Reflections on the Covid-19 global shake-up

Covid-19 has achieved in a few, but massively redefining months, what some companies have been struggling with or hiding from for decades: a deep shift in business.

From the neccessity of lockdowns and imposed social distancing, to the resulting rupture to the entire economy and business ecosystem within just a few weeks – this pandemic has hit us in ways we never thought possible, in a time frame we couldn’t imagine, and has laid open the ways in which fragile human (and business) society can be disrupted.

Our status quo of a global economy is no longer a profitable blessing but an eradicating curse.

In business, we like to talk about impact. Social impact, impact investment, impact of communication, impact on society, brand impact (all of which we love to measure). But until today, we have not gone the extra mile into true impact execution. In the span of my decade’s work, I’ve developed numerous social impact strategies, and in each, arriving at the critical point of full commitment, it always came down to „So how can we make profits from this?“. Now that this pandemic has turned the world upside down, is it time to reflect on that question?

The problem is in the mindset not the project.

Covid-19 has shown us what real impact is.

During the past thirty years, businesses have become expert at executing highly efficient, low-cost high-winnings models. On the corporate expansion agenda, national borders have degraded to a political edge item. The world is global and so should its economy be – that was the vision every business embraced, both on a global and regional scale.

Supply chains that have been fragmented in the name of efficiency and scattered across the globe are now the cause for which western countries cannot keep primary care systems running. Anything from missing medication components due to country blockades (ie the pharmaceutical industry’s dependency on China) to a shortage of nurses and doctors (ie in Italy) are reframing our globalization frenzy.

What we will be left with will hopefully be the realization that we are not, in the least, prepared for a global crisis. And that our economic models are not set up for it either.

Let’s look at the organizational and professional impact of Covid-19. There are two observations that stand out most: the impact on business models and organizations (change), and how companies deal with the crisis (leadership).

„Hello, this is your digital transformation wake-up call.“

Have you seen the most recent poll about the main driver (and factor) of companies’ digital transformation (or digitization) being attributed to Covid-19? In a globally widespread lockdown that annihilates every in-person contact scenario, from small meetings to congresses and trade fairs, within a mere hours, and puts an entire industry in jeopardy (events), it’s safe to say that companies who haven’t put a top priority on digitization in the past years now have no other choice.

“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” – Jack Ma, Chinese billionaire

Standing under a leaking roof in the middle of a storm is not the situation out of which you want to be making big business decisions. Some companies (even entire industries or public services such as education) are now precisely there.

We are not talking about small flaws in the system but rather a strong and sometimes total lack of (like in the case of education) tool set up, and an IT infrastructure that is both seamless and reliable. Both are vital when all we want to do is keep business running as normally and smoothly as possible.

If that isn’t a wake-up call, nothing will be.

Our company cultures are also being put to the digital challenge on two fronts: one pure technical, the other social and behavioral.

Starting on the first, we need to address some core questions. How will your teams cope with the new digital standard? Do your employees even have the technical skills to move their work from analog to digital? (Especially within the education system.) Do your employees have home office possibilities and infrastructures in place (company laptop, is that enough)?

And then comes the second: human beings are not machines; executors which you can switch from one location to the other, from one environment to the other. Human beings are made of habits and behavioral patterns. And workplace evolution has shown us just how sensitive humans are to sudden change – not to mention companies, too.

Topics like employee availability und productivity from home, team health and morale (having a cup of coffee in the common kitchen is a greatly missed activity for some), but also childcare for working parents are factors that tend to erupt and explode more quickly now.

It’s funny how many teams have changed their views toward this intense new flexibility. Many who were yearning for the New Work standard of digital and modern working structures are noticing a stale aftertaste, like milk gone a bit bad: Is this really worth dropping team lunches and collective coffee breaks over? (I am sure there are even some executives secretly dreaming of the luxury of in-person meetings again – the art of the handshake being sorely missed.)

Covid-19 is the ultimate leadership challenge.

This crisis has come like that unexpected storm and has washed away all the layers of false pretenses and hypocrisy, revealing to us the good, the bad and sometimes even the weird in everyone.

It is easy to be great in shining moments but failures trigger frustration and anger – is there a greater trigger than this crisis! It is as if the pandemic has removed all the shades and left only the black and white in the world. You either win or loose. There is no neutral „that was fine“-performance.

Leaders are the figures who should lead through “primis inter paris”, first among the equals. They should be the member of the team that has the task to make evrybody else’s work smooth, easy and organized in the best possible way. A leader’s job is to oil the machine when it is stuttering.

