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Cover Story Economic Outlook

Question Marks Dominate the Horizon

Entering a new year, there are always question marks about the economy and speculation about the factors that will determine just what kind of year it will be. For 2021, there are far more questions — and fewer definitive answers — and the speculation comes in layers. A great many of them. Much of this speculation involves the pandemic and, with vaccines becoming available to ever-greater numbers of people, whether we are truly seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the beginning of the end (of the pandemic), or any of those other phrases now being used so frequently. But there are other things to speculate about as well, including what the landscape will look like when and if things to return to normal, or a ‘new normal,’ another phrase one hears a lot these days. Will the jobs that have been lost come back? Will people pick up old habits regarding going to restaurants, the movies, the doctor’s office, or sporting events? Will businesses return to their offices? And will their offices be the same size and in the same community? Another phrase you’re hearing — and will read in the stories that follow — is ‘pent-up demand.’ Many businesses, from eateries to colleges and universities to medical practices, are counting on it, but will it actually materialize? These are all good questions, and for some answers, we turned to a panel of experts for a roundtable discussion, without the roundtable. Collectively, they address the question on everyone’s minds: what is the outlook for 2021?

The Big Picture >>

Economist says pent-up demand will be the key to any recovery

Education >>

School presidents project multi-year emergence from pandemic

Banking >>

This CEO says some habits are changing, but are they permanent?

Accounting >>

This CPA is advising clients to keep the seat belt buckled

Healthcare >>

A Q&A with Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack

Fitness >>

Business owners grapple with an industry battered by restrictions

Restaurants >>

Owner of large, regional group says it’s survival of the fittest

Technology >>

IT expert says it’s time for businesses to move from survival to growth

Retail >>

Big Y’s Charlie D’Amour reflects on 2020 — and the year to come

Economic Outlook

The Big Picture

Bob Nakosteen has an old saying hanging in a frame in his office at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — the one he hasn’t been in but once since last March.

It reads: “You Can See the Future by Looking at the Past.”

Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at Isenberg, said he’s lived by those words, especially at this time of year, when he’s asked to try to forecast what might come over the next 12 months.

Only this time, that saying doesn’t hold. Indeed, while people tend to throw that word ‘unprecedented’ into the mix early, often, and sometimes when it doesn’t actually apply, one could certainly use it with regard to COVID-19, the economy, and any efforts to look into the crystal ball and make some projections.

“In virtually every situation I’ve been in before, you can pick out an historical situation that came close and give some perspective on what might happen next,” he said. “Now, you can’t at all. Even 1919 and the last global pandemic was different; there was lingering demand from World War I, and a lot of global agriculture had been shut down. That really bolstered United States agriculture; we were still predominantly an agricultural country. There were some circumstances that we can’t duplicate now.”

So if people can’t look to the past to project what will happen in 2021, how can they handle that assignment?

“Not very easily,” said Nakosteen, who noted there are always question marks going into a new year. This year, they come by the bushel bag, and cover everything from vaccines — how effective they’ll be and when they’ll be widely available — to overall consumer confidence, always a huge issue in determining which way the arrow will point; from the election of a new president to what’s happening in other countries, especially with regard to the pandemic; from the employment scene (specifically, how many of those millions of lost jobs will actually come back) to whether, and to what degree, Congress keeps printing money and dispensing it to those in distress.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating. But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

Add it all up, and there is simply too much uncertainty to make any real projections, said Nakosteen, adding that, while the country may well avoid another recession, or the dreaded ‘double-dip recession,’ as it’s called, the eventual shape of the recovery — which has been the subject of endless conjecture, with possibilities ranging from a V to a U to something like a Nike swoosh — is still be to determined. Obviously.

“What we could have is a W-shaped recovery,” said Nakosteen, offering another possibility, noting that, in this scenario, the economy would move back down again, hopefully not as bad as it did when it cratered last March, but eventually climb back up.

