Many pandemic changes will likely stick for businesses, consumers when we find our next normal
FARGO -- The coronavirus pandemic has brought a slew of changes to how we live, work and do business.
With multiple COVID-19 vaccines soon to roll out, there’s hope that by this time in 2021, we can enjoy weddings, holidays, concerts, sports and travel like it was 2019 again.
While not all of the changes that have been part of this pandemic’s version of normal will stick, many - like working from home, video conferencing, and contactless delivery - will probably stay for their convenience or budget savings in our next normal.
Two Fargo-Moorhead business experts, Jane Pettinger, an assistant professor of management at Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Paseka School of Business, and Amelia Asperin, an associate professor and program coordinator for the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at North Dakota State University, recently shared their takes on the trends they believe will last.
Video conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have come into daily use for many people working from home, Pettinger said.
“You’re going to work virtually. And you’ll have your interviews virtually,” Pettinger said. “So much of the work we do, we shifted to doing it (online) because we had to. And we realized, it works."
Throughout much of the U.S., many in-person events have been canceled since the pandemic took hold. In their place, virtual events are becoming an increasingly popular option for firms big and small.
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“I think the virtual conferences will continue to happen. I think it opened up a lot of opportunities, for some businesses, including education, (and) where budgets for travel are less,” Asperin said.
“Once that we’re able to have large gatherings again, there will be a clamor for the traditional conferences,” but there likely will be the choice to attend remotely, too, Asperin said.
Working from home
A big part of the “new normal” forced by the coronavirus is the shift from employees working in offices to working at home. Firms once hesitant about moving in that direction now realize they can function well without an office.
“Work from home will continue in positions where it can - legal, banking” and other industries, Pettinger predicts. “This (the pandemic) has accelerated a move that was in process anyway, just crashed it forward. … (Management) didn’t have a choice. It’s simply much much safer this way."
Work may also become a hybrid, she said. “We’ll go back to the office two to three days a week, not five, because homes are nice.”
Pettinger does have some worries about the work-from-home trend. Too many workers fail to put limits on their work days and put in too many hours. She also said too many home offices are poorly set up ergonomically, which can lead to health problems.
Still, people love it.
“My brother spends all his time at the lake right now, because he can. There’s so much that can be done virtually,” Pettinger said.
More businesses are moving toward a cashless model, in part because of fears of passing the coronavirus along on currency or coin. Credit and debit cards and digital payments are increasingly requested to minimize contact between workers and customers.
Using mobile phones to pay for services or even to check in and out of hotels and as a key card “for safety and sanitation” is becoming increasingly common, Asperin said.
Apps allowing you to read QR codes give you access to “a menu or other things multiple guests would touch,” Asperin said.
Smart controls are being installed to control hotel rooms’ temperature and lights to minimize contact with controls. And contact with housekeeping staff is also being minimized.
Many stores have also shifted their business model to include contactless delivery of goods to customers.
The shift to e-commerce is accelerating thanks to the pandemic. Closures of stores considered “non-essential” and people uncomfortable with leaving their homes are factors driving the movement online.
Black Friday sales fell 52% in terms of foot traffic and shopping on Thanksgiving day was down 95% because of closings, Pettinger said. But online shopping is up.
Pettinger said that as much as she enjoys shopping locally, she’s found that online shopping is a good fit, too.
“Zappos. Who was going to buy their shoes online? Crazy notion, Yet, they are very successful, because they trained all their customer service folks to be more sensitive to customers’ concerns. They also offered little videos to view items. They are honest, this fits tightly, this fits loosely, and they let you have easy returns,” Pettinger said. “You can change things up, change up the model and be successful, if you focus on the customer to an extraordinary degree.”
The demand for delivery has grown so much that companies such as UPS, Fed-Ex and the U.S. Postal Service have a hard time getting enough delivery vehicles, Pettinger said.
Amazon is building fulfillment centers around the country - including a big one in north Fargo - to create its own more seamless delivery system, she said.
Drones are being experimented with as a way to deliver light packages.
Consumers can now get nearly anything from cars to custom cocktails delivered to their homes.
Small shops like Game Giant and Zandbroz are also moving sales online to compensate for lost in-person sales and to reach more customers.
On the restaurant side, lockdowns pushed more restaurants into providing delivery through third party outlets like Grubhub or BiteSquad.
“Some of the restaurants didn’t have that partnership with a third party pre-COVID. Now they’ve shifted to that,” Asperin said.
Robots are increasingly being used for jobs that require repetition. They’ve been welcomed in many industries - including lifting and moving heavy objects in warehouses. There are now moves to integrate them into fast food and retail industries with burger flipping robots and machines that clean stores or take inventory independently.
“Robots don’t get pandemics. They don’t get sick. They don’t call in sick. They don’t get pandemic pay. They are far more reliable. They can do things that blow your mind,” Pettinger said.
Asperin said people now expect a “beyond clean experience.”
Food safety and sanitation have always been a part of the hospitality industry, but it’s been “a back of the house type of thing. But you really have to shine a light on it. You want it to be part of the marketing. Some hotels put a sticker on the door that says that room has been sanitized. You know that after cleaning, nothing has touched that room until you came,” Asperin said.
Pettinger says she expects there will still be more frequent cleaning than in the past, but people have short memories.
“Maybe it’s just the pessimist in me. When we have a vaccine, it will be poof - it will be gone. Maybe it’s just my experience in North Dakota where the pandemic is ‘a hoax.’ I don’t think we’ve learned a damn thing,” Pettinger said.
“People want healthier sourcing (of goods). They want a better life. Shopping small, the experience of that is great. When you go into (downtown Fargo’s) Unglued and talk to (owner) Ashley (Morken), it’s great. She’s a force of nature,” Pettinger said.
Pettinger hopes the area’s small retailers and restaurants survive the pandemic shutdowns and limits on hours.
“The survival of those stores depends on people acting responsibly to keep them open,” which includes wearing masks and giving other people some space, Pettinger said.
Asperin is encouraged by how Fargo-Moorhead area residents have rallied to support local restaurants, buying gift cards and ordering takeout.
Also, more restaurants are making it a point to buy their goods from local farmers and ranchers, Asperin said.
Working from home requires upgrading technology, including computers, software and cybersecurity. Not the least is having enough bandwidth to operate WiFi systems that make it possible to work, play and be entertained online, Pettinger said.
“The basic (service) will have to rise and will have to rise higher yet. Everyone will need greater (WiFi) capability,” Pettinger said. “We’ll need a more robust online infrastructure. That’s going to be an important part of a community.”
Restaurants have also become more adept in using technology for online ordering and arranging deliveries, as well as using social media to connect with customers, Asperin said.
‘Everything is evolving’
The pandemic has tested everyone, Asperin said.
“The changes were coming, but the pandemic accelerated them, especially on the technology side,” for the hospitality and tourism industries, Asperin said. “We really had to think of ways to still run the business, even without the large crowds into our businesses."
“It’s a different world. We will not return to the world we had,” Pettinger said. “Everything is evolving. Adaptation is part of life. And thank goodness. If we didn’t adapt, I wouldn’t be in the workforce. And all the diversity of thought we get is cool, it’s exciting."