Life After Lockdown: A Survival Guide for Businesses

Life after lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic will look far different and the post-viral era will significantly impact the business landscape, according to many research firms.

Some consultancies, such as McKinsey, forecast major changes that will impact the economy, society, and many other aspects of our daily lives.

Once the lockdown ends, they claim, the business landscape will not simply return to the same state we left behind in 2019 – instead, we will be entering what they call “the next normal.”

In this guide, we’ll focus on:

  • The implications of the COVID-19 outbreak, which will impact virtually every industry and every organization, large and small
  • What to expect in the short-, medium-, and long-term and how to chart a path from here to the next normal
  • How businesses should prepare for life after lockdown and the post-COVID era, an era that will require new ways of thinking and operating

To start off, let’s explore what life after COVID-19 will look like and why it is so important to prepare now.

Life After Lockdown and “the Next Normal”: A Business Survival Guide

McKinsey is not the only research firm that recognizes we are in the midst of a major paradigm shift.

Other research firms and industry leaders, such as the World Economic Forum, Accenture, Deloitte, and many others, all agree that the post-COVID era will bring about major changes.

Businesses that wish to survive the remainder of the pandemic and thrive in the post-viral era, therefore, should begin adjusting their course as soon as possible.

Before preparations can begin, however, business leaders must understand what lies ahead.

Charting a Path Through the Pandemic, or “the Now”

Accenture has outlined three major phases of the pandemic:

  • The crisis itself, occurring during the first few months of the year, which were defined by disaster recovery plans, remote working protocols, business continuity plans, and other efforts aimed at protecting the organization and its people
  • “The Now,” when government restrictions and lockdowns began to ease towards mid-2020, marking the beginning of a protracted period of muted growth and financial instability, which will last until a vaccine is found
  • The post-COVID era, which will remain volatile and unstable for a period of time, introducing new challenges and difficulties, as well as potential opportunities for growth

While Accenture labels the post-COVID age the “Never Normal” and McKinsey labels it the “Next Normal,” both firms agree that the post-viral age will be markedly different from the normal we once knew.

Later, we will cover how businesses can plan for “the now,” or the time leading up to the distribution of a vaccine.

Before exploring those planning strategies, however, it is important to understand what the next paradigm will look like – since, after all, the post-viral age will significantly impact business plans in the months and years ahead.

What to Expect as We Emerge into the Post-COVID “Next Normal”

Here are a few of the changes we can expect to see in years following the pandemic, according to many of the world’s leading research companies:

Changed expectations and behaviors from customers, employees, and citizens

The novel coronavirus has affected everyone around the globe:

  • Some have experienced the illness directly or know someone who has
  • A great many people have been living in areas affected by lockdowns or other government-imposed restrictions
  • Others have felt the impact at their jobs, by being required to telecommute or stay home from work, for instance
  • Strained finances will affect spending habits

Effects such as these, along with shifted attitudes towards health and hygiene, will fuel different behaviors and expectations from people in many areas of life.

For example:

  • Customers will expect businesses to maintain hygienic and healthy products and practices
  • Employees will prefer employers that provide safer workplaces and allow safer work practices, such as telecommuting
  • Citizens will likely expect more public health regulations and standards 

Such shifts in perspectives will all drive different behavior, both inside and outside the workplace, and businesses will need to adapt their practices to suit those changed behaviors.

A different competitive landscape

Several other trends will end up reshaping the marketplace.

Today, for instance, many industries are languishing and a number of businesses have gone under. Though a small number of industries remain unaffected or have actually seen growth, the financial effects of the pandemic are unprecedented in our lifetimes.

At the same time, certain technological trends have accelerated, such as remote working and telehealth.

Over the course of the pandemic, trends such as these will continue to exert an influence on the shape of the business landscape.

By the time we emerge into the post-COVID paradigm, many industries will feel a substantial impact from those influences.

In some cases, marketplaces may change substantially, with new competitors, new business models, new products, and so forth.