“With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the bounce-back might also take the more dramatic Nike swoosh shape. “But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

When asked about the factors that will dictate the eventual shape of the recovery, Nakosteen said there are almost too many to count. They include:

• How much more stimulus money will be injected into the economy. Like most, Nakosteen said the recent $900 billion package approved by Congress will help, but it won’t be enough. When asked if the federal government could keep on printing money, in essence, he said he didn’t see why it couldn’t. “One of the things that happens during an economic crisis is that the government will provide temporary support until the economy heals itself. This is not permanent; this is temporary, and it’s a bridge to the future. And right now, we need a bridge.”

• The election of a new president. “That generally seems to perk things up — there’s generally a first-administration bounce — but in these unprecedented times, who knows?”

• To what extent new habits might become permanent. These include everything from not dining out or traveling to doing most shopping online, to working remotely. “I would like to get back to going out more, but my guess is that my life has changed, and we’ll never really go back to the way it was before the pandemic.”

• How many of the jobs that have been lost are regained. Employment is always a key to any recovery, and there is conjecture that many jobs will be lost permanently due in part to those changes in behavior; and

• Whether this region can somehow benefit from these changes in behavior and attitude. Some have suggested that, now that people can successfully work remotely, they may choose to do so in a setting like Western Mass., which provides space and a lower cost of living than Boston or other major cities.

While making hard projections is difficult, Nakosteen said he could offer what he considers to be a best-case scenario:

“By early summer, enough of the country is vaccinated and enough of the state is vaccinated, and, almost as importantly, people have confidence in the vaccine and the percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated, and then you see people start to re-engage. The industries that have been hurt have all been face-to-face industries — accommodations, retail, other services, the arts, and recreation. These face-to-face services start to bounce back quickly because people have a great hunger to get back out. If things go well, you’re going to see them get back out in the summer, and that’s when you’ll start to see the beginning of a serious rebound.”

Again, that’s the best-case scenario.

The worst case? An insufficient percentage of the population receives the vaccine, supply-chain issues “gum things out,” news of new strains of the virus spreads fear, people lose confidence in a recovery, and things drag on into the fall and perhaps longer, he said, adding, again, that myriad factors will determine which scenario — possibly one in between those two — becomes reality.

Summing things up, Nakosteen noted that, in some respects, we know what’s coming next — the administering of vaccines to millions of people over the next several months. What we don’t know is how all that is going to play out.

As he said, normally you can look to the past to see the future. But not in this case.

 

Economic Outlook

Education

Jamie Birge was searching for a piece of wood to knock on.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), which he serves as president, had essentially made it through a very different fall semester with only a handful of positive cases of COVID-19. He considers this a victory for his institution, and a clear indication that the many protocols put in place were effective.

“For the full semester, our positive rate was 10 times lower than the Commonwealth’s positive rate, and each week we outperformed our host city [North Adams], the county, and the Commonwealth,” he explained. “We were actively hunting the virus through our testing protocol, and through our tracing protocol, we made sure there was no spread. I think we had six cases, and in each of those cases, none of them spread on campus, because we were able to identify the virus through testing, we were able to either quarantine or isolate individuals, and we went to remote learning after Thanksgiving, which turned out to the best time to do that because there was an uptick in positive cases in Berkshire County, and our students were already off campus learning remotely. From a numbers perspective, we did extraordinarily well.”

The semester was a success on many levels, he went on, but for the students living on campus in singles or in off-campus housing, it certainly wasn’t the “typical residential college experience,” he noted, adding that those on campus were all in single rooms, and access was limited between residence halls. “You couldn’t go visit other people.”

Jamie Birge

Jamie Birge

“Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Focusing on the future, Birge is obviously looking forward to the day when the school can again offer that full experience. He’s not sure when that will happen — certainly not before next fall and perhaps not even then — but there are signs of encouragement, he said, referring to everything from the introduction of vaccines to the projections for enrollment for next September.

“The latest I’ve seen for the 2021 cycle is that we’re within 3% of the pre-pandemic numbers, so we’re feeling good about that,” he said, noting that, by this time of the year, many students have already committed to where they will be attending school in the fall, although the next four or five weeks are critical. “I think that’s a soft figure, and, overall, we think this is going to be a multi-year emergence to return to where we had been. But I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re only off 3%.”

