There are very few workplaces that didn’t experience significant changes as a result of the pandemic. Nearly every office worker in the country began to do at least part of their work from home, and a large-scale experiment began. As retail trends shifted toward virtual shopping, many traditional brick-and-mortar locations added a virtual business component.
Businesses, consumers, and employees have gotten a glimpse of what happens when nearly every industry puts more emphasis on its virtual presence and less on its physical spaces. With nearly 70% of full-time workers doing their jobs from home during the pandemic, it seems inevitable that an increase in the sophistication and prevalence of virtual retail solutions is on the way.
Businesses that were already primarily virtual did not have to make significant changes, but many more traditional businesses that rely on brick-and-mortar locations and full-time employees had to re-frame how they do things.
In other words, traditional businesses are adding virtual components to their offerings, and thanks to the improved experiences and lower expenses that many are enjoying, that trend is likely to persist.
What is A Virtual Business?
A virtual business is any business that conducts the majority of its business via the internet instead of using physical space. Alternatively, many retailers are finding themselves in a hybrid space, where they conduct in-store retail operations, in addition to bustling online sales.
How COVID-19 Impacted Virtual Businesses
Virtual businesses, or businesses with a digital shopping component, have been a powerful force in the American economy for a while. At the very least, most consumers are familiar with the narrative of Amazon, which started off selling books online before becoming one of the most successful virtual businesses in the world.
When COVID-19 forced more people to find a way to work from home, however, virtual businesses and online shopping became more prominent. Upwork, a freelancing website, reported that 41.8% of the American workforce worked remotely in 2020 and more than half of this number are still willing to work from home through 2021. They predicted that 22% of the U.S. workforce (36.2 million) will be working remotely by 2025, an 87% increase from the number of remote workers prior to the pandemic. Undoubtedly, these shifts in employment can lead to larger hiring sprees in the realm of digital retail operations.
According to IBM, “The COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered how organizations around the world operate. Some 55 percent of respondents say the pandemic has resulted in “permanent changes to our organizational strategy.” An even larger 60 percent say COVID-19 has “adjusted our approach to change management” and “accelerated process automation,” with 64 percent acknowledging a shift to more cloud-based business activities.
Benefits of a Virtual Business
Remote work and a growing focus on virtual business operations were non-optional, given the constraints of COVID-19, but the benefits will outlive the pandemic. Here are a few of the most significant positives of running a virtual business, or adding an online component to a physical retail operation:
- Reduced overhead — Office space comes at a premium, especially in dense urban areas, and more physical space means more overhead. A business that is not paying for rent and maintenance can reinvest those savings in the salaries of its employees and reduce its prices for products and services.
- Flexibility — In competitive industries, workers seek employers who offer them the flexibility they need to live their busy lives. Virtual businesses offer a competitive edge because employees are no longer constrained to a typical nine-to-five position and are no longer committed to unwanted commutes.
- Access to more talent — Typically, a business only has access to the expertise and work pool of the residents in the city where it is headquartered. Virtual businesses do not have to contend with that limitation. Instead, they can source their talent from anywhere in the world, building a team without the limits of geography.
- Increased productivity — Employees who feel valued and have the flexibility they need can get more done. In fact, 42% of knowledge workers believe they are most productive working from home, compared to 32% who feel they get more done in an office.
- Better leveraging of technology to streamline processes — Virtual businesses have more capital to invest in technology solutions that make for convenient, positive, streamlined experiences for customers and employees.
Online reservation systems, for example, help reduce staffing needs and give customers more agency in their experiences. Ombori Appointment Booking is one example of a reservation system that allows employees to book, manage, or change appointments all on their own while saving the virtual business money thanks to fewer missed appointments, automatic reminders, and smoothed out peaks and troughs.
Virtual queue management systems are another excellent example of the kinds of technology solutions that virtual businesses are increasingly taking advantage of. Queuing systems like Ombori’s Virtual Queue helps customers check out, pay, and wait in line while knowing what to expect and reducing wait time. They offer a digital experience to traditional queues.
Technology: Constantly Changing to Adapt to New Trends
Technology is indefensible for any business taking an omnichannel approach, which — as has been well-established — is the best way to capitalize on customers’ multi-faceted approach to doing research, purchasing products, and engaging with a company. Businesses looking to lean a little further into a virtual business model can start by assessing whether or not they are making full use of the available tools.
Retailers, for example, might start by finding ways to blend online shopping and in-person experiences. As customers seek novel experiences, interactive technology has enormous potential to make a lasting and positive impact on the customer experience. Business owners might consider technologies that offer customers new ways to engage with the brand, like H&M’s new interactive Selfie Mirror, or they might use tools like the Endless Aisle from Ombori, which helps customers order the exact sizes and colors they want if they show up in the store and can’t find them.
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and director of the school’s HR Strategy in Transforming Organizations program, shared that technology is one of the key elements of virtual work. According to Gratton, “Technology has always been the enabler for virtual working. We know it best meets people’s needs when it is part of the regular flow of work and matches the task at hand.”
The other two key elements included the need to reimagine the home workspace and make it human and embrace a daily ritual and focus on values.
A More Virtual Future
When businesses do their homework and listen to what their customers and employees want, everybody wins. For consumers, that means streamlined and convenient experiences and lower prices. For the millions of employees in an increasingly digital marketplace, that means flexible hours and more opportunities for remote work. By adopting more practices of virtual businesses combined with impeccable in-store experiences, companies can meet those expectations. Not only will they be doing what is right for their customers and employees, but they will also be saving costs, increasing productivity, and remaining competitive in a shifting landscape.
Björn is Chief Experience Officer of Ombori Grid. He spent the early part of his career in the music business before moving into retail design and video production. His passion is for creating unique and memorable retail experiences that excite and delight customers. He spent 6 years at Visual Art in Stockholm before joining Ombori in 2018.