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When the coronavirus pandemic began to impact populations around the world, businesses had to adapt their operations to a fast-moving menace. But with e-commerce companies, it may have been hard to determine which way to pivot, precisely. After all, economic strain meant decreased consumer spending, but in contrast, stay-at-home orders meant increased online shopping.

For the SmartBuyGlasses Optical Group, the e-commerce eyewear provider that retails such renowned brands as Ray-Ban, Carrera, Prada, Oakley and Lacoste, among many others, there was the added variable that their products straddled both the expendable luxury realm of consumer spending – they offer many premium products – and the essential side, via contact lenses and prescription eyewear. Would things balance out in the end, or would the scale tip?

Quickly identify, then adapt

Time will tell, of course, but what mattered most critically was ensuring that the company was proactively positioning itself for a newly dynamic retail and e-commerce landscape, says co-founder David Menning, who’s based in Turin, Italy. The 150-person company, which operates retail websites under the brand in 30 different markets around the world, already had a significantly distributed workforce, with additional offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Vietnam, and the Philippines. But shifting the workforce to fully remote operations for all personnel was entirely new.

“The main changes were really about the management team being able to quickly identify the situation we were in and then adapt certain staffing units within the business to the circumstances,” Menning says. “We needed clear and transparent communication with the stakeholders all the way through to our customers about what we were dealing with, what delays were possible, and how we were responding.”

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The initial challenge – similar across industries and across the globe – was ensuring that personnel were properly equipped once they found themselves forced to remain at home. Co-founder Tony Zhuang, who’s based in Shanghai, made certain that employees were able to securely log in as quickly as possible, even if they weren’t able to retrieve their laptops before the offices had to be shut down. That meant installing the appropriate software on their personal or work-supplied computers, and training personnel about how to use their virtual office spaces effectively and efficiently.

This wasn’t limited to learning the nuances of the software. It meant being strategic and organized about how and when its utilized, and working to make sure certain communications are seamless and not plagued by the kinds of glitches that conference calls are famous for. To keep personnel updated – and upbeat – the company also initiated monthly Welcome Wednesday call-ins. These are fast meetings that include company-wide updates, awards for staff performance, and welcomes of new hires. 

Keep systems active, no matter what

The next step was more technical and behind the scenes: ensuring that the systems stay active despite the personnel tasked with maintaining them being cut off from servers and various hardware.

“That gave us a little bit of trouble, especially when the internet service would be cut off or diminished due to general overuse,” says Zhuang. He adds that the crisis has, in parallel, accelerated the transition to cloud computing. “We had to tighten up our control of the systems to make sure our analytics reports and database access remained open.”

Product managers and customer-service personnel adapted the company’s offerings to the situation, as well. They quickly integrated eye-protection for medical personnel into the sites’ product lines – having established access to manufacturers of these products in China – and promoted a web-based tool that allows customers to scan their existing eyeglasses to determine the prescription. This enabled them to limit in-person customer visits to optometrists, which may expose them to potential illness, until the prescription needs adjustment. Though there was a noticeable initial drop in site traffic as the scope of the pandemic became apparent – and some painful personnel cuts within SmartBuyGlasses to manage expenses – the company has held steady.

Engage more meaningfully and genuinely

Even more, SmartBuyGlasses’s leadership has seen benefits to the new operations that will linger even when stay-at-home orders lift around the world. This manifests in practical matters, in terms of the systems being ready to adapt on the fly, but also in less tangible ways like the way personnel interact with each other.

Why we don’t bring our whole selves to work

“If anything, this forced isolation has allowed us to have more intentional and thoughtful conversations,” Menning says. “Before all this we may have had more fleeting and offhand conversations, but now we’re engaging each other more meaningfully and genuinely. Even our casual chats and our pleasantries are more meaningful, since we’re communicating more directly and also checking in on each other personally as everyone manages the crisis.”

As for whether the remote-working dynamics will linger, Zhuang acknowledges the possibility. “Yes, this period gives us the opportunity to push ourselves out of our comfort zone,” he says. “We’re practising new habits, and in turn developing new skills which will remain.” More likely, though, the ultimate outcome will be that people will still value the face-to-face team dynamics that video conferences simply can’t replicate. The new skills and communications options will remain, and SmartBuytGlasses will make sure that personnel and the technology are ready for when staff choose to work remotely – or need to. After all, the leadership isn’t assuming that this will be the last time a crisis like this emerges.

To that end, Menning concludes that companies that are able to weather the storm have a prime opportunity to build up stronger foundations and “backbones,” something that should give them the agility to be essentially whatever they need to be any given year, month, or day. And this doesn’t just apply to e-commerce companies. It’s an important part of any industry’s ability to survive a crisis and still be able to thrive on the other side of it. “This situation forces companies to adopt stronger and better communication systems,” he says. “We’re really focusing our teams on making sure that we’re making the most of the company, and really trying to grow out of this opportunity. 

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