He said that number seems to be consistent with what the other eight state schools are reporting, although there is some variation. And time will tell if those numbers hold up as the vaccines are rolled out and their effectiveness is gauged.

Meanwhile, beyond the all-important process of rebuilding enrollment, colleges and universities will face other challenges, said Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), especially the need to “adjust, adapt, and evolve,” as she put it, to effectively prepare students for what will be a changed landscape when it comes to the workforce and how work is done.

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID,” she explained. “We know that there are a number of jobs that won’t be returning.”

Elaborating, she said GCC will lean heavily on a panel it created called the Future of Work Advisory Committee, comprised of area business leaders across several sectors, including healthcare, hospitality, financial services, manufacturing, and others.

“They help us keep a pulse on what’s changing, what they anticipate, and what the outlook is, so we can align our new academic programs, and also adjust our existing programs to meet their demands,” she noted. “Also, it will be critically important for us to get a sense of what the workplace will look like and the skills that employers will be looking for.”

In this respect, she said colleges and universities, at least those with an eye on the long term, will be taking lessons from evolved companies that looked at the marketplace and how it was changing and began to adjust accordingly.

“These companies started asking themselves, ‘what are the market needs today that we can adapt to and meet — and what will be the unmet needs in the future, and how can we best position ourselves to meet them?’” she explained, adding that colleges have to do the same.

As for enrollment, the lifeblood of any college or university, area schools have been battling not only the pandemic, but demographics in the form of smaller high-school graduating classes. The two forces collided with considerable force this past September, with enrollment down as much as 20% at some area schools (that was the number at MCLA) and 15% at most of the institutions, with many high-school graduates taking a gap year and many already in college simply taking a break.

The question hanging over the industry involves that matter of pent-up demand and whether there will be good amount of it when the product is a college education.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID.”

Birge believes there will be such demand, although, as he said, it might be the fall of 2022 or 2023 before pre-pandemic levels return.

“From the information we collect from students, the students want to return to campus,” he told BusinessWest. “Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Noting that enrollment at community colleges usually rises during times of recession and high unemployment, Salomon-Fernández noted that this past fall semester was an exception to that rule, both because of large amounts of assistance to those who became jobless and the inability to attend in-person classes. She believes the vaccines, and the eventual end to those stimulus benefits, will change that equation.

“I think enrollment will start picking up in the fall of 2021,” she said. “In the long term, we can’t keep borrowing against ourselves — the national debt is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. This is not sustainable, and we expect that, as the vaccine becomes available, the government subsidies will decline, and people will have ample incentive to get back to work — and they’ll need the skills to enter, continue in, and thrive in the job market.”

Looking ahead to the spring, Birge said MCLA will operate very much as it did in the fall, but with even more testing due to the colder weather at the start. Spring break will be eliminated, and an extra day will be tacked on to President’s Day weekend.

Like he said, the spring will be a lot like last fall. It will be different, though, if the vaccines work as the experts project they will, because the finish line, when it comes to the pandemic, will be much closer.

“Everyone is down right now when it comes to enrollment,” Birge said. “But we’re feeling a little bit of encouragement that it’s better than we thought it was going to be, although it’s certainly not what we want it to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Banking

Donna Boulanger says she doesn’t how the landscape might change in 2021. What she does know is that it changed quite a bit in 2020.

That goes for everything from attitudes regarding online and mobile banking to sentiments on remote working, to thoughts on where people might prefer to live. Overall, she noted, these past 10 months have been a time to rethink how we do things and where we do them. And many of these changes may well be permanent, which will go a long way toward determining what 2021 — and the years that follow — will be like.

“A lot depends on the rollout of the vaccine and the effectiveness of the vaccine,” she said. “There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not,” said Boulanger, president and CEO of North Brookfield Savings Bank, which has eight branches and serves customers in both Western and Central Mass.

