COVID-19: The Pandemic That Changed Everything BY CHARLES O’TUDOR

In Breaking News, Business & Economy, Health, Opinion

Albert Camus once said, “Pestilence is so common, there have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared. When war breaks out people say: It won’t last, it’s too stupid.”

Looking at the recent statistics, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand. As at April 7, more than 175 countries and territories have reported cases of this plague, with over 1,487,870 confirmed cases globally of which over 1,003,547 are active, 88,630 have died and about 294,201 are reported to have recovered; it seems that COVID-19 is here to stay longer and affect us deeper than what we were ready to accept. This was far from what we expected or predicted, this is real. Much is being said about the losses, the drama, the social and institutional frictions in countries with little to no preparation and the global media has barely spoken about little else these days.

While the inevitable global slowdown that has followed has unquestionably given us a wakeup call to contemplate and look back, we should also stay receptive to the notion that progress comes from dire situations and from thinking about a problem with ever-changing perspectives – put it another way, this crisis necessitates creative solutions. And so we would be foolish not to look into opportunities in these unique times – mankind needs to push forward, especially when under such pressure.

Inventiveness, adaptation, and maybe even the instinct to protect and preserve ourselves, these collectively force us to recognize new opportunities – beyond Coronavirus, what’s the path to the next normal? How do we cater to the immediate economic aspects of companies’ and people’s livelihoods and invest in the preparedness to deal with similar events in the future?

What will it take to navigate this crisis, now that our traditional metrics and assumptions have been rendered irrelevant?

Worldwide now, foreign and domestic small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) and multinational companies (MNCs) are suffering, and in some extreme cases, even shutting down.

Goods have been stuck at ports for weeks, hundreds of cities worldwide are in lockdown, civil and commercial transportation are experiencing cuts, delays, and cancellations like no other time. Consumers are behaving erratically, resorting to panic shopping, or revising their entire values of material versus immaterial needs. Legislators are trying to catch up with daily events to accommodate needs, and there are pains and strain on global supply chains.

However, several companies are not silently watching – they have pivoted; adapted like chameleons to the situation and stretched their brands, reshuffled their production lines, and catered to new needs. In short, they have listened to the market and taken a risk or two, making COVID-19 the main propeller for new growth in some sectors and reviving dormant potential in others. Even the judiciary system in China is going online – filings and hearings are increasingly digitized, which could enhance the speed of executing work and get rid of some of the backlog.

In the realm of productivity, we have seen a strong rise in cloud services for collaboration, solutions to minimize paperwork and physical contact, reimbursement apps and digital solutions for accounting, and the growth of contactless devices for an infinite number of environments.

The Path To The Next Normal.

Like Mckinsey & Company clearly stated, for some organizations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others are peering through the fog of uncertainty, thinking about how to position themselves once the crisis has passed and things return to normal.

The question is, ‘What will the next normal look like?’

“While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.”

These words were written 11 years ago, amid the last global financial crisis. They ring true today but if anything, understate the reality the world is currently facing. It is increasingly clear that our era will be defined by a fundamental schism: the period before COVID-19 and the new normal that will emerge in the post-viral era: the “next normal”. In this unprecedented new reality, we will witness a dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order in which businesses and societies have traditionally operated.

And in the near future, we will see the beginning of discussions and debates about what the next normal could entail and how sharply its contours will diverge from those that previously shaped our lives.

The question being posed by brands across the public, private, and social sectors is: what will it take to navigate this crisis, now that our traditional metrics and assumptions have been rendered irrelevant? More simply put, it’s our turn to answer a question that many of us once asked of our grandparents: What did you do during the war?

Our answer is a call to act across five stages, leading from the crisis of today to the next normal that will emerge after the battle against Coronavirus has been won: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Re-imagination, and Reform.

The duration of each stage will vary based on geographic and industry context, and institutions may find themselves operating in more than one stage simultaneously.

Collectively, these five stages represent the imperative of our time: the battle against COVID-19 is one that brands today must win if we are to find an economically- and socially-viable path to the next normal.

Resolve

In almost all countries, crisis-response efforts are in full motion. A large array of public-health interventions has been deployed.

Healthcare systems are — explicitly — on a war footing to increase their capacity of beds, supplies, and trained workers.

Efforts are underway to alleviate shortages of much-needed medical supplies.

Business-continuity and employee-safety plans have been escalated, with remote work established as the default operating mode. Many are dealing with acute slowdowns in their operations, while some seek to accelerate to meet demand in critical areas spanning food, household supplies, and paper goods. Educational institutions are moving online to provide ongoing learning opportunities as physical classrooms shut down. This is the stage on which brands are currently focused.

And yet, a toxic combination of inaction and paralysis remains, stemming choices that must be made: lockdown or not; isolation or quarantine; shutdown the factory/business now or wait for an order from above. That is why we have called this first stage Resolve: the need to determine the scale, pace, and depth of action required at the state and business levels. As one CEO said: “I know what to do. I just need to decide whether those who need to act share my resolve to do so.”

Resilience

The pandemic has metastasized into a burgeoning crisis for the economy and financial system. The acute pullback in economic activity, necessary to protect public health is simultaneously jeopardizing the economic well-being of citizens and institutions.

The rapid succession of liquidity and solvency challenges hitting multiple industries is proving resistant to the efforts of central banks and governments to keep the financial system functioning. A health crisis is turning into a financial crisis as uncertainty about the size, duration, and shape of the decline in GDP and employment undermines what remains of business confidence.

