It is hard to believe it was only 30 days ago that my team and I were sitting in a tech-enabled board room at the gleaming new headquarters of one of our corporate partners for the Alliance's quarterly Board of Directors meeting. The idea of 25 people meeting at an office board room almost feels like a vestige of a bygone era. Now it is all about Zoom meetings, social distancing, and remote work. Mother Nature has brought to us not only a novel coronavirus, but a radical transformation in how we live our lives. I suspect some of these unanticipated behavioral changes will stick well after the storm has passed. I thought I might share my perspective on some of the more seismic shifts.
Given our massive SoCal footprint (40,000 square miles), we have deliberately built a distributed team at the Alliance and expect to continue to do so. We have staff in Orange County, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Santa Clarita, and Mount Washington. As we expand (though given current circumstances perhaps at a slower rate), I expect our next addition to be in San Diego. Point being, we already had to rely heavily on digital tools to bring the team together: Slack, Dropbox, Google suite, Zoom/Hang-outs. Though we do very much miss our bi-weekly in-person sessions, we really haven’t missed a beat. I know many firms have had to jump head first into this new way of working, and it hasn’t necessarily been easy. Now that many have made this leap, procured the tools and established new work practices, I bet many will find that working from home is pretty attractive – no dressing-up, no commute, no parking, no polluting, etc. I imagine more consolidation of traditional office spaces (smaller leases) with a migration to more shared convening/conference centers.
Online retail has steadily been on the rise over the past few years; with the share of ecommerce (of total retail sales) up from 13.2% in 2017 to 14.4% in 2018 and 16% in 2019. If my behavior is any indicator, during this period of mandatory stay-at-home order we must be pushing closer to 100%. I do believe people will want to go back to their favorite restaurants but suspect this forced adoption of online purchasing might be the death knell for main street retail. It saddens me to think about what prominent retail streets in Pasadena (Colorado, Lake, Green) might look like in 12 months. Once again Amazon wins. The surprise winner is likely home grocery delivery which has historically struggled to catch-on. The number of households now ordering groceries online is up 145.3% compared with a Brick Meets Click survey in August 2019. As the primary chef in my house, I have personally been slow to adopt online grocery services. I like seeing what looks good and then building my menus around what I buy – obviously not a strategy that works with online. However, given the times, I have had to “bite the bullet.”
I don’t know about your neighborhood, but where I live in Pasadena we have seen an incredible explosion of walkers. I have been an avid walker for years – pretty much 1 – 2x per day with our rescue dog, Gandalf. It is my meditation and thinking time. I walk a few regular routes and essentially know almost all of the people I see every day. In the last few weeks, the streets have been teeming with walkers (all of course keeping their social distance but still offering a friendly hello or a polite wave). My rough estimate is a 10x increase in walkers. These are my neighbors – many of whom I have never seen. These walks are likely their escape from work or a reprieve from bored/overly energetic children. It is their happy time. Now that they have had the first bite of the apple, I am hopeful that this behavior will stick – cementing neighborhoods and further distancing people from the captivity of their cars.
So, while this isn’t a situation that any of us would have wished for, it brings changes in behavior and new perspectives that I believe could make us better. I am not saying that tradeoff is worthwhile, as I am deeply concerned about the loss of life, suffering and the long-term damage to our economy. However, like any good entrepreneur I look for the silver lining as it is in the dark days that we most need to find the glimmer of sunshine.