Can past pandemics help reveal COVID-19’s silver lining for businesses?

Published April 1, 2021

What’s been called the “new normal” isn’t actually that new. Almost 700 years ago, the European population, overwhelmed by a devastating pandemic, experienced mandatory quarantine and social distancing for the first time. Despite the bubonic plague’s grim reputation, it actually brought about positive economic and quality-of-life developments—something that we’ve seen and will continue to see with COVID-19.

While the main impact is undoubtedly in healthcare, the effects spill over to businesses. We’re seeing changes in how and where consumers make purchases, a larger emphasis on health and sanitation, and an exodus of traditionally in-person services being digitized, all with sustainable business practices under society’s microscope.

Businesses can use the effects of past pandemics, as well as the ongoing consequences of COVID, to pivot and improve in the future. They can learn about the pandemics’ economic and societal impacts in order to adapt their business strategy for a post-COVID world.

Past pandemics were followed by major economic and societal advances


Global pandemics throughout history have forced changes in unique ways, some of which had remarkably positive effects that remain even today.

No pandemic is identical, so it’s impossible to take the impact of one and then copy and paste the resulting effects onto another. As Daniel Kurt with Investopedia writes, “Every pandemic is unique, which makes measuring the repercussions of any crisis more challenging. What’s more, there simply aren’t many examples that compare to the worst-case estimates of something like COVID-19.”

But if we look at two of the most pervasive infectious diseases from history—the bubonic plague of the 14th century and 1918’s “Spanish Flu”—it’s easier to draw similarities as to how things will change post-COVID.

The bubonic plague, known as the  “Black Death,” for example, improved the conditions and livelihoods of European farmers due to a shortage of labor. “Agricultural workers were able to demand better payment and conditions from their manorial lords,” notes David Routt, professor of history at the University of Richmond. This situation is comparable to the current issue of frontline worker safety—something that impacts not only staff but also customer satisfaction—as well as increased attention to wage reform.

The Spanish Flu caused preventative measures in public and in the workplace to improve by leaps and bounds. “Physicians started focusing on the occupational and social conditions that promoted illness, not only to cure the illness but to suggest ways to prevent it,” says Nancy Mimm, a specialist in population health at Harrisburg University. 

These developments are the reason we see mask-wearing and social distancing completely altering the familiar shopping, banking, and travel experiences. They also laid the groundwork in making health-consciousness a priority, something that proves to enhance loyalty beyond COVID.

And despite the global economic damage once the Spanish Flu had run its course, within a few years, things were looking up again. If we take the U.S. as a shining example of an economy that recovered successfully, by 1923, an unprecedented economic boom began that would lead the nation through the Roaring Twenties. The catalyst for this recovery? Technology. More specifically, the widespread use of electricity.

For COVID-19, it’s technological innovation to the rescue once again.

“If electricity provided enough of a boost to restore a super-powered economy in the 1920s, imagine the magnitude of improvement we’ll see for globally-connected businesses through the 2020s.”

What makes our current situation so utterly distinct from past pandemics is the internet—our ace in the hole for business transformation and economic recovery. If electricity provided enough of a boost to restore a super-powered economy in the 1920s, imagine the magnitude of improvement we’ll see for globally-connected businesses through the 2020s.

COVID-19 has already had positive impacts globally


From acceleration to an entirely digital era to how we value personal relationships, COVID has already had profound effects on our lives today—most of which have positive implications going forward.

We can already see the influence of the current pandemic and how the internet is helping businesses flourish in the following ways:
 

A wave of digital transformation spanning key industries


Consumers are spending more time online, and businesses are meeting them where they are. This trend hasn’t just seen social media and e-commerce skyrocket, either. The retail, hospitality and banking sectors have had to adapt, and businesses are paying attention.

According to an article published by McKinsey last year: “... recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks.” This advancement wouldn’t have been so rapid had the hands of businesses not been forced by the pandemic.

Big brands are paving the way for digital transformation during COVID:

  • Walmart combined their grocery and Walmart Mobile apps to create a one-stop-shop digital experience for their customers. Janey Whiteside, chief customer officer, says, “We don't ask customers to make two trips to the store, one for groceries and one for all the other things they need, so we shouldn't ask them to visit two apps.” This quick shift to comprehensive digital service led to a 74 percent increase in online sales during the pandemic.

