the green. Golfers are nothing if not rule-oriented. While golf is hardly essential, there was no reason for courses to close at all while operating in this format. This format seems “safe”.

What if you could do anything?

Organizations need to have a full-court press on cost management, even as society restarts. In most cases, retail operations are too large. (And, yes, that includes big-box stores and other businesses designed to be big.) Reduce your footprint, downsize your inventory and take some of those savings and invest in improving your supply chain. Replenish more quickly and fix the issues with online ordering and delivery (including those search engines on your websites that remain dysfunctional).  

Focus on speed and capacity utilization. As businesses reopen, customers will remain reluctant to linger or spend significant time inside your establishment. This can be a benefit while you operate at a lower capacity for distancing purposes. Reducing steps in your transactions, speeding up processes that can’t be eliminated, and improving the overall flow of traffic and the customer experience can yield faster customer encounters. This ultimately lowers the impact of reduced physical capacity and will often improve customer satisfaction.

Offer alternative channels. While many retailers have seen increased web traffic while their doors were closed, the largest men’s clothing retailer in Canada has been dead in the water for three months because it doesn’t offer online shopping on its website. Web services are just one option. What could your business look like if you could do anything? What are the gaps and pain points you or your customers have witnessed recently? How would you fix them?

Cataclysmic events such as the pandemic do not just disrupt us, they change us forever. Accept that “normal” is over and build a new one. There is a Latin phrase, ex nihilo, which means “out of nothing”. That feels in many ways like where we are standing right now. What will you build ex nihilo?

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