Different regulations and public health systems

The novel coronavirus has, among other things, revealed a number of vulnerabilities in public health systems around the world.

Many countries were unprepared for a global pandemic of this scale and magnitude, and the lessons learned from this pandemic will undoubtedly lead to a number of reforms in public healthcare.

For businesses, these reforms may, in turn, entail:

  • New health and safety requirements when dealing with customers or delivering products and services
  • The potential collection of health data or readings from workers and customers
  • Government guidelines and requirements that must be implemented in the workplace

Naturally, some sectors may be affected more than others. 

Retail, hospitality, and travel, for example, will likely be required to adhere to certain requirements, while virtual companies may remain completely unaffected.

Accelerated digital trends and technological transformations

IT spending has decreased during the pandemic, but investment and interest in digital transformation remains strong.

There are good reasons for this continued focus on digitalization:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed down the adoption of digital technology – if anything, the outbreak has acted as catalyst that will further accelerate digital adoption and transformation
  • Many emerging technologies, such as automation platforms, robotics, and telemedicine tools, have become more relevant and valuable during the crisis
  • Virtual technology, such as ecommerce and online collaboration tools, reduce the risk of infection and will see greater use, both now and into the future
  • Digital technology improves organizational productivity in many areas, enables innovation, and opens up new possibilities for early adopters

Ultimately, the post-COVID economy will more digitally advanced than the pre-2020 economy. 

Participation in that economy, in other words, will be a requirement, which is why businesses should accelerate their digital transformation efforts as soon as possible.

An evolved digital workplace

Health concerns will become a major focal point in the workplace of the future, as mentioned above.

Another major trend that will shape tomorrow’s work environment will be the ongoing digital adoption of new technology. 

In the digital workplace, we can expect:

  • More digital tools, software, and platforms. The global digital ecosystem is complex and continually evolving – every day, new tools are released and existing tools are upgraded. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are adopting even more digital tools, particularly those that relate to remote working.
  • Advanced, integrated digital workflows. In the coming years, we can expect to see workplaces that are more virtual and more digital. The adoption of new tools, after all, goes hand-in-hand with the development of new workflows that are based on those processes. These types of changes, along with the others covered here, will all contribute to the continued digitalization of the workplace.
  • Increased reliance on emerging technologies, such as automation and AI. During the crisis, many companies have adopted technology that can improve efficiency and keep workers safe. Automation platforms, AI, robots, and other technologies have found use cases during the pandemic. These investments will undoubtedly continue to be used even after the virus has subsided, further influencing the digital transformation of the workplace.
  • A greater need for digital savvy and digital skills. Today, the digital skills gap is already widening, compelling many businesses to upskill and train their workers on new technology. And as businesses accelerate their transformation efforts, they will also enhance their training efforts, since a digitally savvy organization depends on a digitally savvy workforce.

The digital workplace will play a critical role in organizations’ ability to survive in the post-COVID era, since it will affect organizational performance, the employee experience, and the customer experience.

Building a successful digital workplace, as we will see below, will hinge upon developing a robust digital adoption strategy, as well as the usage of training tools, such as digital adoption platforms (DAPs).

How Businesses Should Respond: A Post-Lockdown Checklist

Below, we will look at a roadmap, or checklist, that covers the three main stages of the crisis: the crisis response efforts, stabilization during the pandemic, and emergence into the next normal.

Each stage of the journey will require a different strategy and a different set of actions, many of which are covered below.

Respond to the crisis

During the initial outbreak, countries and businesses around the world went into emergency response mode, initiating crisis management plans and business continuity efforts.

Though this first stage passed by mid-2020, the threat looms of secondary outbreaks or a second wave, which could result in more restrictions, lockdowns, and quarantines.

