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Post COVID-19; Not a Brave New World

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By any definition, by any stretch of the imagination, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a transformational event that has affected, either directly or indirectly (probably both) each and every person on the planet.  That the “story” of COVID-19 is being knocked off the front page by the media (like “climate change” before it) and replaced by the upcoming Presidential election in the States along the appointment of a new Judge to the Supreme Court (which are interrelated), tells me that people are increasingly accepting the existence of COVID-19 in their daily calculus.

So, I believe we can start contemplating what the world will look like post-COVID.  What changes were made in the run-up to peak-COVID?  Which are here to stay?  To what extent and form will they remain?  What “new” will exist?  What “old” will not?

I don’t believe this will result in a “Brave New World” with the entire planet becoming a “world state”; a single government that overseas the entire planet and whose ruling class is qualified and selected by their intelligence (as portrayed in the dystopian novel of the same name written by Aldous Huxley).

The main reason is that I am not sure there is anyone on the planet presently who is intelligent enough to set the standard for intelligence; but certainly, there is argument for the standards being set for the absence of intelligence.

But what does the future hold?  Especially the future of work?  Is the change good?  What are some of the pros and cons?  What are the risks?

Remote Work;  This one subject will be the most prominent as we enter the post-COVID-19 world, and for all the right reasons.  Since March of 2020, I have spoken with countless senior leaders of businesses huge and small.  They all shared with me their experiences with going to a remote (work from home) paradigm.  And each and every one of them, shared with me that productivity had actually improved markedly for a variety of reasons including;

Commuting; Those who did not have to report to the production line (whether producing product or providing “essential services), but were knowledge-based workers, many (most) experienced the evaporation of the time spent commuting.  If we think about the 7-wastes in Lean; Transport, Motion, and Waiting have been dramatically reduced by the elimination of commuting.  And if you give a person extra time, you have liberated them.  This benefit was especially stark for those working in larger cities where it was not unusual for a person to spend upwards of three hours per day commuting.  This translates to roughly five to fifteen hours per week of “liberty”.  What did you do with your extra time?

Meetings; All of those I spoke with shared with me that meetings were more efficient.  No longer were they dragged into a meeting simply because someone saw them sitting at their desk and (supposedly) available.  If you were called to a telephonic meeting, you had a purpose for being there.  In addition, there was a specific agenda for the meeting with detailed expected outcomes and the times of the meeting were fixed with a hard start and hard end.  Whatever was to be the intended result of the meeting was more likely to occur.  Less time wasted.

Cloud Based Computing;  Whether the applications, information, and data required to do their job were already in the cloud, or the users used a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access their business applications; getting the information that was needed to collaborate and act upon required little adjustment; but required some extensive consideration to cyber security.

However, there were some challenges and risks that were expressed; and these challenges and risks will need to be overcome in the long-term.

On-boarding;  The leaders with whom I spoke all shared the challenges of on-boarding new employees or (to a lesser extent) changing the roles of existing employees.  It is just darn difficult to do the deep emersion into a new position with new teammates, processes, and applications remotely.  Going forward, some extra attention and new on-boarding protocols will be required to make the necessary adjustments in these areas.

Work/Life Balance;  When you work from home, it can be somewhat of a challenge to establish borders between work-time and personal-time.  The risk is that employees can find themselves working almost all of the time (I didn’t hear of challenges faced of employees not working).  My companies have worked remotely since before it was cool and I had this same problem.  To overcome this challenge (and it might sound corny), I actually take a drive (simulated commuting) for 10min at the start of my day and 10min at the end of my day.  This establishes in my brain a barrier between work and personal time.

The other challenge with work/life balance is finding a quiet place to work uninterrupted and in private.  You don’t want an unsuspecting spouse or partner to be caught unawares that they are on video as they pass by the camera in something less than their Sunday best, or the distraction of children being taught remotely, or the dog wanting some love and attention.

Social Engagement;  Human beings are social creatures.  We need the face-to-face personal time to establish and maintain bonds, to become and remain members of a team.  Although remote work is here to stay, I believe that there will be a need for programs to be established so that teammates have the opportunity to socialize and bond with one another.  I see this manifesting itself as team-building days, perhaps one day per month, when teammates get together just to bond; no real work-related activities (these face-to-faces could be organized separately), but just to establish and maintain the personal and professional bonds necessary to become and remain a team.

Less Business Travel;  Related to the above remote work, and unfortunately for the airlines and hospitality businesses, the need for business travel will drop precipitously, and for all the right reasons; mainly, it’s a giant time and resource suck with marginal benefit (and considerable detriment) most of the time.

I will share an experience;  We were working with a client and they wanted to have two different meetings, at two different times, at two different cities in the States.  Since the meeting was going to be conducted in a conference room and not at a production site, I tried to persuade them to conduct the meeting using telephony.  They would have none of that.

I am coming from Frankfurt, Germany and my teammates were coming from New York and Washington, DC.  Many of the client’s resources were also coming from afar.  For the one-day meeting, those who had to travel had to find a shared three-day hole in their calendars.  This requirement delayed the meeting by six weeks.  The travel costs alone from our side were $7,500 (plus the charge for travel-time during the workday).  I imagine the costs were similar for our client.  The meeting itself took less than a full day.

Not only did the meeting cost far more than it should have, but the deliberations and decisions that were made as a result of that meeting were delayed six weeks.  I call that lost opportunity time.  If you believe (as I do) that time is the enemy, the enemy won this battle.

