The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought many changes in the workplace. It has decimated some businesses while increasing the demand for others’ goods and services. It has highlighted weaknesses and inequalities and forced the adoption of new business models.
While businesses have been affected in many different ways, one thing is universal.
“The pandemic has changed the way we do business for good,” said Aikta Marcoulier, executive director of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center.
The Business Journal asked Marcoulier and other business leaders to talk about the top five trends and challenges the pandemic has presented, and how some businesses have found better ways of doing business that will persist as we move forward toward recovery.
Those trends and challenges are digital marketing, e-commerce, employee recruitment, remote and hybrid work, and women in (and out of) the workforce.
Many small businesses have adopted new digital marketing techniques that will survive the pandemic.
“Businesses have been able to open doors to new markets both nationally and internationally due to the power of digital marketing and e-commerce,” Marcoulier said.
Through digital advertising and social media, business owners have been able to tell their stories and create better connections to their own communities.
Marcoulier points to the Culinary Distancing COS Facebook page, “which helped the community gain insight on the struggles of our small businesses and how we could best support them.”
Companies that relied on traditional networking and referral groups as their primary pipelines were forced to switch tactics, said Ross Hill, partner and director of strategy at Summit Digital Marketing, a Colorado Springs agency.
“Almost half of our new clients last year were established businesses who have a huge stream of referral customers and found themselves in a position of, ‘We really need to update our website and start doing SEO and start doing paid ads,’” Hill said. “It definitely forced businesses to think about their digital strategy.”
Many companies weren’t prepared to communicate what they do through digital marketing or their websites.
Small businesses often can’t spare the time and personnel to master the intricacies of SEO, but are finding that the cost of getting someone to come to their websites and make a purchase is worth it, Hill said. That’s benefited local digital marketing companies, which have seen increased demand for their services.
Online selling has become a critical component for many small businesses.
“Those who succeeded and survived the pandemic thus far have implemented changes such as direct sales via e-commerce,” Marcoulier said.
Many businesses had to switch their entire sales process from in-person to online.
Hill points to a client who installed elevators and stair lifts for seniors.
“Traditionally, they would just go over to the house and kind of tell them about the whole process,” Hill said. “When people were scared to have people come into their homes, their business was decimated.”
Another example is bridal shops.
“We have a big portfolio of bridal shops,” he said. “We helped them to tell their story online. They’re starting to do virtual try-ons.
“There are all different types of these virtual engagements that they never would have thought would have worked before, but it’s something they’re still continuing, and now they’re finding them really useful for any client,” he said.
Putting up an online store is relatively easy with the use of e-commerce platforms such as WooCommerce, Shopify and BigCommerce, Hill said.
“It would have been a challenge had this [pandemic] happened five years ago,” he said. “But a lot of this stuff was already being done on those e-commerce platforms.”
The biggest issue for businesses opening e-commerce stores is producing high-quality content.
“It’s a challenge for a traditional business who’s used to displaying something on their shelves to take pictures that indicate to you that this is legit, like you can trust what you’re buying,” Hill said.
Businesses are struggling to find people with the skills their companies need, said Traci Marques, executive director and CEO of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center.
“If you look at a job posting, is it a competency-based job posting, or is it more of an older job description that doesn’t detail the skills they need to do the job?” Marques said.
Employers need to look at the skills applicants have gained that would be adaptable to what the job requires.
“If you have customer service skills in a storefront, those skills are transferable to a call center,” said Pikes Peak Workforce Center Communications Manager Becca Tonn.
Business that were hardest hit by the pandemic — hospitality, retail and tourism — are having a hard time recruiting employees. So are industries like health care and construction, where shortages of trained personnel persist.
“If you look at the open job positions a year and a half ago versus 2021, a lot of those in-demand jobs are the same,” Marques said. “That is a skills gap we have had in our community for years.”
Businesses also have to look at other ways of recruiting talent, including virtual events and interviews.
“I think we will continue to see a hybrid approach in interviewing both virtually and in person,” Marques said.
Employers also must take employees’ needs into consideration.
“This is still a health crisis,” Marques said, “and businesses need to make sure they are providing a safe and healthy place for people to come back to. In addition, some kids are still at home, and that is having an effect with recruiting.”
And there is the unemployment effect, where people are able to make as much money collecting unemployment as they would if they were working.
“We have seen some employers increase their wages,” Marques said. “We also saw them doing a signing bonus, or ‘selling’ someone on a position because of extra benefits or the company culture.”
But relying on unemployment benefits now could backfire in the future, said Reanna Werner, founder and chief problem solver at HR Branches.
“When those unemployment benefits expire, we’re expecting a flood of candidates coming to the workforce,” Werner said. “By that time, we will have become so acclimated to doing with less that we might not need all of those people.”
Offering flexibility when it comes to working at home is another way employers can recruit employees, Marques said.
“Here at the Workforce Center, we have some staff that start working at 6 a.m., because that’s when their WiFi connection’s the best,” she said.
At the same time, “it’s about relationships and your connection with people,” Marques said. “That’s something we’ve all missed — the synergy and innovation you get being with other people. I think that it is going to be attractive for people to get back into the workplace.”
Nevertheless, remote work is here to stay, Werner said.
“COVID accelerated the workforce 10 years from where it should be today,” Werner said. “Every aspect of every industry has been affected in one way or another.”
Employers are realizing cost savings with a remote workforce, but working with remote employees requires a different leadership style than leading an onsite team.
“You have to be very intentional about your communication,” Werner said. “It’s a little harder to read between the lines, and so you have to create those lines as a leader.”
Leaders also have to provide tools and systems, such as time-tracking mechanisms, and set productivity expectations, she said.
Some industries will continue to employ remote workers — “it really depends on your company culture, and who you are,” Werner said. “If you have a culture of data geeks and analysts, it would probably be great to have a remote workforce. But if you’ve got a workforce of movers and shakers, you’re going to want to bring it back onsite.”
WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE
Remote work has enabled many women to remain employed, but the pandemic has made it more difficult for many women to stay in the workforce, said Breann Preston, director of business intelligence at the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC.
More than 2 million U.S. women left the workforce in 2020 because of COVID challenges, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“That is going to have a major impact on their labor force participation rates, which could be a drag on our recovery speed,” Preston said.
All of the issues that have plagued women in the workforce — lower pay than men, underemployment and, in particular, child care — were magnified by the pandemic.
In a recent survey the chamber conducted as part of its strategic planning, “women placed a lot more emphasis on our region’s long-term economic stability being driven by child care opportunities that start before school,” ranking it among their top 10 concerns, Preston said. But for survey respondents overall, “it was outside of the top 10. That really highlights that for a lot of women, that is top of mind — but it’s not necessarily top of mind for everyone else.”
Women are overrepresented in the industries hardest hit by COVID-19, and employers looking to restaff are having the hardest time filling those jobs.
“If you’re a retailer or a restaurant, and a lot of your best workers were women with young children, if they don’t have access to child care, even if they want to come back, they might not have the ability to do so,” Preston said.
The child care issue doesn’t apply just to lower-income workers, though. Preston cites the example of a woman with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering who has a newborn child.
“If she were unable to find child care or had to take a part-time job, she’s not contributing her full value to society,” she said.
“Obviously, that’s anecdotal, but it shows how important it is not just to bring women back, but to bring them back in a way that uses all of their skills and knowledge,” she said. “If you want to bring women back into the workforce, you have to have compassion, you have to have empathy, and you have to increase flexibility to the best of your ability.”