Faculty and Alumni Address How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Changed Business—Perhaps Forever—and What Comes Next

Innovations in the way people communicate and interact came quickly and forcibly in 2020. With lockdowns and health and safety top of mind during the COVID-19 pandemic, gone were in-person gatherings and crowded offices—literally overnight, in many cases. In their place were virtual workforces with regular video meetings and instant messages, Zoom happy hours and coffee chats with friends or family, virtual conferences, concerts and more—basically an abundance of online communication that has reshaped how we connect with everything and everyone.

As James Legg (BSBA 1986), president and CEO of cybersecurity company Thycotic, said, “Communication has changed because the whole world as we know it has changed.”

While the world continues to emerge from its 1.5-year (and counting) COVID-19 fog, many questions still remain. Those moving through the aftermath of grief and loss may ask, “How do I want to spend the time I have left? Does my work fulfill me?” For essential workers in industries that weren’t shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, it might be, “Am I safe and valued at work?” For medical personnel and first responders who saw the worst of illness and death, it may be, “When can I take a much-needed vacation for my own wellbeing? Is it safe to travel yet?” For parents whose children learned online while they worked remotely from home, questions of if and when they want to return to the office may be front and center.

The future of work, life and the balance therein remains to be seen. Still, certain trends are becoming apparent.

“The entrepreneur looks at problems as opportunities, and I think that’s what we need to do,” said Joshua Ross (MBA 2001), teaching assistant professor and director of  Entrepreneurship@DU. “Even as we get back to normal, COVID-19 is going to materially change the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we learn, the way we travel, the way we congregate. I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for services and products in this new way, with this new approach.”


Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, work-from-home policies struggled to gain traction in the U.S. as organizational leaders cited concerns about the impact on employee productivity and corporate culture. Then the coronavirus hit, and the remote-work model went from the exception to the norm, at least for computer-based employees. Remote workers, once seen as distracted and inefficient, became assets.

Now, however, the question becomes: Will remote work persist, and if so, to what extent?

“In March 2020, we flipped a switch, and everything changed overnight,” said Cindi Fukami, professor of management at Daniels. “And it seems as though some people think we’re going to flip that switch again and everything will go back to the way it was.”

Some companies were quick to embrace a permanent work-from-home policy, while others seemed eager to have their employees return to the office full time. Many organizations, however, are considering a hybrid approach that offers a combination of remote and in-person work opportunities.

“We’re creating a hybrid model where people will work in the environment that makes sense for their particular role,” said Tracie Sheppard (BSBA 2002, MBA 2017), a Wells Fargo vice president who leads the corporate properties strategic initiatives team. She’s managing the return of over 180,000 employees to offices across the U.S. “We’re using this return as an inflection point, an opportunity to create a new culture at Wells Fargo—one of inclusivity, focus, collaboration and energy.”

Referencing the 2021 McKinsey & Company study, “What employees are saying about the future of remote work,” Fukami noted that employees who worked from home during the pandemic reported an increase in productivity but also a rise in anxiety and burnout. “U.S. workers provide more hours to the labor market than any other developed country in the world,” she said.

A flexible working model may help curtail some of the anxiety and burnout employees are experiencing; plus, it may even reduce turnover. Citing the same McKinsey study, Fukami added that roughly 30% of respondents said they would switch jobs if asked to return to fully on-site work, with more than half of respondents saying they’d like to work from home three or more days per week.


One challenge for businesses that continue to offer remote work through technology, said Legg, is internet security.

“We have to learn how to adjust and operate accordingly,” he said. Legg noted that improved cybersecurity will be key to helping the remote-work model succeed long-term as workers at home “developed poor cyber habits” during the pandemic. The virtual private networks that companies use to keep workers connected remotely, he noted, have particular vulnerabilities that employers need to pay attention to.

So, what should organizational leaders consider when implementing post-pandemic work policies?

