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I’ve studied human behavior for decades, examining how people respond to their environment as customers, employees, and leaders. Humans are amazingly resilient—for the good and bad. Even after facing disruptive events such as an epidemic or a recession, people tend to revert to their old ways shortly after the shock dissipates. People will go back to congregating, shaking hands, shopping at malls, and going without washing their hands more quickly than we’d think at the moment. Behavioral norms are hard to break.
That does not mean that the future will look exactly like the past. The evolution to a new normal will be a tug of war between people’s heightened anxiety about staying safe and their desire to return to highly engrained normative patterns of behavior.
Some changes will persist beyond the crisis
While people don’t tend to change, there are some emergent behaviors that appear to have the momentum to stay longer. For an activity to continue, it needs to be economically favorable, fulfill an unmet human need that persists beyond the crisis, and nurtured into an evolved form as the crisis subsides. The ones that jump out to me as candidates for ongoing change are:
Group video interactivity. Although people will not remain separated, the use of group video events will continue. People will go online for family gatherings, global training, college courses, and group workouts. This pandemic has accelerated the hurdle of trying and adopting these activities, and they fill a latent need for connection that exists beyond the replacement of in-person interactions.
Blended delivery models. Now that a large portion of the older population has been pushed to order groceries, necessities, or meals online and either have them delivered or picked up from their local market, they’ll likely keep doing it—at least in some ways. I expect the use of blended models will become a standard component of everyday life, especially for older consumers.
Streaming media consumption. People have turned to content services like Netflix, Disney+, and YouTube to fill their days. While the volume of binging will subside, these behaviors will likely continue to replace other media options. This shift, however, may decelerate if these services don’t actively keep first-time users engaged with appropriate pricing models and content.
Work from home. Not all of the current home workers will continue spending workdays in their makeshift offices. But some will. And the need for organizations to enforce social distancing will push these activities for a longer time than many other temporary behaviors. Now that leaders and employees have been exposed to the benefits of working from home (and recognized where there are limitations), we’ll see more job descriptions allowing people to at least partially work remotely.
Omnichannel medical care. Gaining access to healthcare services through channels beyond visiting a medical office or hospital had to become a mainstream activity at some point. It has all of the right advantages of a persistent norm, it’s better economically, while also being more convenient.
Three phases of returning to (new) normal
As the world returns to some semblance of normal, changes will represent ongoing trade-offs between safety-oriented behaviors and the desire to return to old ways. Given this behavioral struggle, I suggest that organizations plan for three phases as they head back to business:
Phase 1: Explore: People will quickly start doing some of the things they haven’t been able to do. The activities they do and the way they do them will be the result of balance between ongoing anxiety and the desire to get back to “normal.” This will be a somewhat chaotic period, where organizations need to be observant and responsive, and make sure they meet the rapidly changing desires and attitudes. They need to try new operating models, and refine them as they learn; all while providing evidence of their commitment to safety.
Phase 2: Reorient: During this next phase, customers and employees will start to settle into patterns of behavior that will stick beyond the crisis period. In this stage, organizations need to aggressively reposition their existing offerings and messaging, and create future-looking operating norms. There will need to be a lot of alignment, as this change will affect suppliers, employees, partners, and customers.
Phase 3: Normalize: After the new patterns emerge, organizations need to lock into operating models that support the new norms. During this period, organizations will likely formalize new offerings, look at the market through new customer segmentation models, develop supporting processes and systems, and go to market with a refined ecosystem of suppliers and partners.
The picture below provides a good metaphor for these phases. Before designing the landscape for Lafayette College’s quad, architects observed how students used the space. Once they saw patterns emerge by the beaten-down grass that formed pathways, they built the asymmetric walkways that exist today. You’ll need to let people walk in phase 1, identify the patterns they take in phase 2, and then pave the paths in phase 3.
In order to adapt to the changes, organizations will need to tap into experience management along the way. They will need to stay focused on people as they head back to business in a world that might look exactly as it did before the crisis, but upon close inspection, will exhibit changes in consumer behavior.
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