How CEOs Must Approach Another New Normal in 2021

While the human tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic should always be top of mind, let us focus for a moment on the economic upheaval resulting from this healthcare crisis. How businesses have been left in dire straits, or altered. How jobs have dried up, leaving lives in disarray. How the very definition of work has […]

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While the human tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic should always be top of mind, let us focus for a moment on the economic upheaval resulting from this healthcare crisis. How businesses have been left in dire straits, or altered. How jobs have dried up, leaving lives in disarray. How the very definition of work has been rewritten.

As the calendar flipped from 2020 to 2021, the dynamics in play had shifted. A vaccine had been greenlighted — two of them, actually — with others soon to follow. There is hope in the coming months that life will return to something approaching normal. But the business world is another matter entirely. There’s no going back to what it was before, and in some significant ways, that is not a bad thing.

In fact, the new normal of last year has in large part become a permanent way of doing things. Change has resulted in opportunity, and unpredictability has given way to optimism.

Some 77 percent of the respondents to J.P. Morgan’s 2021 Business Leaders Outlook said they are upbeat about the prospects for the year ahead, which is actually one percent more than was the case in 2020. As McKinsey global managing partner Kevin Sneador said during that organization’s December 2020 webinar, “I think there’s a growing awareness that we are likely nearer to the end of the pandemic than the beginning.”

Perhaps the greatest revelation to emerge from the darkest days of the pandemic, Sneador added, was the shift “from the focus of leaders on what a business does to how a business does it.” He went on to note that these leaders have rediscovered the value of soft skills, like empathy, in addition to intellectual traits. But there is a larger point to be made, too, about the manner in which businesses embraced innovation as never before. In fact, they were forced to adapt, forced to accelerate their digital transformation.

Again, far from the worst thing, and it took many different forms, depending on the sector involved. As an example consider The Allure Group, a network of six New York City-based skilled nursing facilities. We have always prided ourselves on being on the cutting edge, to the point that before the pandemic began we turned to PadInMotion technology — i.e., the installation of Samsung tablets at each of the 1,400 bedsides in our facilities. At that point, the residents used them for entertainment purposes, but after the outbreak they became something of a lifeline, in that residents were able to use them to keep in touch with loved ones barred from visiting during the government-imposed lockdown.

Another important technology piece we implemented came courtesy of Vis a Vis Health, which provides hand-held devices that enable healthcare professionals to keep tabs on patients transitioning from one level of care to another. It also allows patients to reach out to physicians and nurses, if the need arises.

Other business sectors have made digital pivots of their own. Particularly notable were the manner in which digital meeting platforms like Zoom and Skype rose to prominence as companies transitioned to remote work. Four of every five businesses responding to a survey by 451 Research, the emerging technology arm of S&P Global Market Intelligence, indicated that working from home had become standard operating procedure, and 67 percent of those enterprises expect that to remain the case either well after the pandemic, if not permanently.

Not coincidentally, Zoom stock soared an astounding 425 percent in 2020, but other players have begun to enter the space, offering capabilities that go beyond Zoom’s standard grid display. Consider, for example, Gather.town, which enables participants to visit small groups scattered around a landscape. Consider Hopin, which allows for group chats or attendance at lectures offered by various speakers. Or consider Teamflow, where attendees move about a virtual office.

Such platforms would appear vital in maintaining engagement, always crucial to productivity and efficiency, and preserving company culture. To that end, leaders need to go the extra mile, given the extraordinary circumstances — particularly the physical distance that often separates teams nowadays. That means connecting with each team member on a personal level, sharing wins and scheduling off-beat activities that will build morale. 

The pandemic has also led businesses to do things like redouble their e-commerce efforts, and rethink supply chains. Blockchain, the digital ledger most often associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, has been invaluable in the latter pursuit, as it enables parties at various points in the chain to track all relevant information about a given product. That has helped mitigate loss, enhance efficiency and improve the bottom line.

Certainly there are other matters that businesses must take into account in the months ahead, beyond innovation, remote work and culture. Sam Reese, CEO of Vistage, a business consultancy, also listed balancing short- and long-term goals, and the continuing need to be nimble. The latter, in fact, was something mentioned in the J.P. Morgan report, by John Simmons, an executive at Commercial Banking.

Simmons reiterated the point about businesses making “new and unexpected pivots” in 2020, specifically toward new tech, and added that those “best positioned for success in 2021 will be those that focus on remaining nimble amid continued volatility and evolving customer demands.”

In other words, businesses are not out of the woods yet, despite some promising advances. There are still miles to go, and the changes health leaders have made to date — many of which are likely permanent — will serve them well. But it is just as important to remain adaptable and creative, and understand that further innovation will almost certainly be required.

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