“Communicate—as soon as possible,” Fukami said. “The sooner people know what’s going to happen, the more productive they’ll be. They can put that anxiety away. The shoe has fallen.”
Additionally, Fukami noted that employees who are involved and feel heard during discussions about post-pandemic work options report higher levels of productivity. “Your employees need to have a voice and be heard,” she said. “Open the door for some flexibility. I think it would be very welcome.”


Speaking of working from home, historically low interest rates and millennials looking to purchase homes were trends already accelerating the real estate market pre-pandemic. But when COVID-19 hit, those trends—and many more—exacerbated the already hot housing market, driving demand and resulting in a shift in how we’re living that will permeate even post-pandemic.

“People realized, ‘Wow, this is going to be a long-term thing; this house does not work for my family and I to be stuck here—school online, work online—so we need a new home,’” explained Eric Holt, assistant professor in Daniels’ Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management.

As people spent the better part of a year cooped up at home, consumers began to look at where they were living and realized what was working and what wasn’t. For the majority, that realization was a lack of space for them and their families as they juggled different needs. They wanted a yard for the family dog (pet adoptions exploded during the pandemic). A place to exercise at home (ditto for exercise equipment purchases). And more space for an office or even two.

“A significant factor in the desire to move to larger housing—with a yard, study, extra bedroom or basement, or just some place you can get away and find peace and quiet—is because working from home is different from working from home and having to be on [Zoom],” said Adam Contos (MBA 2017), CEO at RE/MAX. “When you take the dynamics of the household, even if there aren’t kids, just two adults, they need separation in order to do work.”

That desire for space—as well as the ability to move out of expensive cities since many no longer need to live near their workplace—is resulting in more consumers, especially younger generations, moving to suburban homes or less expensive cities, said Burns School Professor Glenn Mueller (BSBA 1974).

New builds also are extremely popular—and as such, hard to find, Holt said. A labor and supply shortage means it takes more time and money to find a new build, or even renovate a home. “It’s hard to keep up with demand,” he added.

The pandemic will largely change, for good, not only what people want in a home but how they feel about a home, Contos said. “It’s about, how do you make it the most pleasant, livable space for you in order to maximize your mental wellness, your family wellness, the encouragement of your health physically? I think the house means more than it has before.”


With the costs of housing sky-high, earning a “living” is taking on a new meaning.

“In most cities, companies are a little bit sensitive to their cost structures now because of COVID and are going to be a little more conservative with regard to bearing higher wages,” said Bob Kumagai, executive director of Daniels Career Services.

In Denver, “There’s been a fairly compressed compensation market,” he said. “It’s sort of a lifestyle tax, if you will, that workers have to pay for living in Colorado. If you did the same job in a different part of the country, you might get paid a little bit more. We have always lagged a little bit in Colorado.”

Joshua Ross, the director of Entrepreneurship@DU, noted that the increase in home offices has cut costs for businesses while allowing them to pay out-of-state workers out-of-state wages. Startups, he added, can now be more selective and spread a wider net when they’re hiring for skilled positions.

For early-career graduates at Daniels, Kumagai said there have been “consistent increases in starting salaries over the last five graduating classes, but it’s been relatively small—in the low single-digit percentages climbing year over year.” The exception, he said, where lack of available talent causes wages to climb quicker, is in highly quantitative fields: data analytics, business analytics or technical engineering developer roles.

But when it comes to how we’re earning money, the most striking trend for Kumagai is the people who aren’t. The wealth gap, he said, is widening.

“A lot of us who have been fortunate enough to work from home and those of us who have some financial means have done great, but there’s a whole lot of the economy where that has not been the case.”

Kumagai estimates—and the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report supports—that the pandemic erased 25–30 years of progress for women in the workforce, who were forced to focus on childcare with many schools closed to in-person learning.

“Even with the ability to work from home, I think that’s really compromised a lot of women’s upward mobility,” Kumagai said, “and I think that’s going to be a huge trailing effect of COVID that I’m really, really concerned about.”

Wanting to help combat this issue as a working mom and CEO, Megan Smith (BSBA 2006), who leads Symbia Logistics, said she added afternoon and evening shifts at her warehouses. This allowed working parents to stay home and help their children during school hours but return to work later in the day. Consequently, it created promotion opportunities for many female employees, since the additional shifts needed supervisors.