  • Coffee and donut titan Dunkin’ integrated curbside pickup and delivery into their mobile app, leading to an increased percentage of mobile orders and visitation during times outside of the original peak morning traffic. These digital efforts have scaled online orders to 18 percent of sales for Dunkin’.

  • Tennessee-based financial services company First Horizon Bank recognized the need for a more sophisticated digital banking platform and is seeing the results. Pat Kelly, chief digital officer of First Horizon Bank, says that “Early performance metrics indicate that we are on par with or ahead of the top national banks in terms of engagement and speed. Plus, leveraging the cloud to deploy digital banking has allowed us to introduce updates more often and innovate faster.”

 

Related:  7 lessons brick-and-mortar businesses can learn from the delivery boom

 

Fundamental changes to the way we work


Remote work has now become mainstream. The fact that the work-from-home culture has maintained or even improved productivity has been a revelation for businesses that were hesitant to adopt the strategy in the past. From Shopify to UpWork to Coinbase, major digital-first brands are recognizing that WFH is here to stay.

This trend has led to innovation in software tools that keep companies connected and everything running smoothly. As Jack Kelly, a senior contributor for Forbes, states, “The consensus seems that the widespread availability and ease of use of technologies to collaborate and stay in constant contact, such as Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts and other services, enabled people to smoothly adapt to the new work-from-home setup.”
 

Environmental impact is now under the spotlight


Consumers care about sustainability, bottom line. And COVID has led to no shortage of reporting on climate change and the effects businesses have on it.

Indeed, the COVID pandemic has pushed environmental impacts from businesses in the right direction. According to an article by The BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical trade journal, “NASA satellites have documented significant reductions in air pollution—20-30% in many cases—in major cities around the world.” This can be attributed primarily to fewer cars on the road without daily commutes and halts in manufacturing and distribution. 

Savvy businesses recognize that COVID is an opportunity to get ahead with their sustainable business practices. As Glenn Hoetker writes for SmartCompany, “The middle of a global pandemic may seem like a reasonable time for a company to pull back from efforts to become more sustainable. But the benefits of a more strategic approach to sustainability are greater than ever and, perhaps surprisingly, COVID-19 may have made the necessary changes easier than they would otherwise be.”

How to adapt to the changes brought on by this pandemic


Businesses need to shift their strategies and adapt to these pandemic-incurred economic changes. These insights are the “silver lining”—the ability to see into the future and react to massive shifts in the business and economic landscapes.

Using these strategies effectively helps businesses come out of the pandemic better than before:

Get everything online (if possible)


Electricity was the key economic driver in the 1920s; now, the internet is what will propel us forward. 

  • Make digitization a priority. Offering services or selling products through digital channels aren’t just a way to supplement anymore; they’re a core part of any business. 
  • Focus on combining online and offline efforts. For example, ramp up delivery efforts or allow for online product reservations like Dunkin’ in the example above. 
  • Get creative with how you use physical space. The sustainable footwear brand Allbirds repurposed brick-and-mortar locations as satellite warehouses for more rapid online fulfillment.
  • Leverage data to better understand customers. Michigan-based floorcare company Bissell, for example, found great success when “... information from [their] e-commerce platform’s analytics services helped the brand to target consumers based on search interests ... During last year’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, the company was able to double its sales in just 12 hours from the year before.”

Embrace a distributed workforce


Understanding the advantages of remote work culture will make it an easy decision.

Adopt more sustainable business practices


Sustainable business practices aren’t just a method for attracting new customers but a way of improving our collective future.

  • Monitor your supply chain. Make sure your supply partners share the same ethical and sustainability commitments as you do, and make that information visible to consumers.
  • Manage waste more responsibly. Focus on recycling and repurposing and optimizing processes to minimize the amount of waste from production.
  • Reduce emissions from manufacturing. Know precisely what the impacts of your production processes are, and take real action to counteract them.

Innovate alongside the changes caused by COVID to stay ahead


Changes are certainly more apparent during the pandemic due to how rapidly and significantly they take place. But as with pandemics in the past, innovation happens in response to major change.

Businesses can recognize similarities between past pandemics and COVID but need to also acknowledge the unique opportunity we have to build back better. To build back more responsibly. More agile. More data-driven. More sustainable. Safer.

The adjustments will become less obvious as they’re integrated into business and society as a whole, but the head start that COVID presents and the rapid advances in digital technology give businesses a fighting chance not enjoyed in the past. Stay tuned!

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