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Big questions, big answers: What’s top of mind for CX leaders in 2021

3 key lessons for running a business in a post-pandemic world, and why it's so important to build resilience into your systems and social capital within your workplace

By Suzanne Barnecut

Last updated September 21, 2021

Illustrated by Liam Cobb

In late January 2021, CX executives and industry leaders gathered for an intimate conversation with CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria, author of 10 Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, to discuss the challenges that business leaders currently face.

Zakaria’s book spans political, socioeconomic, environmental, and public health considerations and shows us how business and world events are inextricably tied. What we do in our communities and companies profoundly affect our shared landscape—the policies we make, the way our markets respond, the impact on our personal lives—and this, in turn, affects how we respond to crisis.

“This is probably the biggest event we will live through in our lifetimes,” Zakaria said of the pandemic. Whereas crises typically impact only one part of the world at a time, the scale of negative GDP growth around the world in 2020 was of historic proportion.

Even as economies begin to recover from recession, and regions from infection, we’re recovering at different rates—and that has implications for all of us.

3 key lessons

From Zakaria’s point of view, “recovery” has a lot to do with vaccine distribution. Countries and regions are acquiring and rolling out vaccines at different rates, with developing countries moving at a much slower pace. “This is not a momentary thing. This is not going to snap back very quickly and suddenly,” he said of what is sure to be a long, slow global rollout. That’s why it’s vital we take our learnings from this time and apply them.

  1. Digital experiences have staying power

    The pandemic has stress-tested digital experiences, causing us to suddenly ramp our bandwidth and usage, and we’ve passed. “The digital infrastructure that was built up over the last 10 years has held up remarkably well,” Zakara said, and that’s been mostly true around the world.
    “We are witnessing the real birth of a digital economy, but also of digital life,” he said, citing the intersection of Zooming with both colleagues and family. These new intersections are likely to continue. It’s not unlike the way that customers now message businesses in between responding to a friend or family member, via text or apps like WhatsApp.
    [Join us: Zendesk x Pop-Up Magazine present: The Digital Tipping Point]
  2. Software is the value-add

    This new way of life, powered by digital experiences, is more or less working. Zakaria says we’re moving from a physical economy into a software-led economy wherein software—with its increasingly predictive, data-rich capabilities—allows you to do more with a product than sometimes the product itself. This is particularly true in the world of IoT where a consumer can purchase a physical item, but also expect that its producer will know when there’s a problem with the item and can proactively diagnose the issue.
    Zakaria also cited Amazon, whose algorithms have gotten so good that it has tipped the scales for publishers’ profitability; despite the deep discounting, Amazon serves books so accurately to consumers that there is little in the way of returns to the publishing house. Businesses that can leverage customer and product data effectively will have an edge.
  3. The rise of the digital elite

    Equity has emerged at the forefront of global conversation for so many necessary reasons—and it’s vital that we keep talking about it. Zakaria predicts that we’re going to see equality gaps continue to widen. Going back to the Amazon example, small, independent bookstores are going to continue to struggle to compete as Amazon’s technology continues to improve. “What you’re going to see is a digital elite that is going to thrive in these times,” Zakaria said. Companies with strong brand names, deep digital presences, diversified lines of business, and strong lines of credit will survive, and even thrive.

Businesses that can leverage customer and product data effectively will have an edge.

[Related read: How Zendesk is helping with the vaccine distribution effort]

Q&A with industry leaders

As business leaders have reactively shifted goals and ways of working throughout the past year, it comes as no surprise that we’re all wondering how we can prepare better for what may lie ahead. Here are just a few of the questions raised.

How can companies plan for the future, especially in industries that have been hit so hard, such as travel & hospitality?

“The whole nature of a crisis is that it shocks the system because it was unforeseen,” Zakaria said. The tough answer is that you can’t predict the next crisis. What you can do is build resilience into your system, he says. Have a plan in place for handling a 20-30 percent decline in business, for example. Ask yourself: If needed, how could you pivot?

The tough answer is that you can’t predict the next crisis. What you can do is build resilience into your system.

Zakaria recommends strengthening your business by proactively testing its flexibility, and to have a plan (and funding) in place for managing the process before a crisis occurs.

“Be loose, be flexible, be adaptable, set general goals, don’t micromanage, and stress test—constantly stress test yourself,” he advised. Afterward, make sure to take note of lessons learned and build them into disaster recovery plans.

[Related read: How to manage customer satisfaction in a crisis]

How should businesses move forward post-pandemic in relation to “severe” social justice issues and widening environmental degradation?

“You can only buy so much insurance,” he said. “You’re swimming in a sea that is too large for you to control, and so I think one of the things businesses have to do is get more socially and politically active in these areas.” A call for businesses to weigh in on policy and social justice is not unprecedented—in the 1950s and 60s, he explained, corporations were involved in advocating for the building of the interstate highway and investing in science, technology, and research. These were large government projects that gave way, eventually, to the moon landing, the mini-computer revolution, and the birth of the internet. Here, Zakaria said, globalization and trade agreements are important because we all “need growth, need the customers.”

What is the new model of work? How do we hire and onboard people site unseen, and how will that impact employee engagement and company culture?

According to Zakaria, “we are clearly going to move into a hybrid model”—at least for white-collar knowledge workers—where people can do most work from home and only come into the office for specific meetings, presentations, and brainstorm sessions. He acknowledged that there isn’t an easy answer here and that in-person face time is valuable.

We have to work to build social capital since we are spending so much of it by working online. Teams have an emotional component and require trust between teammates. Businesses will have to continue to work harder to foster connection, whether through group activities or just scheduled time with people that’s not project-focused, he said. There remain many scenarios in which meeting someone in person will be beneficial, whether it’s a new hire or a potential client—especially if a competitor is going the extra mile to create connection.

[Related read: Creative ways to stay connected with remote coworkers]

How can we balance interacting with employees or customers who are hybrid versus fully remote?

Zakaria cautioned that in-person encounters need to be “rational, inclusive, and equitable.” We need to ensure that we’re thoughtful about how and when we meet people, and what impact that will have on others who remain at a distance. “We all have to have in our portfolio of things we’re doing this idea of team-building, social capital-building, making sure that no one is left behind,” he said.

Businesses will have to continue to work harder to foster connection, whether through group activities or just scheduled time with people that’s not project-focused.

What message can leaders take back to teams that are tired, and having a hard time viewing the pandemic through a lens of hopeful outcomes?

Zakaria acknowledged that it’s unsettling to not know how things will pan out and technology can’t completely make up for the emotional bonds that have been severed.

Tell your people: “Try to spend more time connecting with people. Not just working. Spend the time building emotional capital. To the extent you can, take a walk with somebody, do outdoor dining.” In short, encourage your team to make connections, whether it’s with colleagues or those in their personal lives, because all of it helps. Change may be unsettling, but it allows us to ask new questions about how we want to proceed.

“Take advantage of this moment,” Zakaria urged. “Let’s not look back five years from now and say, ‘We had this big transforming, revolutionary moment where everything was up for grabs, and [we] kind of just went back to doing things the way I’ve always done them.’”

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