If that occurs, businesses may need to implement certain efforts that characterized the first stage of the crisis, such as:

  • Business continuity plans. Business continuity planning focuses on protecting key business functions, disaster recovery, and restoration activities. Actions such as these are essential during a crisis, disaster, or an emergency, and businesses should focus on these efforts after emergency response plans have been implemented. The nature of business continuity plans differ from scenario to scenario and can include some of the actions covered below.
  • Customer protection. Keeping customers safe and healthy became a primary concern for businesses around the world, and it still is. Many retail outlets, for instance, required that workers and customers both take a number of health precautions prior to working. These types of precautions should be maintained well into the future, not only to comply with local government restrictions, but also to improve customers’ peace of mind.
  • Workforce protection. Protecting workers is just as important as protecting customers. This can mean many things, depending on the context. During the coronavirus pandemic, protecting workers often revolved around efforts such as remote working, hygiene protocols, worksite closures, and so forth. Protecting employees can also refer to financial protection, by providing paid leave to workers, for example.

By focusing on activities such as these, organizations will be better prepared to cope with secondary outbreaks that limit business activities.

Stabilize and build resilience

For many businesses, life after lockdown began in mid-2020 when government restrictions began to be lifted in countries around the world.

However, lifting restrictions often causes further spikes in coronavirus cases, which can in turn result in reimposed restrictions, decreased customer spending, and other scenarios that disrupt business.

Given that this potentially unstable period could last in 2021, if not longer, businesses must stay flexible and pivot their strategies when necessary.

Here are a few tactics and areas to focus on during this stage of the pandemic:

  • Assess current market conditions. Throughout 2020, 2021, and beyond, market fluctuations should be expected. Recurring outbreaks, government restrictions, and global events could cause further instability, which can impact consumer spending, investor confidence, and so forth. For these reasons, businesses should continually evaluate market conditions and adjust their strategies accordingly.
  • Understand customer sentiment, expectations, and behavior. Customer sentiment will also evolve as the outbreak continues to evolve. Concerns over public health, for example, will influence buying decisions for the foreseeable future. Sentiments such as these will directly impact business decisions around product innovations, marketing, sales, customer relations, and so on.
  • Forecast and plan for multiple future scenarios. Though the current business climate remains unstable and potentially volatile, we have already seen most of the potential scenarios that could impact business operations. Many of these scenarios revolve around government restrictions, as Deloitte has pointed out. By developing plans that specifically address these scenarios, businesses can stay flexible and agile, even in the event of future restrictions and disruptions.
  • Adjust business priorities. Pivots will often be necessary in order to accommodate the changes in market conditions and customer behavior. As a result, businesses will need to reallocate resources and human capital to achieve their new goals. 
  • Ready supply chains. Supply chains around the world have been severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Naturally, reactivating those supply chains is far easier said than done, but it will be necessary to resume operations. Given that the business environment is still in flux, however, supply chain efforts should focus more on resilience, rather than efficiency.
  • Accelerate digital transformations. Digital adoption and transformation, as we discuss elsewhere in this guide, should be prioritized. Though the performance of certain industries may be stagnating, digital technology continues to advance. Some have even claimed that COVID-19 fuels digital transformation. Rationale such as this is perhaps what has driven organizations such as Accenture to compact their own digital transformation agendas.
  • Restore operations. The restoration of normal operations should naturally be a priority for every organization. As much as possible, this restoration should occur during the pandemic – after all, the earlier a business can return to normal operations, the healthier its finances will be. However, when reactivating the business, it is important to bear in mind that further disruption is always a possibility, so it is important to create and maintain continuity plans.
  • Stay ready for the next normal. Though economic instability could easily disrupt business operations during or after the pandemic, we will emerge into the post-COVID era at some point. Experts suggest that it could be as early as 2021, though the date will naturally depend on when a vaccine is developed and distributed. Regardless of the timing, businesses should continually monitor the evolving landscape and prepare their operations and strategy for a post-COVID “new normal.”

One of the most important points to remember during this phase of the pandemic is that it will ultimately lead to a very different business landscape.

As mentioned, to emerge and participate successfully in the post-viral economy, businesses must begin adjusting their operations today.

