“Destruction leads to a very rough road but it also breeds creation” - Red Hot Chilli Peppers
To utter the year 2020 is almost surely to be met with exasperated groan. Faced with an unexpected pandemic, which resulted in lockdowns, layoffs, and pivots, employees of all levels learned difficult lessons.
But even in dark times, there are always flickers of light. Innovation is often inspired when faced with no other options. In light of this, it is important to highlight what we have learned from these times, so we can build a better 2021. In this post, we will discuss what we, Van Allen Strategies (VAS), have learned from the past year and how these lessons can be applied to work moving forward.
This was a quote from Bran Stark, a character from Game of Thrones, who was full of wise (and often awkward) one-liners. But on this point he was correct. When the world is reeling, those who end up on top are those who use chaos to their advantage.
When the immediate effects of the pandmeic became clear, we knew that we had to innovate. So we spent significant time researching and brainstorming how different industries would change as a result of COVID-19.
One idea we had was to develop a crisis management service to help struggling businesses. Another thought was to work with organizations as they merged or acquired smaller businesses. Ultimately, we decided to invest more deeply in industries less susceptible to immediate shocks, such as heavy manufacturing. Furthermore, we decided to invest in expanding our business into higher education and pharmaceuticals, knowing there would be substantial opportunities for growth and innovation.
In the wake of a massive shift to teleworking, many companies around the world asked, “What is the value of our office space?” Organizations spend significant portions of their overhead budgets each year on a physical office. When some companies who may have long held on to traditional office spaces realize their teams can be as or more efficient working remotely, why spend so much money for employees to work from cubicles?
We already maintained a minimal physical office, in a small but trendy (and expensive) space in downtown Washington, DC. It was a lean operation even before COVID, but the pandemic highlighted the importance of cutting all unnecessary costs, no matter how small. We took the opportunity to convert to a fully virtual team, thus lowering our expenses long term without sacrificing productivity.
Since its founding, VAS has had hospitality as one of its cornerstone industries. In early 2020, however, this industry lost nearly all projected revenue overnight and understandably deferred spending that didn't keep the bare minimum of operations going.
Instead, we expanded our work in industries more resistant to the shock of the pandemic. We nurtured our existing client relationships in industries like heavy manufacturing, with its longer business cycles, and invested in breaking into industries ripe for change like pharmaceuticals and higher education. As the world continues to undergo unprecedented change, it is crucial to keep an open mind to spot novel opportunities.
As the world was spinning with COVID, and industry leaders all over the globe were cutting costs, we knew that many clients were not in a position to purchase services. We also understood we needed to maintain our relationships and business communities so they would be there on the other side. So, we decided to pivot towards maintaining non-sales activities, and even offered our assistance pro-bono in certain non-profit sectors.
For example, in our downtime we created opportunities for clients and partners to guest contribute to our Insights and promote their own professional backgrounds. At times we even used our professional network to help fired client contacts find new jobs where their roles had been eliminated. In many cases our clients were not in the position to purchase any of our services, but we still worked with them despite there being no real opportunity for revenue. Maintaining the relationship was more important.
In other cases, clients' needs changed over night. Take higher education, as an example. We knew that this industry was going to be one of the hardest hit industries in 2020. Higher education has always been slow to adapt changes, in large part because there has historically been little incentive to do so. Social distancing measures forced the industry to move away from the chalkboard, and turn to Zoom. But while this transition from in-person to online seemed temporary to many industry leaders, we knew that this was only the beginning. Social distancing has been a catalyst for the adoption of online learning. This is a change that cannot be overstated. Not only does it completely upend the business model of higher education institutions (large sums of revenue come from student housing and meals), but it also changes the way students learn.
But this isn't where the industry was at. Colleges and universities were just trying to survive. They did not have the capacity to think about what comes next. In other words, you cannot work to rebuild if your house is still on fire.
So we took a step back and simplified. Rather than pitch grandiose change, that while inevitable was premature, we created a product to help instructors move from in-person to online. The Campus Closure Course Continuity (4C) kit is a simple, inexpensive guide to help faculty manage the current crisis. By listening to our clients tell us how the year transformed their environments, we learned how to better serve them.
With just under a million of vaccines being administered each day in the United States, the end of the pandemic is finally in sight. That does not mean, however, that life will go back to normal, nor that challenges will no longer persist. Macro challenges such as social unrest, automation, national debt, and climate change (to name a few) will continue to create challenges requiring massive transformation. As a result, we must understand that change will be constant, unpredictable, and increasingly rapid. The pandemic, for all the pain it has caused, started teaching us how to address these challenges.
Furthermore, some changes brought about by the pandemic will be permanent, namely virtual work. Business meetings and even conferences will continue to be held virtually. Customers will depend more heavily on the Internet to shop, upending the utility of physical stores. All businesses (including ours) need to use this experience to rethink how they operate.
To thrive in the 21st century, we must make our organizations, and indeed ourselves, better able to adapt to change. By embracing these hard lessons learned from 2020, we can work to ensure our success in a rapidly changing world.