Even one year into a COVID-19 lockdown that has staggered the U.S., there still are so many questions.
When will vaccinations truly be available to the masses? Where does the economy go from here?
And when will there be a return to normal, whatever normal is at this point?
"That is the question: What is the new normal going to look like?" said Jochen Etzel, CEO of Continental Tires the Americas L.L.C. "I guess nobody really knows 100 percent, but I think it will be a mix."
As the fog of COVID-19 eventually lifts, companies will use a combination of past practices along with what's been learned over the past year to navigate the future.
Virtual meetings, for example, are likely to supplement traditional business travel and face-to-face gatherings, Etzel said.
"I think that will stick," he said. "I don't think that will ever go away."
At the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, CEO Anne Forristall Luke said the pandemic has her questioning the idea of normalcy.
"I don't know what that means anymore," she said.
Regardless of how normal is defined, living through the pandemic has shown Luke there is a flexibility in the tire industry.
"What I learned about myself, the industry, our team and so many other partners that we've worked with in the past year is just how resilient and devoted to each other's success and wellbeing we are," she said. "We are agile and resilient and able to quickly figure out how to navigate and also how to help one another.
"In the tire industry, in particular, the pandemic gave us an opportunity, I would say, to reinforce and solidify how our industry is an essential part of the American economic ecosystem."
With more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. and more than 28 million COVID-19 cases, virtually everyone has been touched by the pandemic. That includes Roy Littlefield, CEO of the Tire Industry Association, who lost a close friend to the illness on Christmas Eve.
"The whole work environment is going to change," Littlefield said. "I think there will be long-term impacts on this."
Still, work must go on, and it does at TIA, despite the challenges faced by the entire country—the entire world.
For many associations, COVID-19 has dented budgets as in-person meetings and conferences have been put on hold until the country can steer clear of the pandemic.
"It's really impacted a lot because of the financial challenges that come out of something like this, the health challenges," Littlefield said. "Everybody in the office has somebody they know who has got it, has passed away because of it, somebody in their family. It's a different environment."
TIA has not had to trim jobs or salaries, but with an uncertain future, the organization knows that day could come if COVID-19 impacts linger.
Human connection needed
The association also has seen first-hand how the virus has hit member companies.
"I think that we're all coming away from it with so many tragic stories from our members, that it has an impact on all of us, that what we do everyday really matters for so many people," Littlefield said. "So I do think it's tied us closer to our members, if that's possible."
At the same time, he said it's "very challenging and difficult not to see anybody."
Associations, like TIA and USTMA, are built around similar interests. But at their core, they are about the people whose work brings them together.
Missing out on that human connection that meetings and conferences provide has been especially difficult, Littlefield said.
The dramatic rise in the use of virtual meeting services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams has created deeper bonds, in some ways, than actually being able to meet in person, Etzel said.
Past hesitancy to rely on virtual meetings has melted away in the face of the restrictions created by COVID-19. "All of a sudden, we learned that these things do work, and it was not as negative or risky as some people thought," Etzel said.
For Continental, that includes not only staff sessions, but meetings with customers as well as product introductions. "I think there were some people who, in the past, were very hesitant," to rely on technology to connect, he said.
Etzel also sees a future where online and in-person gatherings co-exist and complement.
"I think we're also at a point where we will be going forward much smarter with combining in-person visits, travel, but also then continuing to rely to some extent on virtual interaction," the Continental executive said.
"For me, one of the positive things, again talking about our teams, is really the trust across the organization that I hope will stick. Managers and team members have really experienced how they can rely on each other. I think that's definitely something I expect to stick. Also the stronger relationships and the more frequent interactions."
People are interacting much more online compared to less-frequent in-person visits of the past. While these virtual meetings are not as intense as meeting face-to-face, the increased frequency makes up for that to some extent, Etzel said.
Luke agreed that there is a dichotomy that being separate in some ways is bringing people closer together.
"If anything, these challenges have shown us in the last year, and the major disruptive forces that we see, the power of partnership, of collaboration, of working together. I think it's going to really define success going forward. Even more so than it has in the past," she said.
Despite the ability to connect online, Littlefield said there still is no substitute for certain face-to-face meetings, whether that means advocacy work on Capitol Hill or conference gatherings around the country.
"You can't go downtown right now and see any congressmen or senators," Littlefield said. "No reservations. No group of more than 10. You don't know if you are going to have Vegas in September," he said about the group of automotive-related shows held annually.
"That personal contact is very important for everybody," he said. "I'm concerned about that. I'm concerned about membership. We were very fortunate last year. We still had a very large membership increase. But that's unusual for an association right now."