Experts Project COVID's Effect on the Business Workplace Going Forward
Things are looking differently as businesses in South Carolina and elsewhere gradually open back up amid a still active coronavirus outbreak. Workplaces include the use of shields, masks, gloves, distance and other new methods. But according to Dr. Rich Harrill, director of the University of South Carolina's International Tourism Research Institute, the changes in routine may not be as dramatic as some might think.
For example, he said "in the restaurant business, there were predictions at the beginning that maybe 40 percent would go out of business. It's not going to be that drastic, it'll likely be more like 20 to 25 percent. What that will mean for the workforce is that there will be a certain segment that will need to be retrained for other positions as our economy continues to evolve into something else."
There will be adjustments along the way, Harrill said. "Behaviors are being changed, expectations are changing." He cited his becoming more accustomed to picking up food at the curb outside a restaurant, which likely will continue even as restaurants open for limited seating inside. But these changing behaviors and expectations "were going on well before COVID-19, that the shutdowns and quarantines only accelerated."
Working at home is certainly one facet of the workplace that has accelerated. Dr. Patrick Wright, director of the Center for Executive Succession at USC's Moore School of Business, said the much-mentioned notion of working from home permanently will probably only apply to certain unique jobs, and won't become common at most businesses. "For instance, if you're a customer service rep, why do you need to be in a call center when you can just route the calls to your home phone and be able to sit there and answer the calls. The company has the ability to track how many calls you're taking, and how long the calls are. I think those are the kinds of jobs that make sense."
But working from home even sometimes - such as a day or two per week - will still cause changes in downtown workplaces, said Wright. "Real estate is gonna get hit first, because there's not going to be a need for as many buildings, as many offices, as many storefronts as there has been in the past. If all the law firms and banks went to half of their people working from home most of the time, that's a lot fewer bodies downtown."
COVID will produce winners and losers in business, and Wright said the winners will be companies that already have a strong digital presence. Bloomin' Brands, for example, got into home delivery of food early on and maximized its online ordering process. Another area is retail, said Wright. Winners will be "like Walmart, that already have the digital capability, the omnichannel ability to allow you to order online, come pick it up or have it delivered" as well as to walk into the store.
But the increasing online activity will not mean the end of brick and mortar storefronts, said Harrill. Some will fall by the wayside, but the survivors will evolve like the rest of the workplace. "People will still want to shop and buy things. But you'll see more storefronts, what they're going to sell is style. The importance of customer service will not go away. It may be a friendly voice on the phone, it may be a friendly session on a computer screen. We're going to transition to a new economy. It's going to happen, but may not be quite as drastic as people think."
Wright said the companies that use the COVID experience as an opportunity to build their brands as ones both of customer service and of valuing their employees will emerge from the pandemic in a strong position for the new economy.