It seems pretty clear that the phrase “business as usual” has not applied to 2020. In fact, the pandemic may have changed the business-scape forever.
As a result of working remotely and adapting to how we do business (and how people consume products and services), we have seen efficiencies put into place, changes to workflows, shattered business models, and triggers pulled that forced certain decisions to be made.
It has also meant fewer commuters, and fewer customers walking over the transom of local businesses that have struggled to stay open. That has forced innovations like more online services and curbside pickup.
According to an Associated Press article on how the pandemic has changed local economies, “Like no other event in memory, the pandemic has upended economies in the United States and across the world — transforming how people work, travel, eat, shop and congregate. It has changed how students are educated, how people communicate, how households are entertained and which industries, geographic areas and categories of people will thrive and which will suffer.”
We have seen how it has widened a gap between educated and affluent people who can work from home and the less fortunate —people in lower-income households without college educations or high skills who depend solely on wages rather than stock or home equity gains — who now stand to be left further behind. And it’s forced many working mothers to quit their jobs for lack of child care.
And we have been witness to how the pandemic has affected our towns and cities, reshaped our neighborhoods and social circles.
The economy shed a shocking 22 million jobs after the pandemic struck. Many employers have since recalled some of their furloughed workers. Yet the recovery has slowed. Not until the end of 2023 does Moody’s Analytics foresee the U.S. economy regaining its pre-pandemic employment level. In the most bruised sectors — hotels, for example, and retail — changing economic habits mean that employers may never need as many workers as they did before the pandemic.
Even after vaccines have conquered the virus (and they will), economies have restored their health and jobless people have found work again, the economic landscape will almost surely look different. Among the many life-altering consequences of the year 2020, the coronavirus reshaped how people and businesses engage economically.
At the very least, the crisis accelerated trends that were already well underway: A shift away from physical stores toward e-commerce. The flexibility of working from home. The streaming of movies rather than theater-going. Frequent meal deliveries. Video-conferencing replacing much business travel.
Economists say it’s far from certain which of the myriad changes will prove permanent and which may fade as people who’ve been holed up at home for months return to their pre-pandemic routines.
The AP article posits: “Will white-collar workers yearn for their old cubicles and face-to-face contact with friends and colleagues? Will foodies return to fashionable restaurants, young people to the hottest bars? Will audiences once again gather, elbow to elbow, for symphonies, Hollywood blockbusters and Broadway musicals? If attendance doesn’t return to normal, can those industries survive?”
For the economy’s vast retail sector, the urgent question is: Will customers want to shop in physical stores in numbers anywhere near what they used to be? Optimistically, some experts detect a collective hunger to return to the old ways, at least for people with the means to do so — to the familiar and comfortable routines of gathering at bars, dining in restaurants, strolling in stores, flying off on vacation. There is an immediate need and an easy resolution here: shop local.
But there is no question, the business world has been upended.
A McKinsey survey of 800 corporate executives worldwide found that 38% of them expect their employees who are now working remotely to continue to do so at least two days a week after the pandemic. That compares with 22% in surveys before the pandemic, according to McKinsey.
The shift is big enough to have far-reaching implications — improving the quality of life for some, while deepening inequality and hurting some urban economies. Emptier cities are a grave threat to downtown restaurants and retailers that depend on office workers.
Closer to home, because of the closeness we feel to our state and our neighbors, our resilience to support our business community is more apparent. We are grateful to find businesses open, and the opportunities to share a story and a laugh with an owner.
We know that in these hard times, there is a smile waiting for us behind the mask of our business owners.