How to re-imagine your business to survive a pandemic

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Benjamin Baader, Design Thinking Practice Lead at Tata Consultancy Services Australia and New Zealand answers key questions senior leaders are asking about behaviour shifts in customers due to the pandemic.

Posted:  November 2020
Businesses have experienced tectonic shifts this year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit with three waves of behaviour shifts, says Benjamin Baader, Design Thinking Practice Lead at Tata Consultancy Services Australia and New Zealand. 

Baader, based in Sydney, gives much-needed context to leaders and highlights the two paths companies find themselves on – a business evolution or a business revolution.

At the end of this article, he will provide his predictions on the long-term behaviour shifts that will last from the pandemic.

Q: What are the pandemic-induced behaviour shifts?

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to significant behaviour shifts in 3 waves:

With the first wave came shock, triggering a hunker down reaction, which was then followed by a second wave of intermediate adaptation to the new landscape, a wave that is still washing over.

Next upon us is the crest of a longer game, an existence in unchartered waters, where a new reality will settle in: people will have changed some behaviours and, most importantly, this for good.

“The result is, that some industries will be changed forever, and while many remain severely challenged others have already emerged as winners,” Baader says. He finds himself busy answering C-Suite questions using Design Thinking as his guiding methodology.

“In the beginning, the 1st wave of shock set the foundation, requiring sudden behaviour change over a period of a few months during lockdowns,” he says.

“Everyone hunkered down at home. People were panicking. It started with a rush for toilet paper, followed by pantry essentials, hand sanitisers and masks. This transitioned into a surge in demand related to home cooking, home office, DIY and home entertainment, with a hugely positive impact on a few businesses, namely e-commerce companies such as Hello Fresh, eBay and Amazon, but also selected retailers such as Officeworks and IKEA found themselves sold out of desks and office chairs. And most companies were forced to ramp up or implement remote and safe network access capabilities for their employees now all working from home.”

This led to the 2nd, the intermediate adaption phase we’re currently in, where a “new normal” became apparent and a sense of “how can we make this work” took hold. “In this second wave of getting used to working from home and trying to re-introduce some basics of normal life, there was a sudden escalation in cashless payments that required even the smallest merchant to install a little square box to be able to take payment,” Baader says.

“Online shopping surged on a broader basis and people started to change traditional purchasing habits. Formal wear was out, Active Wear was in. And suddenly, e.g. car dealers found themselves unexpectedly on the winning side of the ledger because people started to avoid public transport and buy more cars. Travel, which had initially come to a grinding halt, slowly saw growth in the form of local and State-based movement."

“As people now build new routines that take in a level of freedom, there is a sense they can get by, and that it’s not the worst-case scenario that threatened our collective consciousness in the first wave.”

Baader believes the next wave, arriving soon, is perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of many companies. It will be not as high, but long and strong. This will require to deal with the long-term game and the fact that some new behaviours of people, be they customers or employees, will stick. There will be no going back.

The disruption of most businesses, be it positive or negative, was driven by an enforced need to drastically change established behaviours at scale. Design Thinking, as a human-centred design approach, is best suited to find answers to questions such as how to adapt a business to such tectonic behaviour and market shifts.

“One of the obvious fundamental shifts in behaviour will be a surged maturity in any form of digital interaction and an increased omnichannel expectation of consumers as well as employees,” he explains. 

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Q: Is my business on a path of evolution or revolution?

“For businesses across so many industries, the disruption leads them to assess whether they are on a path of evolution or revolution,” Baader responds to the big questions under these key themes and how Design Thinking can unlock the answers.

Some businesses will follow an evolution path by “just” adapting or strengthening their existing digital capabilities. Other companies, such as travel agents or conference organisers, face the prospect of completely re-imagining their businesses.

This is the evolution versus revolution path.

The evolution path is for those in a market that has not completely changed and that have a foundation but need now to strengthen their digital muscles and capabilities to meet the shift in consumer behaviour and expectations.

Good examples are our supermarket chains such Coles and Woolworths, which have suddenly had to multiply their capabilities in-home delivery as online orders surged and the country ran even short in the instant availability of new or used delivery trucks and vans. There is no sign they will return to previous levels.

More adaptations on this evolution path for companies will see a requirement to increase e-commerce capabilities and true omnichannel customer services as a priority – often with the underlying aim to increase contactless (self-) services.

Businesses need deep and real-time understanding of their customers to develop e.g. self-service offerings in a way that customers prefer over human interactions. Having implemented 360-degree customer view and Voice-of-Customer (VoC) analytics capabilities provide a solid foundation. Combined with qualitative research these will deliver key insights on how to design seamless and engaging experiences.