As C-19 was breaking out and turning into a crisis, many leaders revealed their lack of awareness. Some decided to wait it out, keep business running as if nothing is happening and just ignore the issue (panic). Others fell into the common trap of actionism, a stressfully busy expression of panic.

I have been speaking to friends and peers about how their leaders are handling the crisis. One friend shared his leader’s actions quite vividly:

This leader decided to take a long weekend in Austria in March, a high-risk region even at that time (back when high-risk regions were still the relevant pandemic classification; today the whole world is a high-risk region) and returned to the office on Monday morning, relaxed and laid-back. Maybe he knew something we didn’t. Maybe he thought he had a superman immune system. Or he just didn’t think the pandemic was real enough.

He later came down with C-19, which is when the spontaneous weekend trip came to light in his small firm. His team includes one pregnant colleague, an asthmatic and a few 50+ year old members – all people who we need to be looking out for, not endangering unnecessarily. He was bed-ridden for at least a week. His employees tried to cope with their general freak-out and incredulity as best possible, trying to remain committed to their leader through his lapse in judgement. But the damage to his leadership capabilities may be more long-term than he assumes.

Leaders who do not acknowledge their responsibility toward and for everyone in their teams and companies will not survive this crisis unscathed. And compared with other crises, reputation is not the only thing at stake here. This is a health crisis. People are dying, suffering, scared and confused. Economy is shaken or even in breakdown for some industries. Leaders need to step up or listen to their employees’ feedback and improve (if given a chance post-corona).

There are leaders who are doing their best though and getting a few things right. Informing their teams, admitting to working out the plan as they go along, guided by new information every step of the way, and staying grounded as best they can are just a few examples of seemingly little things that make all the difference.

It’s not all perfect and we have to remember that our leaders are only humans too, just as affected by this crisis as everyone else is. Mistakes will happen. Statements or actions may be misunderstood contrary to all good intentions. But when a leader or leadership team manages to hit the mark 95% of the time, employees will see that and support them through their momentary failings. True solidarity will emerge from this.

I had my own lapse in leadership a few days ago, driven by frustration and geographical disconnectedness to my team and fellow leaders. I am thankful that I recognized my mistake and decided to address it, owning to that momentary awkwardness toward my fellow leader.

What helped me was my practice of constant reflection, toward myself and situations around me. And a general openness toward growth, learning and optimization. This is also the time when bonds are strengthened and compassion is intensified.

Let’s talk about marketing (during) the crisis.

When the first calls (campaigns) for solidarity and community emerged, I was elated. I am used to being the critical voice in most scenarios, quick to filter out value and business goals. So when I say that I felt the collective value outweighed its economic goals, it’s a big deal.

I truly believe the initial motivation for solidarity communication or actions was solidarity and not marketing.

In uncertain times (of crisis), we are reminded of our humanity and the transience of our own existence. We show extreme compassion in our relationships. This is one of those times. And it silences my critical inner voice. At least for a while.

But the human brain is quick to leave its fight-or-flight mode. We need to be aware of how quickly we fall back into old behaviors and patterns. Companies are already back on the marketing bandwagon, trying to capitalize (reputation) on those actions.

As the crisis progresses and evolves (it is far from over), the mission of any and every communicator and consultant is to keep the goal on solidarity and collective. Or we will be back where we started: In a loud, highly competitive marketing economy. Let’s strive toward a collective value approach.

Shake-up to a new reality.

This crisis lays open the good and the bad, the hopeful and the hopeless. We have to take this global crisis for what it is: a shake-up. Let’s let it shake us out of our thinking and old behavior patterns. Let’s make reflection a standard practice, individually and collectively. Let’s commit to good leadership and economic turn-around.

I am hopeful for new opportunities to grow business that do not include shallow impact. And I look forward to the hard work it will take to break old ways of doing things.

Personally, Covid-19 has shown me that I have been sick of the old normal for a while now, and reminded me that I have tried to break loose from it before. And I see in others that they are realizing the same thing: We need something new to replace the leaky roof.

No change is easy, it takes more than one try to truly alter thinking patterns and behavior. We all know the feeling of falling back into old structures after a good first sprint into the new.

Let’s consider not replacing the old roof with a newer version, but with something inherently different.

This crisis has reaffirmed my commitment to creating a new normality, for myself and for my (direct) environment. Professionally, I will strive to bring that to my work more than ever before. Personally, I’m already past my first mile and ready to keep going.

Because crises change us, for better or worse. Let’s make it for the better. Let’s be the designers of our new normality.