“That is, I think, probably one of the biggest hardships that’s come out of the pandemic. Human resource management, keeping people in work and keeping them happy and safe,” she said.


Though the worldwide COVID-19 shutdown didn’t result in the severe economic recession some feared toward the beginning of the crisis, the pandemic has resulted in changes to the way money is managed, invested and given that could last for years to come.

In the philanthropic sphere, many saw a fundamental shift in the way government approached the business world for help during a crisis.

“The pandemic created greater connectivity between the public and private sector,” said Luis Benitez (MBA 2018), vice president of government affairs and global impact for Denver-based VF Corp. “There’s a lot of talk these days around private-sector activism and private-sector engagement, but the more interesting part to me is that governments are starting to talk to the private sector more when it comes to community development.”

For VF Corp.—an outdoor and activewear company that owns brands like Timberland, the North Face and Vans—that meant giving $500,000 to the state of Colorado when Gov. Jared Polis put out a call for disaster relief funds.

“When the federal funds and the [personal protective equipment] weren’t coming, he went to the private sector,” Benitez said. “We saw that private-sector callout happening all over the world from governments that we engage with.”

Crocs—the Colorado-based company known for its iconic clogs—soared to record growth when consumers took a turn toward comfort during the pandemic.
“We’re a brand that encourages everyone to be comfortable in their own shoes. That message is more relevant today than ever before,” said Shannon Sisler (MBA 2007), the company’s senior vice president and chief people officer.

Investment in its community has paid dividends too. In 2020, Crocs donated 860,000 pairs of its shoes to health care workers through its Free Pair for Healthcare program.
“Doing the right thing is the right thing for Crocs, and COVID gave us an opportunity to act on our values in a meaningful way,” Sisler said.

Another focus for foundations during the pandemic was the social and racial inequities that COVID-19 helped to expose—coupled with the widespread awakening that happened after the murder of George Floyd. It’s a funding priority many think will continue long after the pandemic has faded.

“We’re trying to figure out how we rethink philanthropy going forward,” said Adeeb Khan (MBA 2014), executive director of Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation. “Between the adverse effects that many minority and low-income populations have felt during the pandemic and this greater realization around the systemic racial inequities we face, we’re continually asking ourselves, ‘What do we need to do differently?’”

A greater social awareness also arose around the idea of privilege, experts say, resulting in a rise in individual giving as well.

“A lot of people wanted to help out those who were in need this year,” said Sharon Lassar, John J. Gilbert endowed professor and director of Daniels’ School of Accountancy. The government made that easier by offering an “above-the-line deduction” for up to $300 in charitable contributions, she said—a provision that could well continue post-pandemic to encourage people to give to those less fortunate.

The double-whammy of 2020’s pandemic and racial reckoning also touched the world of investing, said Chris Hughen, associate professor in Daniels’ Reiman School of Finance.

“One of the things investors have come away with after the past year is that our society is incredibly interconnected,” Hughen said. “When you go through a pandemic, you see how the health of some people can greatly impact the health of others.”

That has resulted, he said, in a rise in sustainable investing. In 2020, a quarter of all new investments went into portfolios that are managed to consider environmental goals, the impact companies are having on society and how companies treat their employees.

“Hopefully there’s a win-win situation here where these companies can benefit society, but also benefit their employees, shareholders and the economy,” Hughen said.


A more troubling trend to Hughen is in the area of emergency savings. While the early days of the pandemic drove home just how necessary emergency savings accounts are—financial experts recommend setting aside six months’ income for unexpected expenses like ones brought about by COVID-associated job loss and medical expenses—the government’s robust response may actually result in fewer people saving as they should.

“During the recession of 2007 and 2008, government was slow to respond,” he said. “This time, lawmakers quickly stepped up and offered a $2 trillion stimulus package that included stimulus payments directly to individuals, as well as small business loans through paycheck protection programs. I think this has fundamentally altered people’s expectations about what the government is going to do when we have the next crisis. It might alter the way people save, so they don’t set aside enough cash reserves to get through a bad time. I hope people don’t take this as an indication they don’t need to save for the future.”

