CEOs say the pandemic spurred companies to make unlikely tech transformations

In pre-COVID times, selling certain products online—elevators, to name just one—was thought to be impossible. And road shows for pitching shares in initial public offerings to big investors had to be done in person or risk failure.

But the pandemic has upended those business norms and many more, assisted by advances in technology, chief executives said at the Fortune CEO Initiative in Washington, D.C., on Monday. “We can sell elevators online, not just the spare parts,” said Judy Marks, CEO of elevator maker Otis Worldwide. Previously, elevators were seen as too large and complex.

One of the pandemic’s consequences is to force the hands of companies to change how they operate, including Otis, which was spun out of industrial conglomerate United Technologies only days before the lockdowns started in March 2020. “We had the ability to rewrite every rule, every process,” said Marks.

Skillsoft is another newly public company, returning to the markets in June via a SPAC, a special purpose acquisition company, that has changed how it uses tech because of COVID-19. The digital learning and executive training company’s CEO, Jeff Tarr, said the company’s road show earlier this year, and his recruitment of a senior management team, showed that some things don’t need to be in person as much anymore. “I don’t think we’re going back,” said Tarr. “We don’t need to get on planes to do road shows with workers. We don’t need to actually visit facilities to acquire companies. And we can hire people and learn a lot about them and interview a lot of folks via Zoom.”

Ditto executive coaching, which he said can be offered at a lower price virtually than in person. In fact, the market is demanding it. “You don’t have to meet in person with an executive coach to get value,” Tarr said.

That’s not to say the executives see no need, or even just less need, for human interaction in business. It just means that companies are becoming more specific about what warrants in-person meetups. Otis’s Marks said in-person meetings were key to relationship building, but things like presentations about business operations should be largely virtual now. “I was in Europe a few weeks ago, and the entire trip was all about connecting. There wasn’t a single chart presented to me in a week in three countries,” she said.

Marriott International president Stephanie Linnartz said that bookings trends at her company’s hotels for group meetings bear that out. They have come back more quickly than expected, besting individual travel bookings. “We thought that meetings would come back last,” she said. “It’s actually the opposite of what’s happening.”

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