Reopen and reimagine operations for the new normal

The post-COVID era has been called “the next normal,” “the new normal,” “the Never Normal,” and many other names.

Though the labels differ from source to source, the underlying predictions remain the same: businesses will need to make fundamental shifts to their strategies and operations in order to succeed in that new paradigm.

Here are a few recommendations and strategies to focus on when preparing for life after COVID-19:

  • Build agility into the fabric of the organization. Agility will be a critical business trait in the post-viral age, which will remain unpredictable, unstable, and disruptive, according to Accenture. As the world emerges from the pandemic, businesses will be faced with a variety of new challenges and opportunities. Most importantly, however, change will be a defining characteristic of that era – the more agile a business is, the better it will be able to survive.
  • Become digitally mature and leverage cutting-edge technology. Digital maturity refers to an organization’s overall digital capabilities. On the one hand, digital maturity implies that an organization implements and maintains cutting-edge technology and a modern IT infrastructure. But digital maturity and performance also depends heavily on the workforce: digitally savvy employees will be more engaged and productive than those who are not.
  • Build an agile supply chain. Organizational agility, as mentioned, will become a survival trait in the years to come. However, supply chain agility is equally important. The current crisis has demonstrated, among other things, that supply chains can be disrupted quite easily. An intelligent, agile supply network can decrease the negative impacts associated with disruptive change, which will become more important in an uncertain and potentially unstable economy.
  • Cultivate a skilled, adaptable workforce. Businesses are built by their employees, so it makes sense that those workers should be protected, trained, and supported. The better the employee experience, the better they will perform – if those employees lack skills or are disengaged, on the other hand, they will underperform and seek jobs that are more stimulating and beneficial.
  • Innovate and exploit new opportunities as they arise. Innovation, like agility, will be crucial in the future economy. Change and uncertainty, as mentioned, will characterize the post-COVID next normal. Though this type of business environment presents challenges, it can also present growth opportunities for innovators. 

The future remains unwritten, and we cannot predict exactly what the world will look like after the pandemic has ended. What many agree on, though, is that the economy and the world will be permanently changed as a result of the pandemic, which is all the more reason to start preparing now.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Life After Lockdown

To better understand how the pandemic and the lockdowns will impact the business world, let’s look at a few frequently asked questions (FAQs) about COVID-19 that weren’t answered above.

Which industries will change the most as a result of the pandemic?

The pandemic has impacted the entire global economy, but not every industry has felt the impact the same way.

For the vast majority of industries, the pandemic has resulted in major financial losses. 

Any industry that relies on discretionary consumer spending, such as the automotive industry, for example, suffered during the pandemic. Travel, tourism, food, hospitality, and automotive industries are just a few examples.

Other industries were not hit quite as hard, such as certain sectors of the electronics industries or agriculture.

A few industries actually grew or saw increased interest from customers, such as telehealth software and remote working software.

Though some industries may suffer from greater losses than others, it is also worth noting that every industry could change substantially in the near future. Increased investment in automation and AI, for instance, could significantly impact a wide number of industries and become a catalyst for transformation in many other areas, such as employee training or business innovation.

When should my business start preparing for the post-COVID era?

The short answer: the earlier the better.

Though it is certainly too early to prepare concrete plans for the post-COVID age, certain changes can be useful, such as:

  • Initiating cultural change. Organizational culture has a profound impact on employee behavior and performance. A culture that is pro-learning and open to change, for example, can adopt new technology more easily, learn new skills more quickly, and implement organizational change more effectively.
  • Improving organizational agility. Agility, mentioned above, will improve the organization’s ability to respond to changes in real-time. By responding to real-world events instead of following static plans, businesses will be more suited to the fast-paced economy that lies ahead.
  • Training the workforce. Employee training impacts many areas of the business. Having appropriate skills, for instance, improves organizational performance, enhances workers’ ability to innovate, and maximizes the ROI of software investments. In the digital age, it is important not only to train employees, but to find a digital training solution specifically designed for the digital workplace.
  • Engaging in digital adoption and transformation plans. The world will be more digital after COVID-19, so businesses must begin their transformation journeys now. Or, if those journeys have already started, businesses should evaluate their progress and ensure that they will be ready for the next normal.