Saving for the future is exactly what drove an increased interest in cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens during the COVID-19 crisis, said Karen Xie, associate professor of service analytics at Daniels. Not only did the pandemic stoke fears of recession and financial system failure; it also gave workers who were stuck at home the time and motivation—and in many cases, the money—to delve into the intricacies of the alternative financial system.

“Crypto, just because it has a limited supply, will become very valuable,” she said. “That’s why we see a lot of activity happening in the crypto world and people investing in crypto, just to make sure their money stays there. It’s in order to protect against inflation and the what-if scenario after the economy is back to normal.”



Alongside consumers’ growing interest in digital currency, when shoppers all went online in March 2020, companies also ramped up their digital efforts. But brands were already putting resources into digital engagement before COVID-19 forced a shutdown, according to Melissa Archpru Akaka, associate professor of marketing at Daniels.

“COVID didn’t create the shift to digital on its own,” she said. “It was just a big accelerator.”
Retailers with a digital footprint before the pandemic had an easier pivot. Consumers were spending money, and certain industries—fitness, home decor, beauty—were booming. Meanwhile, other sectors, like travel, were halted entirely.

As head of industry-retail for Google, Ted Souder (BSBA 1993), runs a sales team that works with some of the biggest retailers in the world to help them be more digital. He explained that large retailers in the U.S. sold anywhere from 10–20% of their goods online before the pandemic.

“All of these retailers had some sort of long-term plan to do more digitally,” Souder said, but “in the first three or four months of the pandemic, we saw 10 years [worth] of e-commerce growth happen.”

While companies had to pivot on a dime, Akaka noted that consumers also did the same. Now, if they are dissatisfied with an experience, they’ll move on.
“The companies that survive are the ones that are able to figure out how to really understand customer experiences and set up integrated platforms that can provide options for how customers want to engage with them,” Akaka said. “Companies should consider micro segmentation to better understand unique customer needs. I think that will really separate the companies that are successful from those that are not.”

Imran Khan (BSBA 2000) is doing just that. The former chief strategy officer of Snapchat launched Verishop in 2018. The Verishop app provides consumers with a personalized shopping feed for clothing, beauty items and home decor.

“There is so much selection available on the web, the discovery is becoming challenging,” he said. “Nielsen research shows that 91% of U.S. consumers are looking for brand new products—individualism is becoming an important factor.”

During periods when restrictions are eased, “people need to get out in order for a lot of businesses, especially service providers, to stay afloat,” Akaka said. “I think that for many people there’s a positive sentiment around vaccinations that’s helping alleviate some of the anxiety or concern around going out in public and that’s certainly going to help the economy move forward.” She hopes the vaccine is one thing that will help organizations recoup some of their losses from the last year.

Souder predicts what he calls “revenge spending” when the pandemic is under control.

“I think we’re going to see from an economic standpoint just a bonkers couple of years, people revenge spending and revenge traveling,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting time, and it’s going to be a great time for entrepreneurs, startups and investors.”


Back at her logistics company, Megan Smith is acutely aware of all the challenges supply chains face in keeping goods moving during increased spending. She oversees 1,000 employees who fulfill orders in 22 warehouses across the country.

Her industry was in the spotlight in 2020 as consumers faced shortages of toilet paper and diapers and store shelves went bare. Smith’s company, Symbia Logistics, handles commodities and e-commerce orders, but specializes in multi-channel clients.

“Being able to execute well during that kind of panic, it showcased who was really on their game and who wasn’t,” Smith said. Her team executed so well that they received new business leads after the 2020 holiday rush.

While some of her clients struggled—such as a wedding dress rental company—others got an unexpected boost. Symbia fulfills orders for the Girl Scouts, and when they turned to an online ordering model, sales were 300% over projection.

