How to operate in the new COVID-19 world

“And one thing change’ll bring is somethin’ new”

Steve Earle

There are times in history that are always discussed by the elders as before and after it. There was a time before electricity altered the working day. A time before the Internet made everything and everyone in the world accessible. A time before Amazon made shopping a 24/7 sport. A time before social media corrupted the electoral process. And a time before a pandemic forced us to rethink 100 years of business evolution.

This is what happens with the curse of human ingenuity. We don’t stand still and we don’t give up. It seems like there are always big thinkers and doers waiting in the wings for just this kind of change to happen and they capitalize on the shifts. We all know it doesn’t happen exactly like that. Change happens at a glacial pace until we reach a tipping point and then it accelerates.

Welcome to the tipping point

And this is where we are. There will be a before and after the pandemic and there will be stories of companies coping with the outcomes and stories of companies thriving — the difference will be how they adapt the way they operate in a world that looks dramatically different and will for the foreseeable future.

Operating in a pandemic

There are two ways for businesses to operate as the world awakens to the new reality that there is no quick fix to a pandemic. They can retrench in their old way of doing things and wait for this to pass and hope that it returns to the way it was or they can rethink their business model and product offerings and operate in the new reality.

There are obviously risks in both choices but understanding that whatever normal was prior to the pandemic is not something that we will return to. That era has passed. However, we are not yet in the after stage and that requires a different kind of thinking. In order to make it through this time, companies need to embrace this reality and build their business to accommodate it.

For those companies that remain in the bubble of before the pandemic it is time to recognize that waiting for the doors to open on the economy won’t be the savior. It is time to be entrepreneurial again and to solve the same original business problem that prompted the creation of the business but under our new circumstances. Rethink the idea. The risk in not doing so will jeopardize the business even more. Don’t try to cannibalize an offering but find something that compliments, that adds to the value for your existing customers.

The realities to be faced

The world has been through something like this before and it survived. Not just survived but thrived. The flu pandemic in 1918-1920 essentially ended a war and rolled us into the roaring 20’s. Advances in science — our understanding of immunology was momentous — was just the start. That pandemic killed as many as 100 million people in weeks at a time that pales to now in advances of technology, immunology and science. We are a different human race today compared to 100 years ago. With this comes our ability to bounce back faster given the generation that did it in 1918 was doing so while recovering from a world war and having lost 10% of the world’s population to the flu. Despite where we are today, it will never be as bad as it was in comparison.

We just need to accept a number of hard truths.

Truth #1 – Consumer confidence is shaky

This is the greatest risk to the economy right now. Consumers need to feel a sense of normalcy as a base to move towards true economic recovery. This is a psychological hurdle that is the hardest to overcome as we are still trying to balance leaving our homes and defending our communities against the virus.

Truth #2 – There are fewer employees

Massive layoffs have led the news but the macro impact on small businesses — the engine of our economy — has been devastating. We are starting to see it as provinces and states start to reopen and those businesses stay closed because they can’t earn with the imposed safety restrictions. Worse are the businesses that didn’t survive and are closing permanently.

Truth #3 – Financial aid will stop

At some point — one that we are nearing — the government will not be able to prop up the economy and people will have to get back to work. A high unemployment rate is just the beginning. Many will need to be retrained in order to re-enter the workforce because scarcity rules over the workforce right now. This obviously has an impact on any ability to spend and erodes confidence and the economic outlook.

Truth #4 – Humans are resilient and entrepreneurial

Opposable thumbs aren’t our only differentiator in this world. When this chapter is written about our history it will be about the step changes that happened as a result of human ingenuity. New business models will emerge. New companies will be formed. Existing businesses will adapt or die. New habits will have formed. New efficiencies will make us wonder what we did before. There is no doubt that sewn into the seam of this pandemic are the secrets to a great human renaissance yet to emerge.

Truth #5 – We are all watching

There has been a reckoning that has forced us all to look at how we operate as a race. We do this periodically as individual communities or cities and sometimes as countries but we don’t often do this as a planet. Nothing brings the real humanity out like a challenge to humanity. The reality of senior care, white privilege, hourly workers and the fragility of — and our reliance on — others are lessons soon not to be forgotten. Neither are those that disregarded the safety instructions, thought only of themselves and put many more people at risk. Human character has been on display in all its glory and disgust. Noted. Filed.

The global economy is a human construct — our race existed before all of this. We built it, grew it and thrived as a result of it. It also allowed us to stop it to to save ourselves from a similar fate that befell the generation that faced the 1918 flu pandemic. We are now standing at a time of great challenge where human complexity has brought us to a boiling point. When something like a pandemic strips away the veneer we are left with the things we’ve built, the things we’ve let pass and it is clear to EVERYONE there is change that must happen to evolve. We can’t ignore it now because it is front and centre today like never before. This is our turning point. This is our moment to be remembered for acting like humans.

Let’s not waste it by holding on to the way it was.

*photo credit CC0 Public Domain