Most of the United States went into some form of shelter in place in early- to mid-March. That means we’re coming up on two months of disruption to the way we live and work. But with the coronavirus’s infection curve now flattening, many states are looking at when and how to get back to some semblance of normal life.
This was a major focus of discussion during our most recent Campfire Chat. Inspired by the need to build community, we’ve been gathering executives to talk about the challenges business leaders are facing and share our strategies for overcoming various hurdles.
Finding a path forward for reopening is just one of those stumbling blocks. Unemployment is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Small businesses are struggling to stay afloat during this shut-down. Leadership at both the state and federal levels are eager to reopen as quickly as is safe to do so.
But what does that mean for business leaders? Just because your governor has given the all-clear to reopen doesn’t mean we’ll be back to business as usual overnight.
Let’s take a closer look at what goes into reopening for business following the coronavirus lockdown. How will smart leaders prepare for the new normal, and what’s standing in the way for consumers and business owners?
When Will Things Reopen?
First, it’s helpful to have a sense of the timeline that different areas of the country are considering for reopening. There’s a great variance in how local leaders are lifting restrictions. It depends largely on how hard a particular area was hit by the virus.
In New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the US, all nonessential businesses are closed through at least May 15. But for those states that have not experienced a major outbreak, shelter in place orders will lift sooner; 70 percent of all states are set to reopen this week.
But just because government officials have declared a state reopened doesn’t mean that citizens will eagerly jump back to living life as before. Many people—whether business owners or consumers—will feel some hesitation about returning to business as usual.
Many will want more concrete signs that it’s safe to return to normal life. Until testing becomes more ubiquitous and accurate, some will feel nervous about diving back into the old way of doing things. These attitudes will also likely vary based on where people live and work. Those in Manhattan might feel greater hesitation than those who are in the midwestern suburbs.
A Playbook for Reopening Has Evolved
While there are certainly some major question marks for business leaders, the good news is that a clear playbook has evolved over the past few weeks for dealing with this crisis.
The focus in the beginning was, rightly, on employee and customer safety. We all received many communications from businesses outlining the steps they were taking to keep their teams and customers safe. Leaders took quick steps to set their teams up for success in our new reality.
Then, we saw companies quickly pump the brakes on what they had been doing before. Suddenly, budgets needed to be reconsidered, and everything was put on pause.
From there, leaders took a look at the situation and began to evaluate their options. They looked at what needed to be changed about their existing ways of operating, and they began to look for opportunities to nurture relationships and unearth new sales and marketing opportunities. Now, smart leaders are taking steps to position their organizations for success after states reopen.
How Are Leaders Preparing?
Many of the leaders we’ve spoken with are adopting a wait-and-see approach. Managing through this pandemic has involved curveball after curveball. By now, leaders have learned not to make any firm decisions too far out.
Instead, they want to get a feel for how their team and customers are doing once things formally reopen. Hanging back to let your customers and team guide the process is a wise move. Trying to force people back into business as usual if they’re not ready for it can undo the goodwill you built up by being empathetic and caring in the heat of the crisis.
Now is the time to hang back and read the room. Refine your strategy based on feedback you’re getting in real time. Then, you can begin to move forward on a limited basis. Take things a week or two at a time before you ramp back up to 100 percent.
Getting Used to Remote Life
In the meantime, it pays for us to get used to operating remotely. We’ve been doing it for the better part of two months now, but since we were thrust (rather than eased) into a remote situation, there might still be aspects of our remote operations that are not totally seamless.
It will likely be a while before we are back to full capacity at the office, so there’s value in investing in strengthening our remote capabilities and processes to keep our operations strong and teams engaged.
This starts with establishing processes for communicating online. We might be able to walk into an in-person meeting and wing it. But it’s easier for things to go awry when we’re conducting business online. Taking the time to prepare adequately in advance and setting a clear agenda and timeline for discussion will keep everyone moving forward.
It’s also wise to develop a way to have productive collaborative sessions online. While check-ins are easy enough to manage remotely, some of the leaders we’ve spoken with have said they’ve found it difficult to do meaningful, collaborative brainstorming via video conference.
Experiment with different ways to make the most of your online brainstorming sessions. Perhaps a collaboration tool, like Microsoft Teams, can help your team work together from afar. Others have found that setting aside a dedicated day and time for this kind of deep work helps teams keep their eyes on the prize. Tools like Google Docs that can function as virtual whiteboards—where everyone can see their thoughts on the page while hearing them aloud—allow you to engage team members with various learning styles.
Preparing for a Second Wave
Part of getting ready to reopen for business is acknowledging that there may very well be a second outbreak. Many experts are expecting a resurgence of the virus in the fall, which may coincide with the annual flu. While we were blindsided by this first onset, we needn’t find ourselves in the same position the second time around.
How can leaders begin to prepare for another flare-up of the virus? Now is the time to think about scheduling increased deep-cleanings of the office, finding ways to rotate your staff on alternating days (which keeps your headcount in-office low to honor social distancing protocols), and planning alternatives to your big year-end events until at least 2021.
While many aspects of leading through this pandemic have been stressful and scary, an unexpected event like this also presents business leaders with an incredible blank sheet opportunity. Leaders who return to the drawing board, start from scratch, and come up with unique solutions are prepared to take advantage of what could be the most defining opportunity of their professional lives.
About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC
The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to predictably grow sales. We apply data science to help you optimize your sales funnel, improve your marketing ROI, launch new products successfully, and enter new markets profitably.
We use a hypothesis-driven, data-supported methodology to discover insights that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right sales strategies, marketing plans, technologies, and resources to seize this opportunity.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Starting his career at McKinsey, his focus has always been on embracing digital technology and data science to spur strategic growth.
Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.
He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.
Rob lives outside Boston, MA with his wife, Kate; daughter, Leni; and black lab, Royce.