Credit: Thinkific

The pandemic has not so much created new trends as accelerated existing ones, says the Thinkific CEO

We asked prominent members of the B.C. business community what they’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic—and how this crisis will change everything from work to leadership. Greg Smith is co-founder and CEO of Thinkific, a Vancouver-based online course creation platform.

For B.C. businesses that have survived COVID-19, what’s the most important thing they can do right now to make themselves more resilient to future disruptions?

I’m a fan of Jim Collins, who suggests that firms that are prepared with cash on hand to survive and invest in their future will come out the other side even stronger in the face of unexpected events. COVID-19 is one of those highly unlikely, totally unpredictable events that you could never have seen coming. While we can’t predict exactly what and when these events will be, we do know that they will come. My suggestion would be to focus on getting the best possible results out of this event and also to prepare for the next one by hoarding cash reserves whenever possible.

Firms also need to adapt to a remote work environment and an online service offering wherever possible. We’ve seen the greatest impact on businesses that require in-person activity (fitness instructors, tutors, coaches). To make themselves more resilient, we recommend they diversify their business by making sure their offerings have offline and online components.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the pandemic?

This pandemic has not so much created new trends as it has accelerated existing ones. Remote work, online learning and so many other changes going on right now are trends that were already in the works. At Thinkific, growth projected in the creation and adoption of online learning is happening much faster than predicted. In early 2019, the online course market was forecast to be worth US$300 billion by 2025, up from US$190 billion in 2018. But in the months since COVID-19 hit, we’ve seen a 200-percent increase in entrepreneurs and businesses creating online courses. Although much of this has impacted us positively, it came on so much faster than anticipated that it caused some chaos at the outset. For me, the takeaway is to be prepared to have the future meet you far faster than anticipated.

Is there one aspect of your business, or business in general, that you think has changed for good or that you won't be going back to doing the old way?

We’ve surveyed the team, and the consensus seems to be that while we won’t lose the office completely, we will probably move to a more remote-first culture. We’ll keep the office, but it won’t be big enough for everyone to have a permanent desk.

Another positive change for us is our all-hands or department meetings. When we held these in person pre-COVID and got to the Ask Us Anything section, there were only a few questions. Now with the chat feature alongside our meetings in Zoom, not only are the Q&A sections full of great questions but the entire meeting has a running commentary and cheering section from the whole team. It’s an amazing shift in the experience. We may also be adopting themed costumes for our teamwide Zoom meetings now.

Over the next few years, how do you expect work to change as a result of COVID?

I think we will see the existing trends continue. Some, like business travel, may relax a bit, but they won’t go back to exactly as they were before. This has accelerated our adoption of and perception of remote options for conferences, meetings, online learning and day-to-day work, and I expect that will continue to grow as we move forward. 

Looking ahead, what leadership qualities will be most in demand?

Empathy. In a time when it’s harder to connect with people, to see their facial expressions or hang out with them socially, empathy will play an even bigger role in leading people. We’ll need to be conscious of the increased mental health concerns, child-care and work-from-home schedule demands that impact our teams.