Donna Boulanger

“There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not.”

“And how much have consumers’ habits changed?” she went on. “Are they going to go back to retail stores? Are they going to go back to restaurants? Will they go back to traveling? They are so many factors in play, and that makes predicting what will happen in 2021 very difficult. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Looking back on 2020, she said it was a period of adjustment — for the bank and many of its customers. Like all financial institutions, North Brookfield Savings Bank had to pivot, as she termed it, when it came to everything from staffing branches — teams would rotate in for two-week periods — to providing much-needed lessons in online and mobile banking to the bank’s generally older customer base.

Overall, Boulanger said, many businesses and consumers adjusted well to the pandemic, and state and federal support played a large role in this.

“In the Western Mass. and Central Mass. area, the loan portfolios held up very well; delinquencies, and I know this is hard to believe, are at record lows,” she explained. “Whether it is the increased unemployment or stimulus checks, our customers have weathered this storm fairly well. But there are certainly pockets, in Massachusetts and across the country, where people are not faring so well.

“We have a lot of customers who have fully recovered,” she went on, meaning they’ve returned to pre-pandemic revenue patterns. “These are generally manufacturers or specialty businesses; they’re not in hospitality, they’re not in retail. The people still being impacted are those in personal service, whether you’re a nail salon, a barbershop, a gym, or daycare facility.”

The bank took what she called a “proactive approach,” calling each and every business customer to see if help was needed, and in what form. Meanwhile, it was active with the Paycheck Protection Program, handling applications not only for customers, but businesses well outside its general service area.

Looking ahead, like others we spoke with, she noted that winter is a slow time for many business sectors, and the next few months could well be tough sledding for many ventures. And beyond those few months, question marks loom about consumer behavior and just how much pent-up demand there will be for some products and services.

But some shifts are already taking place, she said, adding that there are visible signs that attitudes are changing, about everything from where people want to live to how and where they will work.

“There is an outward movement from cities — we see it in our market,” she told BusinessWest. “When I talk to our local Realtors, we see people moving into Central and Western Mass. They’re coming from New York, they’re coming from New Jersey. Is that going to continue? No one knows, but it’s happening now.

“Palmer, Belchertown, Ware … we’re seeing people move there from outside Massachusetts, and I don’t think you would have seen that before,” she went on. “There’s demand for open space because people are going to continue to be able to work remotely. And because people aren’t going to restaurants as much, they don’t need to be in the big city; you’re not going to walk to the local restaurant or the local business.”

The question moving forward is how much permanence can be attached to these changes in attitude and behavior.

“Are these going to be long-term changes, or will people, when they feel safer, return to the cities because of the amenities?” she said in conclusion. “That’s the struggle for all the big cities.”

And that’s just one of the questions, one of those moving parts, that make predicting the future, even the next few years, so difficult.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Accounting

‘Uneasiness.’

That was the word Julie Quink summoned, after considerable thought, to describe the sentiment of most small-business owners as the calendar turns to 2021.

And it seems like an appropriate choice.

Indeed, regardless of how a business fared in 2020 — and some of her clients actually held up pretty well — Quink, managing partner at the West Springfield-based accounting firm Burkhart Pizzanelli, said most simply don’t know what to expect for the year again. Thus, they are uneasy and likely to be cautious and conservative in the months to come, which will likely play a role in how quickly and profoundly this region bounces back from all the body blows it took over the past 10 months or so.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

“I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

Many of these businesses are also uneasy because they were able to “limp along,” as she put it, thanks to support from the CARES Act, especially in the form of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that provided a much-needed cushion from sometimes dramatic drops in revenue.

Starting this past fall, when many businesses effectively spent down their PPP, they’ve been getting a look at operating without a net underneath them, if it can be called that, and for many, it’s a scary proposition.

“That’s why I think we’re going to see the true impact of this crisis over the next 12 months or so, especially as the pandemic continues,” said Quink, adding quickly that, another round of PPP was included in the recently passed stimulus package, little is known about how much help will be available, when, and to whom. And even for those businesses that get another round of help, 2021 is likely to be a struggle, she went on, again because of all that uneasiness.

