The impact of COVID‐19 on the workforce and the work environment was unknown when the pandemic began. We soon learned that the disruption from the disease would be severe. Once the vaccines rolled out, it seemed our life would return to normal. Then the Delta variant hit, and we realized that our dreams of returning to normal would be delayed. Once we saw the impact of the vaccines on the Delta variant, things started to look up again. Many experts even suggest that the United States, Canada, and the European Union could start the transition to normal “as early as the fourth quarter of 2021.” They keep using the word “normal,” but I don’t think it means what they think it means.
The technological and societal changes that have occurred during the pandemic have created a “new normal.” Society will never be the same. It’s important to understand that the impact of the pandemic will persist long after the health crisis has subsided. With this in mind, now is an excellent time to evaluate your current strategic plan and perhaps create a new one to prepare for this “new normal.”
The COVID-19 Health Care Crisis
It’s essential to understand what you’re up against when planning a path for your company. Let’s see how a disease manifested itself during a pandemic. On January 9, 2020, the World Health Organization announced the existence of a mysterious Coronavirus-Related Pneumonia in Wuhan, China. We spent most of 2020 trying to mitigate the effects of that disease with masks, lockdowns, and social distancing. By the end of the year, deaths from the virus peaked, vaccines became available, and the death rate began to drop. Then, as people started to feel some hope, the Delta variant hit, and by the end of July 2021, it was the cause of more than 80% of new U.S. COVID-19 cases, according to CDC estimates. This ebb and flow of the disease should not be surprising.
The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 came in three different waves. The first was in the spring of 1918. A second wave hit in the fall of 1918. A third wave started in the winter of 1918 and ran through the spring of 1919. In many countries, the pandemic continued until the end of 1920. Understanding the constant fluctuations of the disease will help you define what recovery means for your company.
(Streetcar conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask, 1918.)
When planning for the future, remember that COVID-19 was not a one-time event. The world experienced a cholera pandemic in 1910-1911, the Asian Flu in 1956-1958, and the Hong Kong Flu in 1968-1969. As recent as 2009, a pandemic, not as fatal as COVID-19, was declared. Tens of thousands of people were infected by a descendent of the 1918 virus. It should not come as a surprise, then, that another variant of COVID-19 may manifest. Eventually, though, we’ll get to the point where COVID-19 can be managed like other diseases. Thus, it’s essential to consider how a pandemic, epidemic, or severe flu season will impact your company. At the same time, it’s important to understand the technological and societal changes that happen due to these events.
The Technological and Societal Changes Resulting from COVID-19
Several technological advances occurred during the past year and a half. These developments in technology have caused a shift in the way society acts. For example, the Zoom call. Who, in 2019, would have imagined talking with a key client on video over a computer? We all know that, especially with key clients, you want a face-to-face meeting where you can shake hands and look each other in the eye. Once COVID-19 hit, face-to-face meetings were impossible, and remote working became commonplace.
It’s incredible how quickly companies responded to the concept of remote working. When asked about how long it took to adopt new technology before and after the crisis, respondents to a recent survey said, concerning remote working, “their companies moved 40 times more quickly than they thought possible before the pandemic.”
All indications are that remote working is here to stay. Personally, I’d rather meet with current and potential members in person. Still, if I have the option between sitting in my car in L.A. traffic or hopping on a Zoom call, I will most likely choose the Zoom call.
This societal change in favor of technology means that some changes need to be made as a company. In the past, your Sales Rep would drop off a box of donuts to your best customer when they were “in the neighborhood.” With remote working becoming the norm, how will your sales team adapt?
According to Upwork’s Future Workforce Report released before the pandemic, remote work will become the norm within the next ten years. Understandably, remote work may not apply to your press operators and bindery workers. Still, it will apply to your current and prospective clients.
