Our lives will never be the same again. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, it’s a fact. COVID-19 has already, in a matter of just a few weeks, completely changed our world. If you take a step back and really think about the magnitude and speed of what’s happening around us, it’s remarkable - we probably won’t experience anything like it again in our lifetimes. It feels like a line has been drawn in the sand between life before the crisis, and life now and next – the before and the after.
The pandemic has forced us all to question so many elements of our day-to-day lives. It’s forced us to think about and realise what really matters to us and to the world we live in. It’s forced us to question our long-standing habits, routines and values, in both our personal and working lives. I can’t think of a time in my own life that has forced such deep reflection and driven so much fundamental change in such a short period of time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us as consumers. That means the organisations we lead must change too, if we are to survive and thrive in the coming era of work, post-crisis. While every country is at a different stage of the pandemic, and many businesses are struggling to tackle the ‘here and now’ situation, let alone start thinking of the future implications, it’s important that we also start to focus our attention on the future sooner rather than later. It would be naive of us, almost catastrophic in fact, to think that things will simply just go back to normal as they were earlier this year. I simply don’t think they will, in so many ways, shapes or forms.
Understandably, as many countries start to slowly ease lockdown restrictions, business leaders around the world are challenged to understand how to best respond and plan for the new era that we are all on the brink of. I wish we could just flick a switch and fast-forward a few months to see what we need to deal with, but of course we can’t, so we need to figure out what to do in real-time.
It’s clear that the transition back to work is likely to be a slow one. There is a body of evidence that suggests that cases of the virus will need to be near zero and a vaccine available, in order for people to really feel comfortable, and that’s completely understandable. It’s our job as leaders to try and negate some of that concern and anxiety, by being clear and considered in our recovery plans, and communicating them widely, in an inclusive way, that resonates on every level and with every person, respecting each unique circumstance.
But this is a sensitive topic, fraught with huge health and economic implications on a scale that we’ve never had to contend with before and frankly no one on Earth is an expert in. Above all else, my immediate concern in my business is focused on ensuring the actions we’re taking will ensure the health of employees, and counter some of their worries, whilst minimising the risk of infection. As a result, it’s very likely that the return to the workplace will be staggered and phased, with different approaches under different circumstances. There will also be many people and roles who legitimately can show they would rather remain home-working, at least for a part of their week, if not all, and can evidence their productivity in doing so. That’s an example of how the world on exit will be different to the pre-COVID world.
Clearly there are lots of unanswered questions at this stage. I think now is the time to come together as a global business community to share our views and plans, to help facilitate a phased, safe approach to transitioning back into the workplace, wherever that place is. To kickstart that debate, let me share some of the more practical questions myself and my leadership team have been asking ourselves in the short term, as we start to think about helping our employees make that transition:
It’s a long list, and getting longer by the day as we examine more aspects.
As I alluded to earlier, there seems to be a rush to somehow ‘get back to normal’ as soon as possible. But what we considered to be ‘normal’ pre-crisis, won’t be ‘normal’ post-crisis. This pandemic will change forever what we have, in the past, all taken for granted as being ‘normal’. The problem is, we just don’t really know what the next version of normal will look like, yet – and we might not for some time.
There is a growing urgency and pressure on us as leaders to be able to quickly pivot our organisations to adapt to the new world. However, I would hasten against making any rushed long-term decisions – after all, things seem to be changing every day.
In a strange way, this crisis has bought us more time to reflect. The world as we knew it has been momentarily put on pause, and despite the rush to start considering the transition back to the workplace, we have, at this moment, the opportunity to carve out space for true reflection and contemplation as we will undoubtedly need to redesign our businesses and that cannot be done without proper thought.
In our 24/7 pre-crisis lives, time is something most of us craved more of, we were always in a rush, doing seemingly urgent things and often delaying or ignoring the important things, because they took time to work out and didn’t deliver immediate results or gratification. I wonder how many of us are simply replicating that “rush” in our remote-working world, and how many are stepping back and asking “what are we doing and is there a better way?”
So, I urge you to use this time wisely - see it as an opportunity to ask yourself some challenging questions that will help you future-proof your business. Use it to think beyond the relatively short-term operational questions I’ve outlined above, and consider how the world might change, and how your organisation, in its own unique way, will need to respond to the unprecedented changes we’re all faced with.
I’d also encourage you to use this precious time to think about which parts of the ‘old normal’ you will take forward into the post-crisis era and why, and which you will happily wave goodbye to. It’s scary of course when you don’t know what’s around the corner and we are all reluctant to throw away things that have served us well in the past. But, let’s be honest, the majority of businesses will need to find a new product or service set, a new marketplace, a new way of doing what they do, a new relationship with employees and shareholders, a new set of success metrics and so on. How relevant therefore are the things we brought from the past into a future that is so different?
This is a very big question. It’s one I’m sure many a business book and whitepaper will be written about, and many a lecture and webinar will cover for years to come. As I’ve said, I really think we will start to compartmentalise our lives in a ‘before the crisis’ and ‘after the crisis’ perspective, both from a personal and from a business perspective – the impact of that will be huge.
The scale of what is ahead of us is hard to imagine, although there are already tomes of slideware from experts prophesying the future. I’m not going to join that industry, saying that I can articulate how the world of work is likely to change. But what I can do is share with you some of the broader questions that are in my mind as I try to understand the true impact this pandemic will have on my own business, in the hope it might stimulate thinking as to how your own business might need to change.
So, here goes:
Of course, the impact of this crisis on each individual organisation will be different, with much of that impact hard to predict. It is a volatile and varied world out there, with some industries experiencing a backlog of demand including for example, the beauty industry, dentists, parts of retail. Sadly, the same prospects might not exist for other industries, as Erik Gordon, a Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business states.
But, while nothing is certain right now, what we do know for sure is that there will be a tomorrow, and that tomorrow will provide each of our organisations with opportunity, if we look hard enough for it, and ask ourselves the right questions, difficult though they may be. The winners will be those who do a proper and thoughtful job at that deep analysis of what, why, how and who. The losers will be those that simply wait for everything to come back as before.
So, what questions are you as a leader asking yourself right now? It would be good to share your thoughts. As I said, I think now is the time we must all come together as a global business community to ensure we can get the world of work back up and running in the safest and most effective way possible, balancing short term health concerns with the longer term need to have a vibrant economy that provides livelihoods and pays the taxes that support the public services we so obviously need. In more ways than one, this has been a global social experiment, so let’s all share what we’ve learnt along the way, to help us better prepare for whatever is around the corner next.
Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing.
He moved to Blue Circle Industries in 1994 as Group Strategy Director, responsible for all aspects of strategic planning and international investments for the group. During this time, Blue Circle re-focused its business upon heavy building material in a number of new markets and in 1998, Alistair assumed the role of Regional Director responsible for Blue Circle’s operations in Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was responsible for businesses in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Subsequent to the acquisition of Blue Circle by Lafarge in 2001, he also assumed responsibility for Lafarge’s operations in the region as Regional President for Asia.
In 2002, Alistair returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.
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