Quink, like most of those in the accounting and tax field, has a good read on the economy and the factors driving it because her portfolio of clients is diverse and represents virtually every sector. Slicing through the phone calls, the questions asked, and the answers provided, she said some businesses have actually done well during this pandemic (she has a few commercial cleaners, for example), others are holding their own, and still others are really struggling.

“There is such a mixed bag with our clients,” she said, adding that this diversity of performance reflects what’s happening across the region. “I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

She related the story of a second-generation business, a wholesaler that services the airline industry, among many others. Revenues are down roughly 50% from a year ago, not because there are fewer customers, but because most of the existing customers are ordering far less as their needs have diminished.

“We had a conversation today about how to plan, and I said, ‘you should tighten your belt because I think this is going to be a rough ride this year,’” she recalled, adding that she has given this same advice to many of her clients.

Getting back to that sentiment of uneasiness, Quick said there are many things to be uneasy about, from the ongoing pandemic to a presidential election that, while officially over, has been tumultuous in every way, to the deep uncertainty about the year ahead.

“People are waiting — they’re waiting for things to be final,” she said, using that phrase to describe everything from the stimulus package to the pandemic itself. “And I don’t think the election helped anything; all the events surrounding the election have made people uneasy.”

Still another factor contributing to this state concerns changes that have come to how business is being done, and questions about when, or even if, things will go back to normal.

“I have some clients who are international and can’t fly and can’t participate internationally in person,” she explained. “So they’ve had to refocus on how they do business now, and they don’t really know what the future will bring.”

As for her own profession, 2020 was certainly a different year, one with a tax season that never seemed to end. But it was a good year for most, because clients needed more assistance, or ‘touches,’ as she called them, with PPP and other matters.

And 2021 is certainly shaping up as more of the same, with another round of PPP looming, more questions concerning how to plan for the months and quarters ahead, and more of that uneasiness that will certainly play a large role in determining what kind of year this will be.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Restaurants

Andy Yee was still slogging — his word, and he would use it more than a few times — through the holiday season when he talked with BusinessWest for this Outlook section. But he was already thinking about the next one and what it might be like.

And his thoughts were colored with optimism.

“I think there is going to be a lot of pent-up demand,” he said, referring to that day when the clouds eventually lift and people feel confident returning to restaurants and especially indoor dining. “People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

While he feels confident in that assessment, and even offered a timeline of sorts — projecting some improvement by spring as vaccines are rolled out, much more by summer, and perhaps something approximating normal by Q4, or certainly next holiday season — what he doesn’t know is how many restaurateurs currently doing business in the region be along for that ride, whenever it does come.

Andy Yee

Andy Yee

“People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

Indeed, several have already been forced to shut their doors, he said, and others will be challenged to survive what will likely be another several months of slogging, even with the promise of additional help coming in the form of support from the state.

“January and February are traditionally leaner months — people have that holiday hangover, although I’m not sure what that will be like this year,” he noted. “It’s going to be hard for some people to hang on. There will be some casualties; there will be more closures.”

There have been several already, due directly to COVID-19 or perhaps the pandemic accelerating the timeline for retirement, said Yee, adding quickly that the number of additional losses to the landscape will be determined by a number of factors, from how quickly and effectively vaccines reach the general population to the level of confidence people have with going back out again, even with a vaccine, to the overall experience level and savvy of the restaurateurs in question.

“This really will be survival of the fittest,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his definition of ‘fittest’ is those with the experience and will to maneuver through this whitewater. “There are some people who have been doing this a long time, and this is a tough business; these are the ones who will probably buckle down and adjust to leaner times.”

Summing up 2020 and speaking for everyone in his sector, Yee said it’s been a long, long, long haul.

Indeed it has, a nine-month stretch of restrictions that have varied in their severity, but have been generally punitive to restaurateurs, limiting how, where, and when they can serve diners. Some have fared reasonably well with takeout, outdoor dining, and reduced indoor seating, he noted, but none are doing anything approaching what they were doing a year ago, revenue-wise.

