walgreens drive-up pharmacy window
In response to COVID-19, Walgreens offers a process where customers can shop online for various essential products and pick them up at the chain’s drive-thru pharmacy windows. — Walgreens

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of society and will create ongoing changes to the ways companies conduct business, according to speakers at a recent virtual roundtable for technology executives.

Consumers have quickly adopted a range of digital solutions for their everyday activities, from telemedicine visits with doctors to video conference calls with coworkers. What previously had been fringe technologies have become mainstream in a matter of weeks.

“I think those types of things are here to stay,” said Ritesh Patel, chief digital officer at Ogilvy Consulting, during the roundtable, called Accelerating Digital Transformation and presented by Techonomy.

As consumers have been adopting these new technologies, companies have had to adapt to the fast-changing environment with little planning. This represents a new way of doing business that provides lessons going forward, Patel said. Innovations that previously could have taken months of back-and-forth discussions across silos and several rounds of testing are now being fast-tracked to the front lines in a matter of days.

“There is a general awareness that we just have to move, and we have to move fast,” said Gunjan Bhow, global chief digital officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, who was also on the virtual panel.

Walgreens, which operates more than 9,000 drugstores across the U.S., has been juggling the challenges of being an essential business that must stay open during the crisis. The company first and foremost seeks to protect the health its workers, while also providing a safe and satisfying shopping experience for its customers, said Bhow.

One of the first changes Bhow’s team implemented during the crisis was the creation of a list of essential products that customers could shop for online and pick up at the chain’s drive-thru pharmacy windows.

“That was something we could do right away to get people the basics without having the anxiety,” he said. “The worst thing we could do at this time was have the customer take the risk of going to the store for something essential, and not find what they need.”

The worst thing we could do at this time was have the customer take the risk of going to the store for something essential, and not find what they need.

Gunjan Bhow, global chief digital officer, Walgreens Boots Alliance

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The Walgreens team has embraced the concept of making decisions in real time and course-correcting later, said Bhow, describing it as a “perfect is the enemy of now” mentality.

“That urgency is there,” he said. “I keep hearing from my teams that they feel more agile, and more empowered to do what they always wanted to do.”

Likewise, Patel cited an example of a hospital using a 3D printer to make protective masks — something that never would have happened before the pandemic without extensive research, trials and certifications.

Although in the healthcare industry patient safety will always take precedence over excessively rapid innovation, Patel explained, the concept of speedy rollouts of new innovations will gain acceptance across a range of industries. Accelerated innovation becomes more necessary as consumers’ long-term behaviors change due to adaptations they have made during the crisis. E-commerce, for example, has proven itself to be a viable solution for a broad swath of shoppers who previously have been skeptics.

“On the retailer side, 20% to 30% of the population are seeing that online retailing really works,” Patel said. “You go online, you order something, and it shows up at your door.”

Telehealth services, which allow patents to meet with doctors via video chat, are also likely to remain popular, he said, and could extend to other professions such as pharmacists.

 gunjan bhow headshot
Gunjan Bhow, global chief digital officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance. — Walgreens

Customer data from frontline workers is critical in the new normal

Although the pace of change accelerated at Walgreens during the crisis, the retailer kept its organizational structure intact, Bhow said. The company found that its people had the passion to perform under pressure, and to work across silos as necessary.

“The sense of mission and purpose was so clear across the organization,” said Bhow. “It enabled people to come together and work together for a common goal, and just get it done.”

However, he said some structural changes will likely be needed to function in the “new normal” that emerges from the crisis.

“When we do come out of this, the world will be changed in some ways permanently, and I am confident we will need some organizational change to be ready for that challenge,” Bhow said.

For one, a sharp focus on customer data and strong processes for collecting feedback from frontline workers will remain critical to survival, he said.

It’s important for companies to examine actual customer behavior — such as how they use the drive-thru, for example — and not just listen to what customers say they are doing, Bhow said.

Frontline workers, meanwhile, can provide valuable feedback, especially when testing and rolling out new innovations.

“If they are touching the day to-day operations or the customers on a day-to-day basis, the insight they can provide on anything is just so, so critical,” said Bhow. “You can hire all kinds of research and consultants, but at the end of the day, if [front-line workers] give you the truth, it helps you differentiate. It gives you insights that only you have. They may be able to identify a problem before your competition, or before it becomes common knowledge.

“For purposes of innovation, starting with the front-line team members is the most significant tool management can have to differentiate,” he said.

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Published May 26, 2020