Emerging From Lockdown: How Will Business Change?

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten, Inc.

As many of us around the world begin to emerge from the initial stages of pandemic lockdown, it’s clear that we’ll need new ways to think about business in the months and even years ahead.

Yes, re-opening is exciting and a source of optimism for many, but we need to be smart and realize that we are not going back to old ways — at least for a while. So what changes can we expect as we contemplate a new normal?

Consumers will expect even more choices

Perhaps some of the most immediate changes will be in the ways we buy and sell products in our everyday lives. I’ve always been a fan of diverse marketplaces and shopping malls, both offline and online, and Japan is renowned for the depth and breadth of its retail landscape. But even here in Japan, where the lockdown was not as strict as some regions, shoppers increasingly turned to e-commerce for new product categories, like fresh and prepared foods, and were more adventurous in their purchases of fashion, home goods and takeout. Restaurants and retailers alike turned to e-commerce tools and platforms to keep their businesses afloat in difficult times.

Businesses that interact face-to-face with customers are moving even more rapidly to take up cashless payment systems and online financial services for consumers are flourishing.

These technologies have long been with us, but the post-virus era will be their time to adapt and expand.

Team management and goalsetting to adapt for a hybrid of offline and online work

Another legacy of this lockdown holdover will be our familiarity with remote work. Mandatory work from home rules will ease for many of us, but we should not expect a simple return to our old office ways. Companies will need to create new hybrid home/office work styles so that economic activity can continue but individuals can remain healthy and care for their families.

Managers will have to adjust to the reality of keeping people motivated and engaged across multiple diverse environments. Look for expanded and less formal use of video conferencing and new technologies that foster remote teamwork. We may also need to put greater emphasis on transparent goals, both quantitative and qualitative. Breaking down KPIs to a micro level for teams and for individuals may also be helpful.

Sports and travel at social distance

But not every post-lockdown trend will be familiar. Travel will probably more often be a trip to somewhere close by. After months and weeks of restricting activities, we will be looking for outlets for social interaction and relaxation — but only those we deem safe. That will foster a surge in leisure with a social distance element. Golf, for example, is a sport that allows players to keep some social distance. But sports stadiums full of spectators are still a little further out. So too are karaoke bars, I’m sorry to say. I truly miss karaoke.

Be ready to be agile and move at speed

As we emerge from lockdown, predicting the path ahead will be even more complex than ever. It’s important to be ready to be agile — a long-time favorite principle of mine. One example from the midst of this crisis: We usually have an extensive training program for new employees. This year, because of the pandemic, we had to move quickly in March to make that entire program virtual for all 700 new graduate recruits in Japan starting in April. We had videoconferencing systems in place but getting everyone signed up as new employees from remote locations was a first.

More than just moving online, we made other changes to increase the effectiveness of our onboarding, such as adding meditation practices and a short daily discussion session on business principles that I have been leading with the new Rakutenians. Developed at speed, this program covered new ground with our fresh wave of recruits and reminded me that we can always improve our processes.

Going forward, we know there will be more challenges to face. We will need to learn from each other to identify the most important guidelines for keeping our workers and our customers safe. Office design may change to allow more space between employees, more open windows, automated inside doors, and perhaps even voice-operated elevators. We will need to embrace change in all aspects of business. The old normal is not coming back and that’s okay.

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