And many have decided they can’t continue to slug it out, he said, noting closures up and down the Pioneer Valley and also in the Berkshires. As bad as it’s been, it’s been far worse in major cities with much higher commercial lease rates, he told BusinessWest, adding that Boston has been devasted, and perhaps 35% of all the restaurants in New York will chose for good due to the pandemic.

Despite the devastation, the pandemic did provide some positive learning experiences, especially when it came to outdoor dining, something few restaurants had tried, but now were all but forced to undertake. It’s something that may become a permanent fixture.

“It has been a good learning experience for us,” he said, citing the Student Prince in Springfield as perhaps the best example from within the Bean Group of an establishment that invested heavily in outdoor dining and saw some success. “We are going to try to emulate that and duplicate that next year.”

Looking ahead, he does have confidence that the vaccines are cause for optimism, and also that, when this pandemic is over, people will go back to their old habits of dining out — a question that many have been asking over the past several months as the discussion turns to how the pandemic may change societal norms for the long term.

“I agree with people who say we can see the finish line with COVID,” he told BusinessWest. “My feeling is that, by March, things will start to loosen up a little; by the summertime we’ll be back to some kind of new normal, whatever that means; and in the fourth quarter we’ll roar back with people going out and celebrating.”

Meanwhile, for the entrepreneurial — and he certainly falls into that category — there will be opportunities within this sector as the pandemic draws on and more establishments grow weary of the fight.

Yee said he’s already received a number of calls from individuals looking to sell, and he expects those calls to keep coming.

In that respect, 2021 might see many more changes to the landscape in this important sector.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Technology

In 2020, virtually every business was caught off guard by pandemic restrictions, which forced them to focus primarily on ways to stabilize and survive. For those that are back in operation, 2021 offers a chance to return to strategic growth — with the right tools.

“While businesses are not in control of whether or not there are secondary or terciary waves of infections, they can adopt a technology plan to support their new workplace environment and ensure productivity,” said Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology.

While business owners may have been surprised that their employees actually kept working while remote, they also want to ensure the technology employees are using works, too, he noted.

“In 2020, many businesses were using workarounds to solve communication breakdowns, but by now, there’s no reason for lapses in productivity,” he explained. “In fact, there are plenty of technology tools at our fingertips that businesses are utilizing successfully to keep team members engaged, productive, and efficient, regardless of the physical limitations imposed by the pandemic.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“For this workplace-interaction strategy to be successful, employees must be backed with technology tools that support key functions.”

Successful small to mid-sized businesses are well aware of the benefits of strategic planning, Hogan noted, and even though the pandemic has posed unforeseen variables, businesses now have enough information to build workplace-interaction strategies that will support revenue growth in 2021. “Although businesses may consider themselves to be lucky to have survived, they need to expand their thinking in terms of setting new goals, instead of being caught in reaction mode once more.”

COVID-19 has forced companies to adapt, he went on, and at this point, every business owner essentially needs three distinct strategic plans for workplace interaction, and the most sophisticated businesses are creating contingency plans for all three potential environments.

The first is a fully remote workplace. Many organizations that were flexible enough to sustain a fully remote workforce have opted to keep everyone remote until further notice. Such a work environment presents its own unique set of challenges, Hogan said, but also new opportunities.

“For this workplace-interaction strategy to be successful, employees must be backed with technology tools that support key functions,” he explained. “For example, employees need to be empowered to remain in constant communication with other team members. Additionally, business owners need to provide them central access to data, with responsible levels of cybersecurity on the network.”

A remote team means more exposure to the network, he added, but it also brings more flexibility than ever before. A full transition to this model means the business won’t be interrupted by further restrictions or lockdowns.

The second model is a hybrid workplace, which majority of businesses believe will be the most likely scenario in 2021. Over the past year, companies have cycled through lockdowns, partial openings, and full reopenings depending on health-risk factors.