“Businesses need to improve their consistency of experiences across physical and digital channels, seeing them as one total omnichannel solution – since B2C, as well as B2B customers, do no longer really differentiate between them, nor palate any extra efforts such as repeating information they provided already in another channel.”

“The next level will be to provide experiences that blend physical and digital interactions to provide what we call “phygital” experiences that, when done right, will leave a much more lasting emotional impression and engagement than a ‘single channel’ experience.”

The path of revolution is more about redefining the business model with a focus on innovation and asking inwardly: “how can we refocus in a market that has completely changed?” and “what are different or adjacent opportunities that can be explored and exploited by our capabilities, brand or purpose?”. This path requires even more understanding of the changing user behaviours and considering how audience needs and expectations are evolving for the long term, which may potentially lead to growth opportunities into new markets.

There may also be opportunities in a company's broader business ecosystem to collaborate and to expand into other fields by rethinking how they do business. Regardless of the path – evolution or revolution – one of the best ways to approach either journey is with Design Thinking. 

Q: How can Design Thinking unlock the answers?

Design Thinking is based on human-centred design principles, putting people at the centre in pursuit of the best solution – but without disregarding technical feasibility nor commercial viability.

The aim is to find the “sweet spot” in achieving a product or service that is desirable for the customer or internal user, feasible to be enabled by technology, and also profitable for the business.

Since the main driver behind COVID-impacted business challenges is sudden shifts of people behaviours, the research focus of Design Thinking on understanding the true needs, goals and constraints of relevant audiences provides the right “angle of attack” and insights to identify future opportunities.

At a high level, Design Thinking generally follows a five-stage process, most commonly defined as below by d.school at Stanford University. That process is:

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It is not a linear process, but much more iterative. And from phase to phase there is a constant change between diverging and converging thinking.

It always starts with empathising with the relevant audiences and market, exploring and understanding pain points and true objectives of customers as well as employees involved in the service/product delivery. This is then followed by converging the insights to (re-) define the problem – or, as we rather see it at TCS, (re-) framing the problem. This often leads to the creation of a shared vision, acting as a guide for the transformative change to follow. 

These insights and problem statements provide the input for ideation, which is diverging with lateral thinking into exploring the opportunities, to then cluster generated ideas to concepts, prioritise and start building initial, low-fi “hand-crafted” prototypes.

By testing already such basic prototypes, we get valuable insights at an early stage into what resonates with users. Based on this feedback we start to optimise and improve our prototypes and concepts. Then test and improve again. This early and fast approach to testing informed the famous entrepreneurial attitude of “fail fast, fail cheap” to succeed faster.

Q: What makes Design Thinking so successful in solving wicked problems?

There are three main success factors to Design Thinking that make it a great methodology for companies to rethink their businesses and address sudden behaviour changes or other business challenges:

1. Pursue deep audience understanding

The first key success factor is that all insights are based on qualitative user insights, thereby providing hard evidence on “why things need to change” and “what is really needed and requested by users”.

This requires deep dives into the minds of the external and internal audiences ¬and identify market trends to understand what the real needs and “Jobs To Be Done” are. Besides analysing existing customer usage or Voice-of-Customer data, our trained researchers conduct qualitative interviews and market research to then synthesise the key insights, unveiling the right framing of the problems to solve.

Often the enlightening spark for innovation comes from researching and analysing the special needs of “extreme” or “niche” users. Pursuing to improve products and services for people with any kind of situational, physical, mental or infrastructural limitations often triggers product/service innovations that also provide greater convenience to the main audience – and a competitive advantage in the market.


2. Prototype and improve early

The second success factor is starting early to experiment and being hands-on with prototypes.

Pre-COVID, this was facilitated in face-to-face workshops straight after ideation, where we started with participants creating pen and paper sketches, gluing them together to form early prototypes. These low-fi prototypes were shown the next day to potential users for feedback, which ignited a usually already significantly improved the first iteration.

We have now transitioned to do more of this online, where we use a library of elements on a virtual canvas, like a toolset that participants can instantly access and arrange to prototypes to test with relevant audiences how something might work and how it could be replicated.

This process is not limited to digital interfaces, sometimes we build or illustrate physical environments or scenarios to prototype how a concept could work. Or the workshop participants are staging a roleplay to experience different ways of how a service or product interaction could play out. All these types of prototypes are tested with users very early during the workshop, so the participants can improve them – and then test again.


3. Collaboration of experts and users

The third success factor for Design Thinking is its multidisciplinary collaboration.

It's all about bringing together people from different backgrounds, not only the right subject matter experts, but also the business stakeholders, executives and, especially the users.

