With all the data, technology and connectivity that defines the world in which we currently live, how is it that almost no one saw the COVID-19 crisis coming?
There were plenty of warnings. News of a new and potentially dangerous virus in China broke late last year. As we headed into the New Year, epidemiologists and public health officials around the world waved red flags and advised governments and businesses alike to prepare.
I have worked extensively over my career studying crisis management and helping to plan responses for public health emergencies, including an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. What I have learned through those experiences is that human beings tend to dismiss warnings of future trouble and ignore calls to prepare.
In short, we have trouble accepting that a crisis is real until it is already upon us.
We have clearly missed our chance to prepare for COVID-19. However, that does not mean we cannot learn important lessons from this crisis and apply them to future challenges. I am very confident we will use this crisis as an opportunity to improve and enhance our lives and, in particular, the way we work.
For years, business advisors and consultants have emphasized the need to be creative, nimble, agile and adaptable, to get out ahead of the technology curve. Some have heeded that advice but many more have essentially taken the same approach used in the prelude to the pandemic: acknowledge the need to adapt but maintain a business-as-usual posture.
If there is one positive thing that may come from the COVID-19 crisis, it is a global acknowledgement that we can no longer be complacent. Our very survival is at stake. In other words, we need to re-invent our businesses and ourselves, and we need to do it at lightning speed.
The COVID-19 crisis will convince many organizations to view and manage risk differently, to forecast and plan differently, and to act decisively on things we know we need to do before it’s forced upon us.
Although it started as primarily a public health emergency, COVID-19 has developed into a threat that has impacted all our lives on multiple levels. It has crippled certain industries, while creating new and unprecedented opportunities for others. It has changed the very nature of work, particularly when, where and how we perform our jobs. Before it is over, it may very well reframe our very understanding of livelihood and quality of life.
What kinds of things can we look for? I’ll share what I think it means for the future.
COVID-19 is accelerating business transformation
Before the pandemic, all kinds of organizations were pursuing business or workforce transformations to meet future challenges and opportunities. Unfortunately, many of these companies were taking a very long time to enact change. And even when they did, they were reluctant to go all in, leaving them in limbo: neither the same as they were nor different enough to really move into the future. Many organizations had acknowledged the need to “transform” but just hadn’t gotten around to it.
After the pandemic, we will see many more businesses fully embrace rapid, urgent transformation. They are learning how to do this purely as a matter of survival. We have already seen this in some industries like hospitality and healthcare. Social distancing meant that many restaurants went from being fully booked to completely empty. Undeterred, many began re-tooling their operations to focus solely on pick-up or delivery service. They were aided significantly in this transformation by companies that provide meal delivery on demand. In order to protect patients seeking medical advice or treatment, healthcare systems are pushing people to telemedicine options to limit human-to-human contact. Patient traffic to telehealth services is surging. Telemedicine app Amwell experienced a 158% increase since the virus hit. The shift to telemedicine is poised to dramatically impact the healthcare industry, creating new opportunities. Other organizations in other sectors of the economy are being forced to adopt similar changes, and it will change the world of work forever.
The great work-from-home experiment is transforming company cultures
Before the pandemic, many organizations were ambivalent about the idea of their employees working from home. Some considered the idea of virtual work taboo, clinging to outdated concerns about diminished productivity. There were also concerns about a lack of creative critical mass if key talent was not concentrated in the same office environment. Despite a clear and compelling business case to move to a virtual environment, employers resisted this trend fearing that it would erode company culture.
Millions of workers around the world are now working from home for the first time. They are being required to adapt to a new environment, work with new tools and learn new ways to work—overnight. Many employees want to, and can, work from home at least some of the time. Research from Gallup shows that 43% of employees in the US already work remotely. This number is set to increase as COVID-19 accelerates the move to virtual. But organizations need to understand that the move to remote isn’t smooth and requires new behaviors and skills to ensure creativity, engagement and productivity don’t lag.
You can expect that many of the workers who were sent home to control the spread of the virus will be pressing to keep the experiment going post pandemic. That could mean seismic changes in employment contracts and remuneration, urban planning, as fewer people commute each day, and commercial real estate, as businesses look to invest less in office space and more in products and services.
The next major iteration of e-commerce
Before the pandemic, e-commerce had been growing in value and reach for years, accounting for 16% of total retail purchases in 2019. However, with the implementation of social distancing, consumer behavior is shifting rapidly. Not only are we seeing a huge lift to online grocery shopping, but other categories are seeing increases as well. In fact, a recent survey by Red Points found that nearly half of consumers are more likely to make retail purchases online because of coronavirus fears.
With e-commerce on the rise, companies are looking for new ways to boost online sales, while those companies that haven’t made the shift will need to pivot quickly if they want to survive. This is leading to new investments in online advertising, technology, automation and fulfillment. The future of businesses built on bricks and mortar storefronts will be severely tested after the world sees just how much it can accomplish with a click and a credit card.
A re-invention of the workforce as an agile resource, not just a cost
Before the pandemic, the world was suffering through an unprecedented shortage of skilled talent. Unemployment rates in almost every region were at historic low levels. The future of economic growth was in doubt largely because employers—who had always relied on the open labor market to meet talent needs—could not find the right people with the right skills.
After the pandemic, there will be a new and largely overdue emphasis on preparing today’s workforce for future skill demands. There will be more work done to identify those employees who are most agile and most open to learning. Organizations will invest much more heavily in creating an agile workforce, developing their people—embracing virtual learning options—so that they can pivot quickly and move smoothly into various roles within the organization. Even as we suffer through the economic lockdown that comes with the pandemic, now is one of the best times to develop workers, build new skills and prepare them for the post-pandemic world.
The human and economic toll from the pandemic is one of the most profound examples testing our ability to plan, prepare and change to meet a new challenge. Lives will be lost. Entire industries may be left in ruin. In some cases, it would have been impossible to avoid the devastation. In many others, however, the magnitude of suffering will be directly proportionate to the absence of effective preparedness, readiness and response.
We can build a better world out of this. I know this because, simply put, we have to. There is no other choice. Any efforts we make to simply return to life “as usual” before the pandemic will only exacerbate our suffering when the next crisis comes.
About the Author
Ricardo Vargas is currently the Executive Director of the Brightline™ Initiative, a Project Management Institute (PMI) initiative together with leading global organizations from business, government and not for profit sectors, including Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Agile Alliance, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Lee Hecht Harrison, and NetEase.