“This was an area of opportunity where we could just shine and showcase our flexibility, agility and ability to partner with people,”
she said.

Jack Buffington, professor of the practice in marketing, said, “Supply chains do really well when there’s low variation between supply and demand, but what happened in 2020 is this large variation between supply and demand.”

In 2021, supply chains still struggle; many container ships can’t get into U.S. ports, delaying supplies of semiconductors, computer chips, lumber, even Peloton stationary bicycles.

“Container shortages are expecting to run into 2022,” said Buffington. “There is no sovereignty regarding supply chains. They are private interests, focused on shareholder wealth, so they’re often based in places with the lowest labor rates and lowest corporate tax rates. This model is not sustainable.”

Buffington said he’s never seen anything like this in his 20-year career in supply chain.

Smith hopes the past year made consumers more aware of where their goods come from.


Libbi Levine Segev, associate teaching professor of business ethics and legal studies, researches autonomous vehicles. She said manufacturers already understood the benefits of autonomous delivery trucks from a workforce and safety perspective, but COVID-19 confirmed their investment as they faced safety issues and restrictions with their truck drivers.

“Autonomous trucks are coming,” Segev said. “In fact, they have already hit the road. For example, there was a pilot program in 2016 where Otto successfully transported 51,744 cans of Budweiser beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs in one of its autonomous trucks. Experts disagree on when we will be seeing their widespread use; it could be soon, or it could be a decade. But the pandemic only highlighted the benefits of driverless vehicles.”

Buffington said machine learning, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics are the wave of the future of supply chain with companies who master forecasting winning out. Smith said companies can have every technology available, but strategically leveraging it is key.

“You have to have the right technology in the right place at the right time,” she said. “You have to use it effectively, not just invest in the shiny new thing on the market.”


In addition to purchased goods and supplies, with “revenge travel” on the horizon, people will be going places too. All signs point to leisure trips, enhanced safety, isolated experiences and touchless technology as driving forces for the post-COVID travel and hospitality industries.

“The hospitality industry is poised to rebound from the catastrophe COVID wrought,” said David Corsun, associate professor and director of Daniels’ Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. “There is massive pent-up demand. Air travel booking pace is huge right now.”

As of summer 2021, most of that air travel is on domestic or regional flights so far.

“The first wave of recovery is going to be leisure traffic and short-haul flights, where you’re flying a couple of hours,” said Sean Menke (MBA 2001), CEO and president of Sabre Corporation, a travel technology company.

With these shorter flights, airlines are finding they no longer have as much need for major hubs to serve as connection points, said Lowell Valencia-Miller, teaching assistant professor and director of Daniels’ MS Management program. Valencia-Miller also noted that new airlines were launched during the pandemic to capitalize on that model.
“Airlines are now finding potential point-to-point routes that consumers want,” said Valencia-Miller. “Even past the pandemic, consumers don’t want to travel through congested, highly packed hub airports.”

Karen Xie also foresees continued popularity of “near-cations.” As fewer people take long-haul trips through crowded airports, they will instead opt for destinations closer to home, said Xie, who also is the Betty and Fritz Knoebel Fellow and an expert on the short-term rental industry.

Cruises’ booking pace is on a similar trajectory as air travel, but it will be a few years before they completely bounce back, said H.G. Parsa, the Barron Hilton Professor of Lodging Management at Fritz. Parsa predicts that we will see quicker, two- or three-day cruise bookings at first while travelers “test the waters.”

To assuage passengers’ fears—and mitigate liability concerns—Parsa said cruises will invest in highly visible evidence of sanitation and medical preparedness. That might include abundant cleaning crews, expanded medical staff and onboard isolation areas. Guarantees of safety will likely be part of marketing efforts, as well.

Back on solid ground, David Corsun said hotels are rebounding, but it’s thanks to leisure travelers and not the once-prominent business travelers. He predicts that the hotel industry likely won’t see 2019 revenue and profitability numbers again until 2023.


As an alternative to hotels, more and more leisure travelers are choosing vacation rental properties, such as those found on websites like Airbnb. It’s a trend that started even before the pandemic and will continue, said Xie.