Fighting Technology with Technology
For a company to remain competitive, this technological change, remote working, has to be met with a technological answer. For example, are your Sales Reps using the camera that came with their laptop to attend video conferences? When meeting a client in person, you put your best foot forward. You should do the same when online. Investing in a quality camera, microphone, and some basic lighting can change your entire online presence. If you don’t believe me, take a look at any successful YouTuber. You’ll find they have a quality camera, sound, and lighting setup. And, thanks to technology, and YouTube, you can find just the right equipment you will need to improve your online image.
Another way to meet technology with technology is through your online presence. According to a study cited in Forbes, global online content consumption doubled in 2020. The time spent on social media, news sites, streaming services, T.V., and games saw an average increase of over 45% compared to 2019. “Overall, YouTube has seen the greatest increased interest, with 43% of consumers spending more time on the platform,” says DoubleVerify, the company behind the study.
At our association, we understand the impact of social media and YouTube. We’ve seen many member companies take advantage of the marketing opportunities available online. We, too, promote our association and our events online. For example, this year, due to COVID, our Print Excellence Awards program was smaller than usual. To help members who could not attend the event in person, we broadcasted the event live on YouTube. And, when counting the in-person attendees, those who watched live, and those who have watched the replay that’s still available on YouTube, we exceeded our regular event’s attendance.
When it comes to social media, I’ve seen an uptick in printing companies publishing content on LinkedIn. Why? Because it’s a way to keep current clients informed of your capabilities and make prospective clients aware of your presence. Your use of this technology should extend beyond LinkedIn due to other societal changes from COVID-19, these being e-commerce and online shopping.
As the lockdowns from the pandemic increased, so did people’s use of online shopping outlets like Instacart, Amazon Prime, DoorDash, and a plethora of other services. As people spend more time online, there’s a greater chance they’ll come across your content. Search engine algorithms are designed to help individuals discover posts, videos, and other content that they would find interesting. But they can’t find your content if it’s not there.
Additional Impact of COVID-19 on Business
In addition to the technological advances and the societal changes that need to be considered when creating or adjusting your strategic plan, COVID-19 exposed many supply chain flaws that few saw coming. These flaws extend way beyond the paper and printing industry. Fast food restaurants are out of french fries. Manufacturers can’t find shipping containers. People on vacation in Alaska and Hawaii can’t get a rental car. It seems like there are shortages everywhere.
What accounts for these shortages? Years ago, printers, like most manufacturers, adopted the idea of “Just in Time” (JIT) inventory. This type of inventory management has its benefits but is not without its downsides. A robust, fast, and efficient network of suppliers is essential if JIT is to work. Lockdowns, labor shortages, and other pandemic-related obstacles have negatively impacted suppliers. As we know, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link; thus, a problem with one supplier will impact every company down the chain.
If you want to understand the causes of the supply chain problems, you should be following the Twitter feed of Ryan Petersen, CEO of Flexport (https://twitter.com/typesfast).
In addition to Peterson’s salient points, my summary is simple. We slowed our economy to almost a full stop for a period of time. Companies then used all the materials on hand and minimized purchases of new materials to conserve cash. Then we quickly opened the economy back up and experienced demand with no raw material inventories. A surge of 0 to 100 mph creates chaos. Our laws and regulations are not designed to bend to these needs. You can only laugh when we have a container crisis and Long Beach took forever to recognize that their rule that you can only stack containers two high was creating a problem. In the meantime, the supply of materials is sitting in plain sight off in our harbors.
Strategic Planning and COVID-19
When creating or adjusting your strategic plan, you must develop and implement supply chain risk management and business continuity strategies. Where possible, diversify your supply chains from a geographic perspective to reduce the supply-side risks from any one country or region. Multi-source your essential commodities or strategic components to reduce your reliance on any one supplier and consider an inventory strategy to buffer against supply chain disruption.
The pandemic will eventually fade, but the lessons we’ve learned will help us be better prepared for tomorrow. Learn from the enormous challenges we’ve experienced in the last year and a half and understand that some of these are transitory while others are here to stay. And, as you strive to integrate agility and creativity into your business, base your strategic planning on the new, not the old normal.