It’s been three years since the early pandemic lockdowns and now well over two years since many businesses began pushing, pleading and, in some cases, even threatening employees to get them to return to the office. But only recently did many businesses see in-office rates break the 50% mark – and now a number are already reversing course, making hybrid work arrangements more available.
Meanwhile, ecommerce rates remain elevated – even higher than predicted. Across the country, gyms are struggling to regain foot traffic, and substantially fewer people are going to cinemas or dining in at restaurants. All of this is the result of the same forces reshaping business everyday life in America.
In many ways, predictions that people would snap back to their pre-pandemic routines have been proven wrong. Businesses that bet on the lockdown fading like a bad memory are having the hardest time moving forward.
Business leaders succeed or fail based on their ability to predict the future. Ever since COVID hit the U.S., many leaders have felt at a loss, lamenting how “unpredictable” everything is and shifting from one “new normal” to the next. But the reality is, many of these changes were predictable. Determining what to expect from consumers and employees in the future does not require a crystal ball. It requires an understanding of behavioral science.
The overwhelming majority of decisions people make are instinctive, not rational. These decisions come through cognitive shortcuts. Through my work and research across decades of marketing, I’ve explored what lies inside those shortcuts.
I found that inside our unconscious minds, we have collections of memories and associations with a given brand or idea. I call these “brand connectomes,” after the term connectome, the map of neural connections in the brain. Brand connectomes guide our habits – from which tomato sauce we buy to which candidates we vote for. They guide the ways we live and work, the causes we support and more. They determine what we do instinctively, meaning they control our habits.
The pandemic lockdown triggered one of the swiftest, most significant behavior changes in human history. People’s habits changed overnight, and through the successive lockdowns, shutdowns and new standards, these new habits became ingrained. The experience triggered new, positive associations with working from home, working out with virtual trainers, cooking, gardening and more. A vast web of neural pathways formed to hold these new associations – and that web runs deep.
New brand connectomes can easily overwhelm previous brand connectomes for other behaviors, like going to offices and doing all of our shopping in person – even if we’ve done those things for years. All it takes is for the new positive associations to be abundant and for the behaviors to be repetitive.
Humans naturally adjust and adapt, seeking homeostasis. When we develop new habits, we quickly settle into them as part of our human instinct to seek stability. Much attention has gone to the ways COVID has left some people with long-lasting physical effects, known as “long COVID,” but it has also left just about everyone with psychological and behavioral effects. That’s why, in 2021, I coined the term “COVID-stasis,” predicting that our then-new habits would endure.
People don’t always revert to previous behaviors. Expecting this is where businesses go wrong. It’s time for leaders to understand and accept this. Rather than expecting a major shift in how people live and work, expect the current trends to continue.
The ongoing uptick in traveling might seem like an exception. After all, it’s a sign that people are looking to get away from home. But in fact, this is part of the same phenomenon. “Pent-up demand” from the pandemic is being unleashed. About 700 million people traveled internationally last year between January and September, more than double the same period in the previous year.
But work travel has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and COVID-stasis tells us that it almost certainly won’t in the years to come either. Indeed, the pandemic proved that companies could make business happen without handshakes, double martinis and traipsing around the globe to see clients. Are the customer relationships as strong? Probably not. But people have become used to spending more time with their families or in their homes, and they’re no longer willing to make the personal compromise.
So what should companies do? Stop hoping that 2019’s daily realities will resume – and stop fighting to make that happen. Accept that the new habits will last. Design products, services and work routines that are customized to the new reality.
Walmart is a strong example. The company expanded curbside pickup early in the pandemic, and by 2021 a quarter of its revenue came from “click-and-collect,” the largest of any major retailer. Rather than “wait and see,” it leaned further in, launching a membership program that includes free delivery. These early moves made it a leader in omnichannel options for a nation in COVID-stasis.
Companies should also create innovative ways to train people virtually and for employees to collaborate. Establish quarterly off-sites to progress company-wide initiatives and strengthen relationships. Handle your employees with an understanding of their new expectations. Appeal to people’s COVID-stasis. 3M, for example, launched a trust-based approach called “Work Your Way,” which 75% of its non-manufacturing workers now take part in.
I’m a traditionalist. Personally I love the idea of people going into offices every day, mingling and interacting with clients face to face. But as a working mom, I’m a pragmatist too. My company was the first brand consultancy where employees could work virtually 100% of the time. And that was long before we had Zoom!
Organizations that accept, and even embrace, the massive impact of COVID-stasis on all dimensions of business are the ones most likely to adapt – and most likely to succeed.