“People will travel more cautiously,” she said. “That’s why a lot of people have switched to Airbnb. You only stay with your close
friends and family in a more isolated building without interacting with other guests.”

Xie also predicts that vacation-rental guests will book stays that are longer than a typical hotel booking. Many Airbnb hosts are even requiring longer minimum lengths of stays due to the time it takes to perform expanded cleaning protocols.

“We see a lot of people book at least seven days, and about 30% of bookings post-COVID are longer than 30 days,” said Xie.

The pandemic-induced surge in remote work could have played a part in the increased popularity of more extended stays, but it also reflects an important change in how the industry will operate moving forward. Touchless technology will be a prominent feature in everything from online check-in to interacting with staff, “but it will not completely solve the problem,” said Corsun.

With thousands of hospitality professionals furloughed or let go from their positions during the pandemic, many have permanently pivoted away from the industry. Though many industries are in a similar staffing struggle, it’s a particular challenge for hospitality, an industry founded on high-touch, personalized service, said Parsa.

Additionally, Menke said that varying guidelines from country to country could make it more challenging to forecast how and when travel restrictions can be dropped. He explained that governments will have to negotiate with other countries to determine safe standards by which travelers can enter and leave a nation.


As one of the industries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants did what they had to do to survive over the past year. For many, that meant leaning into takeout and delivery and embracing technology like never before, using apps and websites to share menus and specials and adjusting to increased demand for touchless and cashless payments.

Going forward, expect many of those trends to continue.

Corsun predicts the popularity of takeout and delivery will continue after the pandemic subsides. However, he encourages diners to pick food up rather than using delivery services like DoorDash that charge restaurants large commissions for deliveries.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw restaurants partner to build their own delivery services,” he said. “That would be a really useful innovation.”

Parsa predicts an elevation in the world of takeout, with fine dining and hotel restaurants continuing to provide the service, using reusable containers to do so. Menus will be tweaked to provide food well-suited for short-distance travel.

“Food that travels well is the food of the future,” he said. “Takeout is the real vibrant segment of the restaurant industry.”

Parsa also anticipates a rise in technology for restaurants and related businesses, a reality already being embraced by Riccardo Mazzeo (MBA 2010), owner of Denver-based Three Tomatoes catering. When the pandemic put a halt on in-person consultations, he said, “we asked ourselves if there was a way to take a booking process that generally takes weeks or months and turn it into a system that allows you to book a fully staffed catering service online.”

Three Tomatoes did just that, and Mazzeo said his is now the only catering company in North America to offer the service.

“The pandemic forced me to look for solutions that were outside the box of the typical successful way of doing things,” he said.


While virtual connection is still happening in spades, the next question is whether it will continue post-pandemic. The short answer? It will in many ways—but with some changes. Scott Toney, teaching assistant professor in Daniels’ Department of Business Information and Analytics, recently co-authored the research paper, “Fighting Zoom Fatigue: Keeping the Zoombies at Bay.” He predicts that many people fatigued of Zoom and virtual get-togethers will be eager to gather in person, especially for personal reasons. Yet now that virtual hangouts have allowed for people to connect easily—and with people all over the world—he believes online gatherings will still occur.

“After people return to more or less what their lives used to be—seeing other people and grabbing something out to eat—they might think, ‘Oh, now we can include our far-flung friend in a way that we haven’t thought about before,’” he said. “I hope that’s what happens.”
Employers, too, will focus on varied virtual connection ideas to drive engagement, Toney said.

“Companies are doing a really great job of scheduling fun things to do—happy hours, scavenger hunts, virtual escape rooms. They are contracting to make these things happen because that team-building part of being in a company is important. I think those things will evolve and it will make it better as we continue to embrace this.”

Want a deeper dive into post-COVID business trends? It’s a big topic that couldn’t be exhausted here, so we’re continuing the conversation on the new VOE (Voices of Experience) Podcast. Tune in and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Music or at Have a suggestion for a topic you would like us to address?
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