The travel and hospitality businesses will have to quickly reinvent themselves to cater to the masses (with their limited budgets and no fancy expense accounts) upon which they will now rely rather than business people in the post-COVID-19 world.  Cruise lines should be less effected (once people feel its safe to travel) since the customers were almost exclusively people on holiday.

Commercial Real Estate;  Also related to remote work, owners of commercial office space are facing a giganormous challenge; one that will not be easily overcome.  And this challenge is not limited to just commercial real estate developers and owners, but corporations who have spent crazy amounts of money on building their own offices.

For instance, Apple spent over $5 Billion to develop Apple Park (aka “The Spaceship”) in Cupertino, California.  The 2.8 million square feet of office space is now largely empty and Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple has indicated that most employees will remote work until 2021 (with no firm plans, yet, to bring back those other than people working on product development in the labs).  And Google is not planning to bring employees back to the offices until the summer of 2021.  We shall see what really happens, and to what extent.

Between COVID-19, the social unrest in major metropolitan areas, and companies having discovered their commercial office space might not be as necessary for success as once thought due to the results of the countermeasures deployed, the coming decade will be a real economic challenge for commercial office space and the industry in general.

Personal Protective Equipment and Social Distancing;  When people do start returning to the office, or otherwise meeting as a group, protocols for using personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, and so on) and requirement for social distancing will have to be established.  And these protocols will have to be put in place as a prerequisite for going back to the offices.  This will require clear, communicated, and enforced policies and procedures not unlike other safety protocols that have previously been established at the workplace (such as wearing safety goggles, ear protection, hard hats, and so on, as appropriate).

Supply Chains;  One of the biggest challenges facing manufactures during this pandemic has been their supply chains, the fragility of which was clearly exposed.  Many of the manufacturers with whom I spoke share with me the challenges they faced with their suppliers (especially those located in China).  The demand for their products didn’t wane as much as the availability of parts (and sometimes finished goods inventory, such as white goods) that diminished as suppliers in China shut-down or the flow of product was otherwise interrupted.

The countermeasure for such threats in the future will be to build-in redundancy in the supply chain.  But as they say in the tech industry, if your backup and computer are in the same location, you have no backup.  This means that the backup supplier will have to be in a different geography than the primary supplier.

Of course, this will add to costs.  Companies will have to maintain two relationships, audit and verify two production locations, and so on.  And it will be important to not treat the backup supplier like a burden by making sure they are given enough business so that you matter and remain and important customer.  If you don’t do this, if you don’t take the time and make the investment in the relationship, they will likely not be there and ready for you when you need them.

Readiness and Resiliency;  Most companies, institutions, governments, and people were not in a “state of readiness”.  They were ill prepared for the speed and reach of the COVID-19 pandemic nor how disruptive, even transformative, it would be.  Decisions had to be made quickly with far less analysis than they were accustomed.  Educated guesses substituted for detailed analysis and planning.  What wasn’t perfect was fixed in process. 

I have been on the Advisory Board at Binghamton University, one of New York State’s “Centers for Excellence”.  For years, I have heard that distance learning and “virtual universities” were far inferior to the traditional delivery of higher education.  In late February, I was speaking to one of the department chairpersons on a Thursday and he let me know that the decision had been made to send all the students home that weekend, they had purchased over 3,000 licenses of Zoom, and the remainder of the semester was going to be taught remotely. 

Nothing like a credible threat to a businesses existence to discard old beliefs and ways for the new.  Can you imagine the timeline for making this tectonic shift had their not been a existential threat?  The analysis, debate, planning; well, it still would not be done (if ever).

I asked him if he was going to deliver his courses from some white sanded beach in the Caribbean (I mean, why not?).  He laughed and said no, but I still wondered “why not?”

I am certain that this conversation and similar action took place thousands of times at companies around the world.  They had to make dozens, if not hundreds, of decisions; many of them decisive and deft, while being in the moment and in real-time.  Those decisions that were sub-optimal were recognized and addressed during the execution phase.

If you aren’t “ready”, you at least better be “resilient”.  Like a boxer, able to absorb an endless stream of body-blows until you have your chance to break-out and make your move.

Learn to Live with It;  Like every other challenge faced in the past, companies and people will get beyond this challenge too.  My prediction is that it will be sooner rather than later as people quickly adapt to the new way of being and – humanity being full of the restless – grow increasingly tired of being restricted and confined.

Every day, there are countless risks that we willingly face.  Some we don’t even acknowledge as being risks, they are so ubiquitous; even though many of these risks can be quite harmful, even fatal.  Over time (in my opinion, a shorter period than generally believed), there will be better preventative measures put in place (perhaps even a vaccine), and better treatments for those who become critically ill.  And COVID-19 will become just another one of those countless risks in life.

I believe the future will not be the dystopian future run by intellectual elites as portrayed by Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World”; if for no other reason than the those who are not intellectual elites vastly outnumber those who are (and we are a boisterous lot, indeed).

The world needs the boisterous; the people who are not afraid to break things and move forward; the people who are able to make decisions from incomplete data; the people who recognize that time is the enemy and can think and act decisively.

I grew up in Endicott, New York.  Birthplace of IBM.  Everywhere was emblazoned IBM’s corporate motto at the time, “Think”.  It was even all around the (then) corporate headquarters cast in stone.  I always believed it to be a pretty powerful motto.  But after you have thought all the thoughts you can possibly think, it’s time to act.

That’s why I now like Nike’s motto; “Just do it”.

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