If a business owner wants to plan for a hybrid model going forward, he or she must consider ways to secure entrances, exits, and access points with tools like body-temperature scanners or touchless door-access controls. They can also benefit significantly tools like cloud voice with call forwarding, to make transitions seamless when staff migrate from the office to remote-work environments.

“In order for hybrid to work, remote technology needs to be secure and seamless,” Hogan said, “while workers and customers need to feel safe in person.”

The third model is an in-person workplace with social distancing. “For a minority of businesses, all activities are dependent on the physical location remaining open,” he noted. “For these businesses, owners need to consider how to adhere to and accommodate various safety measures to ensure compliance and worker safety.”

Regardless of which workplace environment is chosen, Hogan said, three critical aspects must be addressed to ensure success. The first is that employees need access to cloud voice to keep team members in constant communication and to ensure that office calls are properly routed to cell phones when team members are out of the office. Second, the team needs to be able to collaborate effectively.

Lastly, every workplace environment needs to be kept secure. For in-person strategies, this means secure access points, with tech like body-temperature scanners to ensure illnesses cannot spread. For remote workplaces, this means cybersecurity precautions have to be considered because, generally speaking, home networks pose much higher risks than office environments.

“We are currently meeting with customers, and, depending on what they want to achieve in 2021, we are devising custom technology plans to help them accomplish their strategic goals,” Hogan said. “This is what leaders do — they step up and lead in times of uncertainty. We are using our expertise to provide structure and clarity so that businesses can continue to thrive. Technology just happens to be our particular expertise, but this effort is about honoring our responsibility to the business community at large.”

Economic Outlook

Retail

Editor’s Note: Retail was among the sectors most impacted by the pandemic. Some businesses were forced to close, while all others had to make sweeping changes to how they did things to keep customers and employees safe. BusinessWest asked Charlie D’Amour, president of CEO of Big Y, to put 2020 in perspective and look ahead to what might come next.

 

BusinessWest: 2020 was certainly a tumultuous year for retail — and business in general. No one has a crystal ball, but what do you project for the year ahead, in terms of the economy and Big Y?

 

D’Amour: 2020 has certainly been fraught with challenges. Keeping our employees and customers safe while providing essential services has been foremost in our efforts. One of the biggest challenges has been supply chain, and that has been compounded in a number of ways.

First, panic buying ensued, and safety stock that is usually kept in reserve evaporated overnight. Many manufacturers and food suppliers facing their own COVID challenges, from staffing to supply, have not been able to keep up. Distribution centers have also felt these impacts, along with transportation, etc. Going forward, I do not expect that these areas will see a complete return to normal operation until late into 2021 or even into 2022. The recent uptick in COVID cases has put a lot of pressure on transportation and distribution. I anticipate that once we get through the holidays and the winter months, things will slowly improve.

Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions. We’ve adapted our training protocols to keep everyone safe yet provide adequate training.

Though I’m optimistic about the economy starting to bounce back in 2021, it is clear that government help will be needed, especially for those who have lost their jobs and for businesses that are struggling. There may be some longer-term systemic changes to the economy that could continue to linger. From my conversations with other supermarket operators both in China and in Europe, it seems that people are still reluctant to venture into inside venues. This has had an ongoing impact on restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, travel and hospitality, etc. As the vaccine takes hold, I believe that this will improve and folks will begin to travel again, and ‘experiences’ will become foremost in returning to some normalcy.

Charlie d’Amour

Charlie d’Amour

“Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions.”

How and where people work, I think, will be forever changed. Even in our own offices, more and more folks are working remotely. We are communicating more with video and virtual meetings. We continue to adapt and adjust. And, though I think the supermarket will continue to be the primary way people get their food and groceries, the growth of online shopping is here to stay. In 2021, we are excited to be opening our first micro-fulfillment center, which was planned and begun before the pandemic hit but which we believe will have an ever-increasing role in the way people shop in the future.

 

BusinessWest: Big Y has been on a path of steady expansion over the past several years. Will this pattern continue in 2021, and how and where will this growth take place?

