Building a company for after the virus
Businesses in the UK have spent the past four years living with a higher-than-average level of uncertainty. The Brexit referendum and its aftermath of political and diplomatic wranglings created a sense of waiting for the futures to settle, rules to become clear again. The rules of trade but also the rules governing how companies and charities are allowed to talk publicly and to the government about the policy environment. This has cast a long shadow over corporate decision-making. In many organisations, strategic direction has stalled or been set merely to avoid the worst-case scenario.
In this context, Covid-19 is one more horrendous blow. A blindside that makes the future more fraught and more unknowable. And the temptation is to hide under the covers, to stay home and safe like a metaphor for public health policy. The problem, as many organisations have found in the past four years, is that staying safe is not how you prosper or gain an outstanding corporate reputation. By doing what you have always done, you risk falling foul of changing public views, changing context, changing employee needs and desires, changing shareholder requirements.
Right now (I hear you moan from under your duvet) it is hard to do anything more than just stay afloat between crises, appear coherent in the endless Zoom calls, and work out what to cook from the odd assortment of packets in your cupboard. I can empathise. But every decision you take in those web conferences, every crisis averted, is a step towards the kind of organisation you will work for when we emerge into life post-coronavirus. If you don’t know what you are aiming for, each decision will be harder but it will also be far more difficult to get yourself on track after the lockdown has passed. How many times have you sat in a meeting where the ideal solution has been dismissed as impracticable given the current state of affairs? That current state of affairs is what you are building right now.
Booker Prize-winner Arundhati Roy wrote movingly in last weekend’s Financial Times about the way in which India is changing during the pandemic. It is a bleak (though beautiful) essay that I highly recommend. The light in this darkness was her final sentiment:
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Financial Times, 3 April 2020
For some organisations, Covid-19 will literally mean manufacturing different products, or scaling up production at a breakneck pace. Others will have re-engineered supply chains or working practices to comply with social distancing and global disruptions. Elsewhere the effects are more subtle but possibly even longer-lasting: executive pay decisions, healthcare packages, volunteering. Globally, we are seeing impacts on the environment and wildlife that may give us pause to think (if we can only get off those darned video calls). While we make these changes, try to keep part of your brain or slack channels focussed on the world afterwards. What are you working for? What are you stepping through into?
Finally, for all the craziness of confinement, it does provide a new perspective. Whatever this pandemic has brought into focus for you, capture it. Ask your team. Record the results. That way when we step, blinking, through the portal into the next part of our lives, we won’t lose the clarity that lockdown provided.
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