Importantly, users must include employees as well as customers or clients.  By bringing everyone together in workshops to co-design and co-create we ensure a balanced environment and outcome. This also helps companies with breaking up siloed working and create positive experiences by collaborating towards a shared vision.

It’s interesting that since moving to online workshops in today’s circumstances it has helped to “equalise” these groups in a noticeable way. The virtual collaboration has dismantled many potential hierarchy issues of a physical workshop where some people feel inclined to “follow the leader” and conform to a boss’s views for sake of agreement in their presence.

We barely see this now online, where people can communicate more freely and honestly without needing to align to a superior’s view, which produces a better variety and output of contributions.


Q: What are your predictions for pandemic-driven behaviour and business changes in and after the third wave?

1. Increased Digital Maturity

The lockdowns have forced everyone to increase their use of digital channels and service offerings. Especially most of the older generations lost finally last hesitations against using digital channels and devices for e-commerce, video chats, digital self-service and chatbots. And they did not only get used to it, like everyone else they noticed and appreciated it when it was done well. This will result in increased expectations of smooth and consistent omnichannel interactions with personalised experiences.

2. Rediscovery of our backyard

While it will most likely take a few years until long-distance trips become normal and affordable again, people will rediscover their closer surroundings. Australia and New Zealand have the great advantage of offering a broad variety of impressive landscapes and climates to cater for all kind of escapes, so that “home country staycations” will surge. Smaller local producers, shops and other businesses may find themselves in higher demand. Which would be well deserved in regions that were recently hit hard by bushfires and droughts.

3. Blend and blur of work and life

Working from home is here to stay. Most likely not as a full-time solution at scale, but as part-time arrangement with reduced requirements to come to the office more than 2-3 days a week. The separation between work and private life at home will become more and more blurred, “work presence” time slots more dependent on the individual role, task and private living context.

Kids and pets might be the true winners of increased parents’ presence at home, while businesses will have to rethink what this means for their corporate culture. Since previous in-person culture-shaping activities like staff events, coffee chats etc. will not work anymore at the same level, companies will have to identify and define, what their post-Covid culture might look like – and how they can nurture it.

4. The face of metro CBDs and country-/seaside-villages will change

With the reduced requirement of presence in corporate offices, hot desking in much smaller office footprints might become finally the standard. The owners of big commercial buildings will face the challenge of what to do with a very likely big share of vacant floor space. Conversion into residential units might not be the sufficient answer, since with everyday office presence being not required anymore, there will be a reduced interest of living near the office areas – which will result in further declining footfall for CBD retail. This will inevitably change the face of our metro CBDs and other office precincts and require creative answers.

As more people will make a lifestyle choice and move out of the metro area into the smaller beach- or countryside communities, this will re-shape these villages as well. From increased gentrification via surging property prices by more affluent remote-metro workers to higher pressure on the existing infrastructure (local schools, community centres, bars, shops as well as road and railway connections) not all smaller towns will be excited about the sudden influx of new residents.

5. My home is my castle, my screen is my kingdom

With spending more time at home due to ongoing home office arrangements people will put more efforts into their living environments. From repainting and redecorating their apartments to renovating and extending their property or landscaping their gardens, back- and front-yards. This will be exciting times ahead for all construction and home improvement-related businesses.

And people will turn even more away from pre-curated advertising-interrupted broadcasting (TV, Radio) towards curating their media consumption as to their own preferences. Especially while still being a constraint in their movements, people will more often escape into the virtual and glorified worlds of video streaming, Virtual Reality and social media. Maybe we can even see another “Second Life” arising?

6. The new (ir-)relevance of fashion

Since it has become more and more acceptable to attend even important client or board video meetings from home in activewear and hoodie, the future of high fashion and formal wear will face uncertain times. People will still enjoy dressing up when going out – but with fewer occasions and societal pressure to do so, a smaller range of formal clothes in the wardrobe might suffice.

Active and streetwear will dominate our looks – and make us maybe all more focus on who someone really is rather than how he or she dresses. We can see already the first symptoms of a trend to “de-formalise” your LinkedIn profile mugshots. But however this will play out, it will never stop to be a personal statement what clothes we choose to wear today.

7. Online logistics still have potential

Compared with other mature logistics markets in Europe, the UK and the US, Australia’s e-commerce delivery logistics are in the average still substantially behind. Very few online retailers and logistics companies manage to make next-day-delivery a normal expectation in metro areas. With the increased use of e-commerce since pandemic time, the capabilities and capacities of logistic providers better surge faster than the consumers’ service expectation to close the gap. Waiting several days for delivery and often without proper notification updates about the status of your order will be less and less acceptable – and invite disruptors to better deliver on the increased customer expectations.




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