Pandemic offers basic business lessons

We talk with three key Alabamians about what we've learned about business and resiliency

From social distancing and missed family functions to furloughs and supply chain issues, it seems there isn’t a part of “normal” that COVID-19 has left untouched.

Business and our work lives are no exception.

In the early days of the pandemic, the whole world went on lockdown. Food delivery skyrocketed to unheard of levels.

Everyone whose work was deemed non-essential was either furloughed or sent home to work remotely. And Zoom became the norm for work meetings.

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As the cases decreased, it became clear that some of the new practices were here to stay.

We asked three key Alabamians to reflect on the changes and learned that at least some of these business practices might actually be blessings in disguise.

Dr. Joe Hanna, associate dean and Regions Bank professor in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business at Auburn University.

Dr. Joe Hanna, who is associate dean and Regions Bank Professor in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business at Auburn University, says the virus created a ripple effect across the globe, forcing people to adapt to a rapidly evolving and unpredictable environment.

“While some of the adaptations may have initially been disruptive or even painful for many to learn, in retrospect, some of the forced adaptations have actually resulted in discovering new opportunities to enhance efficiency and improve effectiveness,” Hanna says. “For example, the use of some types of technology has created new opportunities to enhance employee utilization and positively impact the overall productivity of employees performing certain tasks.”

Hanna — who has also served as an educational advisor to numerous companies, industry professional organizations and government entities and has served as an expert witness on supply chain topics — says he doesn’t see many of these trends dying anytime soon, especially since they have added to work/life balance and employee satisfaction.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, long after the primary impacts of the pandemic have dissipated, I suspect we will continue to see strong demand from employees for more flexible work options,” Hanna says. “This is likely to lead to a continuation of using information technology-based solutions to conduct employee meetings, offer employee training, and even communicate with industry collaborators.”

Dr. David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

Dr. David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, says the reliance on Zoom and remote work during the early days of the pandemic have been advantageous for him and his team. Working with professionals across many different companies and sometimes many different continents, has proved challenging in the past, he notes.

“Zoom meetings help from the point of view of being able to do things fast,” Bronner says. “A lot of our business is everything from international to national, but getting certain people together makes it difficult. Even traveling to New York, you’re going to kill half a day each way at least. If you’re talking international, you can probably get there in a day, but you’re dead. The day that you get there, you’re so tired that you don’t want to do anything.

“From that perspective of positivity, I think it allowed us to be able to do a few things faster without having to schedule something two or three weeks down the line. You literally can say, ‘Okay, I do have an hour or two this week to be able to do something productive.’”

Bronner, who has been CEO of RSA since 1973 and led it to be the 50th largest public pension fund in the world, has also utilized remote work in his organization since the onset of COVID-19. He sees it as a valuable resource that can ultimately open up an employee’s availability and productivity, but warns it isn’t for every position.

“Obviously, if you’re in the business of numbers or things like that, remote works just fine,” Bronner says. “If you’re a Wall Street trader, it works out fine.

“On the other hand, if you have someone in the pension area who needs to be face-to-face — there are so many questions that come to mind when they’re working — so it works out easy. You have a situation where someone has five options about their retirement, they just want you to look them in the eye and tell them what to do — which you can’t, because it’s their life — but those interactions are better in person.”

Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.

Lee Sentell, now in his fifth term as director of the Alabama Tourism Department, says even though he lives a mile from his office in Montgomery and personally prefers to work in the office, he has seen the value virtual meetings has added.

“I’ve been very comfortable with the reliance on Zoom calls because I like being able to see the faces of half a dozen people that I am involved on a project with,” Sentell says. “You can get multiple companies involved. During the heavy COVID era, most of them were working from home. Some of them still are.”

Sentell, who has been the steward of more than $13 billion in tourism growth since 2003, says his industry is a highly collaborative and creative one. Tourism in the state of Alabama came roaring back soon after COVID restrictions lifted — restrictions he thinks added to the desire to get away.

“We’ve survived the pandemic very well, and Alabama tourism has weathered this very well,” Sentell says. “So many people wanted to be outdoors at the beach or campgrounds and state parks. It’s almost like the year 2020 never happened at all when you look at the trajectory of the growing staircase of our year-to-year growth.”

While gas prices might affect how far families are willing to drive on vacation, Sentell says, years of being forced to stay home is driving tourism in a big way.

“I think so many people in this country were prevented by the nature of their work and the direction of their management to stay home and sheltered and to work from home as many people have done,” Sentell says.

“I think when their own individual situation became less restrictive, the natural feeling was that they were cooped up in their houses or apartments for six or nine months. They wanted to go somewhere.”

Crystal Castle is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Chickasaw.

This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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