Adaptation key for business during COVID, and some changes are here to stay
From adapting to new technology to helping their customers feel comfortable in a pandemic environment, businesses have had changes thrust upon them.
Many businesses had to throw out the handbook and come up with new plans as the coronavirus pandemic dominated 2020. While many are hoping for a return to normal, some of the lessons they have learned will likely be permanent.
Now, with a vaccine being rolled out, some are wondering what their new normal will look like.
“Are things going to return 100% back to the way they were January 1, 2020? No,” said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. “I do think things are going to return more to that than they maybe are today.”
According to Wilfahrt, the pandemic has made workers in some sectors more efficient. There’s no need to drive to a meeting, he said, when everyone can jump online. New technology – like touchless point of sale systems in restaurants and elsewhere – has dragged some business owners into the present.
For Wilfahrt, the efficient nature of the hybrid office is here to stay, but it also comes with challenges. A group that is used to working together and has a well-developed shorthand in communicating can work well in online meetings. New groups, he said, might suffer without that informal communication. Still, the benefits are clear.
“As a result of (pandemic-related changes), people become more skilled at using all Zoom, or the hybrid (model),” Wilfahrt said. “And that will be a gain in productivity, which will positively impact everybody's bottom line.”
Matt Walkowiak, who owns the Ground Round restaurant in Grand Forks, was able to update his point of sale system through a state Economic Resiliency Grant. He called his previous system a “dinosaur,” and said it was something he could not have easily replaced without the grant. It’s one of the many changes he has made, including an improved online ordering system that lets customers tell staff the color and make of their car, for instance, when ordering carryout.
Walkowiak said those changes are here to stay, including an expanded cleaning system in the dining area.
“I think restaurants now are cleaner than they've ever been,” he said.
In the business community, the word “pivot” has been tossed around as frequently as “social distance.” Some Grand Forks businesses had to change their markets either in part or completely to find new customers, said Keith Lund, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation. For example, PS Industries, which makes safety access equipment and flood barriers, began to manufacture Plexiglas shields that provide some protection from the coronavirus.
Red Pine Distillery and the Red River Biorefinery switched their products of alcohol and ethanol to hand sanitizer as needs for those products rose during the pandemic.
“They had a business model, COVID completely turned it upside down and they needed to find new markets in order to really be a viable company. Both have done that,” Lund said.
At Bremer Bank, foot traffic in the lobby has decreased and the drive-thru lanes are predictably busy. But it’s the increased demand for new technology that is driving adaptation for banks and their customers, said Tammy Peterson, president of Bremer Bank’s Grand Forks region.
Business customers, she said, are interested in streamlined technology for integrated payments, while other customers have turned more to mobile and online banking. The changes, accelerated by the pandemic, include working remotely for non-client-facing positions, and an increased investment in technology solutions for the client and employee experiences.
Those adaptations came roughly when Bremer was processing applications for Paycheck Protection Plan loans. The bank generated about 7,200 loans across North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with 1,000 of them originating in the region.
“If anything, 2020 further reinforced the value of relationships and working with folks you trust, making it clear that discovering mutually creative solutions is possible, even in a crisis,” Peterson told the Herald.