As the future unfolds, possibilities and opportunities will become clearer, and businesses should invest accordingly. 

Why won’t the world “go back to normal” after the pandemic?

Many people may hope that the world returns to normalcy after the outbreak subsides.

For better or for worse, though, that is unlikely to happen.

There are several reasons why:

  • Many changes occurring during the pandemic are irreversible
  • The financial strain has permanent affected the trajectory of the global economy
  • People’s perspectives and perceptions have shifted considerably

It may be difficult to precisely predict what the next normal will look like. But for the reasons mentioned above, we can conclude that the post-viral paradigm will look substantially different from life before the coronavirus.

Tips and Best Practices for Planning for the Post-COVID Era

Earlier, we looked at some of the most important activities to focus on during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In addition to those tactical activities, there are a number of important principles and strategies that should act as guiding beacons during this time. 

Let’s look at a few of those now:

Protect people first, then unleash them

Protecting the organization’s people – both employees and customers – ensures that those people will continue to support the organization in the future.

This is an essential step during any crisis, including the coronavirus pandemic. 

Such protective measures can include:

  • Telecommuting policies that allow workers to stay safe and productive
  • Increased health and hygiene requirements at business locations
  • Avoiding measures that would harm the workforce, such as layoffs

These types of measures are important, of course, but protecting people is only the first step.

According to HFS Research, people must first protect their people, then “unleash” them, fuel innovation, fuse IT and non-IT staff, and accept that change is the new constant.

Transform the organization 

We have seen how important it is to stay agile and adaptable during such uncertain times.

True agility, however, requires:

  • An innovative approach to business processes and strategies, as well as products
  • A corporate culture that reflects the organization’s mission and mindset
  • The ability and the willingness to change

Even before the pandemic, business leaders around the world recognized the importance of organizational agility and change readiness.

However, in the current conditions, the ability to change has become more important than ever.

To improve organizational agility, organizations should build an enterprise change management function, while also cultivating a culture that is open to change.

Become a digital leader

Digital leaders are agile, technology-savvy companies that leverage disruption and technology to fuel growth and lead in their industries.

Since the economy will only continue to become more digital in the coming years, the importance of digital leadership cannot be understated.

According to Futurum’s Digital Transformation Index 2020, digital leaders share a number of traits, such as:

  • Agile IT departments 
  • An ecosystem of technology partners
  • A culture that is open to and comfortable with change
  • Technology-savvy business leaders that proactively drive digital adoption and transformation

However, their study also indicated that only a small percentage of companies (12%) would be considered digital leaders.

Businesses that want to become more digitally mature – or become digital leaders in their industry – would do well to cultivate traits such as those listed here.

For more details, read WalkMe’s white paper on digital leadership, produced in partnership with Futurum Research.

Stay focused on the human experience

Though the entire global economy may be shifting under our feet, the crisis will not change some imperatives, such as the need for modern digital technology.

The human experience, likewise, will remain important regardless of changes to the economy.

For businesses, this means:

  • Using technology and data to understand customers’ changing expectations and needs
  • Continually improving the customer experience
  • Delivering a better employee experience in the workplace

As with many of the other trends covered here, people’s preferences will be changing rapidly over the course of the pandemic. It will become increasingly important, therefore, to stay agile and deliver experiences that match those shifting expectations.

Final Thoughts: Future-Proof Businesses Before the Next Normal

The world has already embarked on a journey towards the next normal, and there is no way to know exactly when we will arrive.

Business leaders should prepare for that journey now, since the world has already begun to transform – businesses that hesitate or wait too long may find themselves out of place in the post-COVID race.

Future-proofing the business will require aggressive investments, innovative thinking, agility, and much more. 

Though times are difficult today, with the proper preparations, business leaders can future-proof their companies and emerge stronger as we enter into the next normal.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.