I considered this question pondering the many business interactions and roles in dozens of industries during my lifetime. Pondering the question of how will COVID-19 Transform the Business World? I put myself back in time as a fly on the wall to explore how COVID-19 might change things. I relived global multi-national to main street retail businesses and what might change with COVID-19. Here are a few purely empirical thoughts from my unusual exercise.

The elusive new normal

COVID-19 is transforming the business world in virtually every industry. The business world and society must prepare for a “new normal,” which remains uncertain. But most pundits seem to agree that things will never be the same. My observation is that the most vulnerable businesses are those slow to embrace technology. 

Improving new technology and embracing it sooner.

Executives unable to innovate and reimagine their businesses during COVID will make way for the more flexible technologists. 

The new breed of leadership will thrive, finding opportunity within the rapidly evolving social safety challenges. Companies must reinvent the customer experience safely for all stakeholders. Innovate or die. Go digital or go home. Previously clunky digital technology is adapting to their newfound customers. Their newfound customers are adapting too.

Opportunity to experiment and reengineer with less risk

The “more, better, faster” mantra continues to apply even as the customer experience needs new attention. For many mall and Main Street businesses providing good pre-COVID curbside or drive-up service, it’s not too large a leap. Their opportunity is to improve their processes and efficiencies to offset their decline in walk-in customers. 

Customer tolerate COVID excuse is limited

For businesses unaccustomed to drive-up and curbside notions, the chasm may be too great to cross for many. The rest are adapting to meet the new rules and protocols in providing their products and services to their customers. They can try new things with a more forgiving customer. They can even get it wrong to an extent, blaming shortcomings on COVID with forgiveness, but not for too long. The clock is ticking, and the customer experience is rewarding excellence.

The Office

The distributed and de-centralized businesses that have figured out how to succeed with remote teleworkers, such as customer service functions, find themselves rock-stars. Traditional face-to-face and centralized business functions must embrace teleworker methods and know-how. Workplace offices and cubicles will need to transform to new health and safety rules, along with all shared space. A likely effect compartmentalizes organizations like never before, which will be unsettling, at least temporarily, until technology offers some innovative solutions. The hardest hit will be interactive organizations such as creatives who traditionally feed on close, constant social interaction. 

The coffee pot and the water cooler

It’s interesting to note the disruption to face-to-face rumor-mongering with the pandemic restrictions. The loss of common area break-rooms and gatherings means a slowing the informal passing of information by low-tech means. Nothing about 2019’s office space will likely look the same in 2022. Even the traditional water cooler and coffee pot may never be the same. To where will the office gossip and rumor mill move in the interim? During the transition, there is a lot of unused office capacity. 

Western companies lag

To the Owners, CEOs, Presidents who embrace change, the transformation is just another challenge. Those leaders and companies that meet that challenge with innovation will succeed. Western businesses that look to the east, to the likes of South Korea and Japan, will find some help in making the transition to “the new normal” as they’ve already been through a similar crisis dealing with SARS and so have a head start on the west, socially and culturally.

Embracing innovation intelligently 

The shift to a much broader and deeper application of technology for all businesses, Main Street to a multi-national corporation, is the most extraordinary step transformation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The stress and change in every culture are enormous. Whoever imagined walking into a bank wearing a mask and asking for money would be required by law? Still, here we are. Members of the business world making sense of and seizing innovative opportunities will rocket forward. The ability to intelligently recognize these pandemic opportunities and act on them is a superpower during the COVID-19 crisis.

Headless automation racing forward

The need for products and services traditionally involving humans is more of a liability than ever before. Now, more than ever, businesses will move to eliminate the weak link in their business: humans. Automation is racing to change virtually every industry, from grocery stores to bus services. The transition to self-checkout, already in full swing, is accelerating in the name of safety. Taxi cabs and busses will not be spared as headless, self-driving vehicles answer your smartphone app to transport you to your destination safely. The implication of deploying all this automation is the permanent elimination of human jobs. COVID-19 will most certainly have a hand in accelerating the jump to automation. Much of the business world will need to strike a balance as they turn to machines instead of humans—the balance between producing badly needed goods and services vs. job elimination may make many companies very unpopular socially. 

So, exactly how will COVID-19 transform the business world?

The answer is, it already has. But we haven’t seen anything yet. Some familiar businesses, local to multinational, will simply vanish making way for the innovative and opportunistic. Now going digital and automating is more important than ever to avoid production stoppage in the future. The very notion that sick people means shutting down businesses means newfound efforts to eliminate the weak link that is people from the equation. A new rulebook for etiquette and what is taboo is being rewritten before the ink dries. Negative reactions to mandatory business stoppages and closures may seem an overreaction for many who think bars and restaurants aren’t important, but those small businesses employ our neighbors.

National security and capitalism

It occurs to me that national security concerns will drive COVID-19 business transformation in most sovereign nation-states, including the United States. The realization that our countries are so vulnerable in the new global economy during a real pandemic almost certainly means business transformation. Resulting nationalistic self-defense tendencies may influence multi-national firms. The new policies will favor locals first and test western open market free-enterprise capitalism. I’m not talking about guns and missiles and armies, but rather masks, vaccines, and disinfecting wipes. The tangible things like toilet paper and canned soup absent from bare store shelves will provoke lawmaker and business awareness. Congressman and CEOs all need to keep the people happy, after all.