The one question you must answer when post-pandemic planning

Like most other people I know my diet has changed since the lock-down began. There’s a definite emphasis on “comfort food” – perhaps more carb-heavy than normal, an increased choice of desserts and a definite nod towards the foods enjoyed in childhood (rice pudding hasn’t featured yet but it’s on the to-cook list).

The collective psychology of this is interesting: in a time of stress we gravitate towards certainty and things that make us feel better, even if they don’t necessarily make healthier in the long term.

I’m tolerating my consumption of comfort food for as long as I can counterbalance it with an attempt at regular exercise (no Joe Wicks for me but a combination of 5k runs and a living room gym just about works) but I’m more concerned about the lure of what I call mental comfort food when planning a future beyond the current pandemic.

Mental comfort food

On a personal and organisational level, we’ve all seen and experienced rapid adaptation to accommodate the impact of physical distancing and social isolation. Remote working, videoconferencing and “Zoom drinks” have all become commonplace and look set to play a major part of our work and social lives even after the pandemic has abated.

It takes longer to adapt our thought processes though and there’s a tendency to fall back old paradigms to address new challenges: mental comfort food.

Unfortunately, this won’t do because, irrespective of which industry you work in, the assumptions on which you based your current business model have irreversibly changed.

It’s time for a re-think and, for me, the most important question you can ask is not things like “how many customers will we be able to serve given the requirements for physical distancing?” or even “how can we move our business online?” – important though those are you need to be asking something more fundamental:

“What business are we really in?”

At first sight this may be a daft question since whether you’re a theatre director, a hairdresser or a banker, I’m assuming you’re aware of the industry sector you work in and therefore what type of business you run.

However, when you scratch the surface, that definition isn’t very helpful in deciding what kind of customers you want to attract and retain: it’s much more useful to ask why those customers choose to do business with you rather than a competitor.

Comfort

Continuing the comfort theme, let’s take a look at one of the new breed of online mattress sellers. A while back I was in the market for a new mattress and became interested in Simba. I chose this company because I was the near victim of an attempted scam involving delivery of a couple of mattresses I hadn’t ordered: they helped me sort it out and I suffered no loss. Curious, I investigated their range and discovered that their proposition didn’t just include comfy mattresses but ancillary products such as bed linen (fairly obvious I guess) and pillow sprays to help you sleep (slightly less obvious). More unexpectedly they offered – last year at any rate – an opportunity to sleep over in one of a number of rooms equipped and furnished with their products – a real lifestyle pitch that has now been killed off by coronavirus.

Simba’s real business is not mattress-selling – although that activity forms a large part of what they do – but could be in the business of creating a restful night-time environment or, given that they started in thread making for mattresses then diversified they could be in the business of adapting and shape-shifting according to the needs of the market.

Adapt or die?

I mentioned previously that my wife runs ante-natal classes for the NCT and has rapidly adapted to teaching via Zoom. The NCT is an interesting case – most people join classes to find out more about birth and subsequent childcare but there’s a social element that is also important: classes become a support group and very often enable relationships to be built that last a lifetime. Pre-pandemic, classes met together in a venue and groups would often move on afterwards to a pub or other venue to socialise. Classes via Zoom and a WhatsApp group can’t exactly mimic this, but as people get used to socialising and receiving information via remote means, it becomes much more acceptable.

The important thing is that NCT are in the business of creating social support structures as much as educating about childcare. Creative use of the technology allows this to be sustained during the pandemic and may – who knows? – form part of the future way of working.

Beyond the doom and gloom

But let’s say you’re a local arts centre with a small auditorium and a programme of theatre or other performances that you’ve had to put on hold while you furlough staff and find ways of keeping the centre going when you have no one coming to the theatre. At first sight, long term imposition of social distancing measures might threaten the basis of your business, but there are signs that creative thinking can pay off. For example, in April a site-specific immersive production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest successfully moved to an online, immersive production via Zoom. (The review I read was so enthusiastic that, by the time I decided to book, all the seats had been sold for the remaining performances.)

Creation Theatre’s business is theatre productions – obviously! – but as far as I can see it’s mainly in the business of creating site-specific magic and, when the physical site can no longer be accessed, the magic can transfer to a conferencing platform with a few adjustments.

In a local arts centre it’s unlikely you would be able to transfer all your productions in the same way but it might be that, although performance is what you do, a significant part of the business you are in may be more to do with creating a community than with particular performances and therefore, temporarily until performances resume, your focus may have to be on building and maintaining that sense of community, achieving some of your purpose without doing what might have been the core of your business. Virtual operation might enable your community to be extended beyond its local geographical boundaries.

Coronavirus and the constraints it places on organisations force a review of what’s possible – and to make the most of this, organisations need to understand what they are really about and then match the possibilities to the way forward. This thinking is fundamental to my KnittingFog strategy and planning workshops – and if you’re in the arts or non-profit sector then these are currently being made available free of charge. If you’re interested, please get in touch.