It seems everyone is on the edge of their seats these days, waiting for the all-clear to return to some kind of normal, but the business world may not go fully back to the way things were once COVID-19 begins to fall away.
The pandemic was destructive in many ways, including in the business world, but when it comes to certain trends, Williamson, Inc. President and CEO Matt Largen joins many business experts in noting that the pandemic has acted as an accelerator.
“It has accelerated telemedicine, how you interact with medical professionals. It has accelerated a home fitness trend that we saw before with Peloton and … Mirror,” he said. “Of course, the biggest thing that no one really knows what the outcome is going to be ultimately is around remote work.”
Largen said he doesn’t believe office space will go away, but it is unclear how it will look moving forward.
Williamson, Inc., the county’s chamber of commerce, released a Business Barometer survey in January, which asked business leaders in Williamson County various questions about the state of the business world. With about 900 survey participants, the results showed that over half of respondents use remote work and flexible scheduling as incentives for retaining talent, and nearly 75% operated primarily in an office space prior to the pandemic.
In the next year to five years, most expect their office space needs will remain the same, and while less than 9% believe their office space needs will increase this year, over 29% anticipate an increased need over the next five years. Over 40% believe remote work will increase this year, with nearly 39% believing it will remain the same and over 9% believing it will decrease.
Largen said while many employees desire the option to work from home, remote work has posed some challenges.
“A challenge for a manager, administrative level at companies is maintaining culture in your company and then making sure to provide mentoring opportunities for your newer employees to grow in their careers, and face-to-face is the best way to do that, and then collaboration — making sure that people are able to collaborate because there is power in proximity,” he said.
He explained the accelerant pressure of the pandemic also revealed businesses’ character, showing whether or not a company’s mission and values were truly being applied, which could determine the allegiance of its talent.
“I think that how people were treated during the pandemic will determine their level of loyalty to that business or organization,” he said.
Company culture is a major focus at Tractor Supply Company, headquartered in Brentwood.
Mary Winn Pilkington, senior vice president of investor and public relations, shared that keeping the needs of its team at the forefront of everything helped maintain its culture during a time when people were more spread out.
“We operated with the health and safety of our team members and customers as the utmost priority,” Pilkington said. “They always had been the utmost priority at Tractor, but it took a renewed sense of urgency, if you will. We were also one of the first retailers to tell our team members, ‘If you feel sick, stay home.’ You didn’t have to worry about losing money.”
The company also provided Chromebooks to team members with children pivoting to online learning and paid appreciation bonuses that turned into permanent wage increases in the latter half of the year.
Of course, Tractor Supply was able to use its resources as a nationwide company to provide these benefits to employees, but it also showed the prioritization of its team with smaller gestures as well, such as providing personal protective equipment for its retail employees and holding a company-wide pizza night.
Pilkington advised businesses big and small to put its team and culture first.
Sharon Davis, director of operations and development for McConnell Hospitality Group, which owns Red Pony Restaurant, 55 South and Cork & Cow, shared likewise that the company's commitment to team and culture “set the tone” for the rest of the year.
While McConnell Hospitality Group runs a smaller operation solely in Williamson County, its leadership decided to show its commitment to its team by hunkering down and closing for longer than many surrounding businesses at the start of the pandemic and retaining its entire staff upon reopening.
Visitor-facing businesses that could not operate remotely like restaurants, hotels and attractions were perhaps hit the hardest by the pandemic, as tourism and casual shopping slowed. But as these businesses pushed to survive, the pandemic fast-tracked innovation.
Lauren Ward, interim CEO at Visit Franklin, has seen new developments throughout the local tourism scene. McConnell Hospitality joined many other restaurants in the area in offering new curbside pickup and takeout options. Hotels have increased their no-contact service options and marketed their rooms for temporary office spaces and staycations. Retailers have created or revamped their online stores. Attractions have created virtual tours and offered private event bookings.
“Restaurant partners such as A. Marshall Hospitality have also started creating very successful virtual or ‘ghost’ kitchen concepts (Burger Dandy and Fresh 96 Kitchen, for example) that exclusively offer to-go orders,” Ward said.
Ward doesn’t believe these advancements will go away after the pandemic.
“I think the business practices that have come into fruition that make it easier to do business or experience a business from a mobile device will stick,” she said, adding that she also believes this past year has made businesses more willing to take risks with innovation.
While COVID-19 has taken its toll and is certainly something we hope to see in our rear view soon, it forced new ways of thinking and operating that Ward hopes are here to stay.
“Moving forward, I hope we’ll all continue to think creatively and push the limits of what’s comfortable as far as doing business is concerned,” she said. “If there are positives to what we all collectively experienced, it can be some of these advances in how business is conducted and the creative ways they’ve reached new customers. I hope businesses hold on to these new innovations in a post-pandemic world.”