I was recently speaking with one of my company's board members about economic and social recovery from the pandemic, and we shared cautiously optimistic outlooks for the future. We could see obvious hurdles to clear, of course, including the sharp rise of the Delta variant. But, barring a shocking change in trajectory, I think the U.S. should continue along the road to recovery. 

This board member then passed along some of the most important advice I have heard in recent months: With the world going back to normal, now is the time to invest. 

Of course, even the idea of returning to "normal" needs some adjustment. Businesses-- especially local businesses--have had to adapt and transform so much in the past year and a half that things shouldn't simply return to how they were before.  

Under the emerging normal, changes brought on by social distancing and cautious isolating will continue being driven by consumer preference. The companies that can keep the benefits of their Covid-era efforts by investing now in the tools customers want will see major benefits.

All said, here's how local businesses can thrive in the recovery economy: Return to in-person when it matters, but keep the remote options any time you can.

The Benefits of Pandemic-Era Innovations

Providing a personal touch is one of the biggest pandemic-related challenges for companies. Lots of businesses differentiate from competitors with their customer experience, and those that could not adapt as Covid set in generally had to close their doors. 

Now, as the world begins to recover, it's very tempting for leaders to pull their organizations back to where they were in March 2020. But that would be a mistake.

Trying to replace in-person services for health and safety concerns introduced a lot of businesses to benefits like online chat, virtual queuing, and touchless payment tools. Companies that offer home services, for example, have been able to shift a lot of troubleshooting to video chat, enabling people to fix small problems without needing to invite a person into their home. 

Virtual waiting rooms are also important for companies that bring customers in, like health care providers or takeout restaurants. Whether patients or customers, people could wait in their cars, remaining socially distanced, and enter when the doctor was ready or their pizza was done.

Now that businesses are beginning to reopen as normal, many people still want these benefits. People may be ready to be around other people again, but most don't count that as waiting for a technician to come to your house when it's a problem someone could talk you through on a video chat. Or sitting in a waiting room when you could be relaxing in your car, listening to your music. 

Accelerate Down the Path to Digital Transformation

When the story of the Covid era is written for business books, it will be a tale of drastic, accelerated digital transformation. Businesses simply had to catch up with technology or they stopped operating--there was no middle ground.

Although many businesses were challenged by these circumstances, the changes they made in one year might have taken 10 years without the external push. Continuing digital transformation will be the next challenge, and it is absolutely vital for businesses to keep their foot on the accelerator.

Efforts at transformation have been undertaken across the entire range of companies, as everyone had to learn new ways of doing business. As an organization of people who compete in front of other people, the National Basketball Association (NBA) stopped its games entirely while it considered how to keep health and safety at the forefront.

The league was ultimately able to resume games later in 2020 and even hold a playoff tournament in a carefully controlled environment, with no fans present. Now, as the league is a second full season removed from the start of the pandemic and beginning to welcome people back into their arenas, some teams are increasing their investments in the technology that let them keep fans engaged.

My hometown team, Utah Jazz, for example, is offering better text tools with which to connect with fans, a web chat to help with questions, and a noncontact payment platform to offer more transaction options. Customer interest in digital, online services has increased, and the team has responded by expanding its offerings.

Every company should consider how it can best seize this moment and follow along. As my board member advised, now is the time to invest.

The health and safety challenges of the pandemic may have forced companies to adopt remote interaction methods, but smart organizations will continue to embrace these tools because they are the backbone of an improved customer experience. Businesses should continue investing in seamless customer experiences through digital tools by keeping as many online, interactive, and touchless options available as they can, while continuing down the path of digital transformation.