Another forgotten pandemic?

Monday, 1 June 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Some are predicting that workplaces will be a thing of the past, home working will be the ‘new normal’. One distinct benefit COVID has shown the corporate world is that flexibility in work patterns is possible especially with the advent of technology – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara  

It is said that the volume of the COVID-19 virus globally is less than one gram! A molecule with a diameter of 60-140 nms has succeeded in bringing the entire global economy to a grinding halt. We, human beings who have been so proud of our successes in science and technology, our superiority and ability to conquer nature have been dealt an unforgiving blow to our egos. We are collectively scrambling around trying to figure out what to do and how to survive. The only certainty seems to be that it’s best to stay at home!

It seems only fair that a few management buzzwords are created in honour of the COVID pandemic. After all, corporates big and small have been brought to their knees with it being as much an economic issue as a medical one. 

One such buzzword is the ‘new normal’. There are pundits who are espousing the new norms of engagement – of how the world as we know it is going to change, how there will be restrictions in the way we work and in the way we socialise. Some are even calling globalisation into question and predicting that we will embrace insularity. There are innumerable webinars on the ‘new normal’ with experts giving advice on how the human species needs to adapt and how businesses need to embrace the new way of things.

So, what of this new normal? Will it leave a lasting impression on society; enough to change the way we humans behave?

To be fair, the last time the world faced such a situation was some 100 years ago… with the advent of the Spanish flu. Thus, thinking that this is the end of the world as we know it seems justified. Even though a misnomer as evidence points the flu did not originate in Spain, the Spanish flu infected some 500 million people or approximately one third of the then world’s population. Even though accurate data is not available, the flu killed some 50-100 million people and affected countries across the globe from China to India to the US to Europe, a parallel we can draw to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Compare this to our run rate today, 5.5 million cases with 348,000 deaths against a global population of 7.8 billion people (25 May). Rate of infection, percentage wise, only 0.07% of the global population; mortality rate – infinitesimal. One wonders what the excitement is all about!

So, did humankind learn anything from something as catastrophic as the Spanish Flu which wiped out a third of its population? Evidence suggests not. In fact, it is referred to as the ‘forgotten pandemic’ with life going back to normal in all but a year! 

Our pandemic (if I may call it that) will be even more easily forgotten than the Spanish Flu. We are eagerly awaiting the relaxing of lockdown measures to jump back into the consumeristic and narcissistic ways which we displayed pre-COVID. If anything, we will resume our insatiable consumption and exploitation of mother earth with a vengeance, in an effort to catch up for the two months lost. 

A recent CIMA article bears this out with China’s economic revival being far quicker than anticipated. The rest of the world’s economies will follow suit. There will undoubtedly be a time lag, but we will be back with a vengeance! Unlike in 1918, today’s technologically engaged world will make it that much easier for us to forget.

Yet another buzzword that has been coined recently is ‘WFH’ – Work From Home. Some are predicting that workplaces will be a thing of the past, home working will be the ‘new normal’. One distinct benefit COVID has shown the corporate world is that flexibility in work patterns is possible especially with the advent of technology. Labour laws which were erected in the industrial era should now change to include more customised work options suiting both the employer and the employee. 

We are in an era where underwear is branded with our own names so adopting a work pattern that suits the individual should not be too difficult! However, does this mean that going into office will be a thing of the past? Will meetings be on Zoom and MS Teams? Once again, this is highly doubtful. The human being after all, is a social animal. We like to see each other, connect and communicate. Lasting relationships, be they social or official, will still be built this way simply because it is human nature. 

Key teachings of COVID-19

So, what are the key teachings of COVID-19 for the corporate world?

The first and the most critical is for businesses and management to understand that the digital evolution of their organisation is critical. Companies which have been postponing embracing technology thinking that it is a conversation for the future, for when they have more funds, for when they have the right management will go into extinction. These are the dinosaurs that will get wiped out by COVID-19 and the future pandemics which are predicted to happen. 

Just to illustrate the point, the Amazon stock price on 1 January 2020 was $ 2008.72 and $ 2424.54 on 26 May. In the midst of the most devastating pandemic in recent history, the Amazon stock has climbed an astonishing 20% when practically all other stocks (other than tech companies) have crashed. This pandemic has made it embarrassingly obvious how many companies were digitally unprepared and brought home the point that technology is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a hygiene factor and an absolute necessity for your future relevance.

The second is the agility of your workforce and the situational leadership capabilities that your management displays. From financial services to food distribution, those organisations that did best in an unprecedented situation were the ones who had agility in thinking and courage in taking action. They were the ones who served their communities well and left a lasting impression on the customer. 

The key is to see how this agility can be institutionalised, how your teams can be better prepared for different eventualities similar to the fire drills that many organisations conduct. The exact eventuality that you prepare for will not arise but your management and teams will have the thinking power and preparedness to react fast and effectively.

The third is the corporate world’s penchant for living beyond its capital means. Many organisations which are in dire straits financially are those that had taken on unsustainable debt be it to fund expansion, acquisitions or consumption of various forms. This analogy holds true for nation states as well with many requesting debt moratoriums to bide them through these rough times. It is time for businesses to go back to the adage ‘save first to invest’ without embarking on speculative ventures with others’ money. Even though steep growth will be tempered, it will ensure the organisation’s survival to tell the tale.

(The writer is a senior corporate professional, currently functioning as the CEO of Global Consulting company and holding directorships in respected corporate entities in Sri Lanka.)

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