 

D’Amour: We have been pleased that, despite the pandemic, we’ve actually had an exciting year of growth. We have opened two new gas and convenience stores, a new supermarket, completed our new Fresh & Local Distribution Center, and remodeled over 16 supermarkets. We’ve accomplished a lot. We have two new supermarkets planned for next year, several new gas and convenience stores, and, as I mentioned, the opening of our online ordering and micro-fulfillment center in Chicopee.

 

BusinessWest: Over the course of the past several months, we have seen a number of changes when it comes to how work is done and where. How has Big Y responded to these shifts, and will some of them be permanent?

 

D’Amour: Obviously, in our supermarkets, distribution centers, gas and convenience stores, and at Table & Vine, a physical presence is required. We very quickly realized in our physical locations that we needed to keep our employees safe, and to that end, we jumped on making sure that the appropriate cleaning procedures were in place and that PPE was available. We were one of the first retailers to install plexiglass shields at our registers, among many many other things. We have made sure to accommodate not only our frontline workers, but everyone with flexible schedules, leaves of absence if required, and continuing to pay employees who had to quarantine or care for a loved one.

We have continued to provide our employees with ‘thank-you’ pay, first as an hourly bump and now through a monthly bonus which will continue into the first part of 2021. We have also provided a holiday bonus to all full-time, part-time, and casual employees to reward and thank them for rising to the challenges we have all faced with this pandemic.

In our offices, we have definitely moved from a company that favored in-person meetings and collaboration to embracing new technologies and remote working. Here, again, flexible schedules and accommodating employees with childcare issues, etc. has been our focus and will likely continue. One area that has been accelerated because of the virus has been our use of virtual meetings and video communications. As our geographic territory has spread, bringing our store folks to our Store Support Center has presented more and more of a challenge. As a result of the virus, we have been forced to explore more avenues to connect, which have, for the most part, been effective and well-received by our employees.

 

BusinessWest: As the leader of a major corporation, can you talk about the ways this pandemic has impacted your ability to plan long-term, or if it has?

 

D’Amour: The supermarket business is very dynamic, and, as such, we are always in a state of change and flux. We are also in a business where our customers give us almost instant feedback to what’s new and changing. Our leadership team gets together every year to focus on our strategies and how we are adapting and evolving as our customers are adapting and evolving. As such, we are maintaining our current course of action, and our long-term plans and strategic initiatives have not changed. Every year, there are minor course corrections and adjustments, but our overall direction is the same, and that has not changed because of the pandemic.

 

BusinessWest: Speaking of leadership, talk about your experiences leading a company through these most challenging of times.

 

D’Amour: For me, first and foremost was the importance of communication. Being present, being authentic, and regularly communicating with our employees, customers, and other stakeholders was especially important early on when things were changing rapidly and coming at us a mile a minute. While I couldn’t get out to our stores as frequently as I usually like to, being able to find other ways to connect with our stores was essential.

Our employees especially were appreciative that we were visible, even virtually, and that we were genuinely concerned. Though we did shut down our offices for all but the most essential employees, I tried to be in our offices as much as possible to show a physical presence and to connect with our leadership team and others that were in the building. I believe that all of these things helped to inspire confidence within our organization. We tried to push decisions down to the lowest level and trusted in our employees and our teams. We established a crisis management committee, now dubbed the pandemic response committee. As such, we were able to quickly and effectively respond to a very fast-paced and changing dynamic.

Another area that underscored a point of focus for us this past year was in regard to redoubling our efforts regarding diversity and inclusion in our company. While we have made progress over the years, it was clear that we needed to do more. To that end, we have refocused and engaged our efforts, developed a new employee-resource group called “Y You Belong,” and created a steering committee of senior leaders and outside advisors from the community. We also conducted a half-day seminar for our leadership team with the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley to better understand our role in healing racism in our company and our community.

Throughout this past year, the role of leadership was and continues to be an important linchpin in our ability to deal with the challenges of this pandemic.

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