In the face of these challenges, resilience is a vital necessity.

Near-term issues of cash management for liquidity and solvency are clearly paramount. But soon afterwards, businesses will need to act on broader resilience plans as the shock begins to upturn established industry structures, resetting competitive positions forever.

Much of the population will experience uncertainty and personal financial stress. Public-, private-, and social-sector leaders will need to make difficult ‘through cycle’ decisions that balance economic and social sustainability, given that social cohesion is already under severe pressure from populism and other challenges that existed pre-Coronavirus.

Return

Returning businesses to operational health after a severe shutdown is extremely challenging, as organizations globally will find returning to work a slow process.

Most industries will need to reactivate their entire supply chain, even as the differential scale and timing of the impact of Coronavirus means that global supply chains face disruption in multiple geographies.

The weakest point in the chain will determine the success or otherwise of a return to rehiring, training, and attaining previous levels of workforce productivity. Leaders must therefore reassess their entire business system and plan for contingent actions in order to return their business to effective production at pace and at scale.

Compounding the challenge, winter will bring a renewed crisis for many countries. Without a vaccine or effective prophylactic treatment, a rapid return to a rising spread of the virus is a genuine threat. In such a situation, government leaders may face an acutely painful ‘Sophie’s choice’: mitigating the resurgent risk to lives versus the risk to the population’s health that could follow another sharp economic pullback. Return may therefore require using the hoped-for-but by no means certain temporary virus ‘cease-fire’ over the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months to expand testing and surveillance capabilities, health-system capacity, and vaccine and treatment development to deal with a second surge.

Re-imagination

A shock of this scale will create a discontinuous shift in the preferences and expectations of individuals as citizens, as employees, and as consumers.

These shifts and their impact on how we live, how we work, and how we use technology will emerge more clearly over the coming weeks and months.

Institutions that reinvent themselves to make the most of better insight and foresight, as preferences evolve, will disproportionally succeed.

Clearly, the online world of contactless commerce could be bolstered in ways that reshape consumer behaviour forever. But other effects could prove even more significant as the pursuit of efficiency gives way to the requirement of resilience – the end of supply-chain globalization, for example, if production and sourcing move closer to the end-user.

The crisis will reveal, not just vulnerabilities, but opportunities to improve the performance of businesses.

Leaders will need to reconsider which costs are truly fixed versus variable, as the shutting down of huge swaths of production sheds light on what is ultimately required versus nice to have.

Decisions about how far to flex operations without loss of efficiency will likewise be informed by the experience of closing down much of global production. Opportunities to push the envelope of technology adoption will be accelerated by rapid learning about what it takes to drive productivity when labour is unavailable.

The result: a stronger sense of what makes business more resilient to shocks, more productive, and better able to deliver to customers.

Reform

The world now has a much sharper definition of what constitutes a black-swan event.

This shock will likely give way to a desire to restrict some factors that helped make the Coronavirus a global challenge, rather than a local issue to be managed.

Governments are likely to feel emboldened and supported by their citizens to take a more active role in shaping economic activity. Business leaders need to anticipate popularly-supported changes to policies and regulations as society seeks to avoid, mitigate, and preempt a future health crisis of the kind we are experiencing today.

Public-health approaches, in an interconnected and highly mobile world, must rethink the speed and global coordination with which they need to react.

Policies on critical healthcare infrastructure, strategic reserves of key supplies, and contingency production facilities for critical medical equipment will all need to be addressed.

Managers of the financial system and the economy, having learned from the economically-induced failures of the last global financial crisis, must now contend with strengthening the system to withstand acute and global exogenous shocks, such as this pandemic’s impact. Educational institutions will need to consider modernizing to integrate classroom and distance learning. The list goes on.

The aftermath of the pandemic will also provide an opportunity to learn from a plethora of social innovations and experiments, ranging from working from home to large-scale surveillance. With this will come an understanding of which innovations, if adopted permanently, might provide substantial uplift to economic and social welfare — and which would ultimately inhibit the broader betterment of society, even if helpful in halting or limiting the spread of the virus.

Regardless of one’s economic philosophy, the global reach of this virus should now more than ever encourage continuous collaboration between individuals, and between the public and private sectors.

The workplace must not be static in the quest for the new normal.

How To Keep Your Company Aligned During The COVID-19

Imagine you are a tenured CEO of a utility company.

You have led your organization through national crises, natural disasters and extreme-weather events.

You have followed a playbook and moved to a ‘command and control’ style to address the cascading effects of natural disasters. But now you’re dealing with COVID-19, a crisis unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. There is no Coronavirus playbook.

That utility CEO is not alone.

Leaders across industries can’t treat this pandemic like other events they have experienced or trained for.

First, no single executive has the answer.

In fact, to understand the current situation—let alone make decisions about how to respond—you will need to involve more people than you’re accustomed to.

In this rapidly changing environment, your people need to respond with urgency, without senior executives and traditional governance slowing things down.

Waiting to decide, or even waiting for approval, is the worst thing they can do.

Yet some level of coordination across teams and activities is crucial for your organization’s response to be effective.

How do you do this?

How do you accomplish the seemingly impossible?

The answer: create a robust network of teams that is empowered to operate outside of the current hierarchical and bureaucratic structures of the organization.

In response to the Coronavirus, organizations of all shapes and sizes are moving in this direction.

They are setting up ‘control towers’, ‘nerve centres’—which take over some of the company’s critical operations—and other crisis-response teams to deal with rapidly shifting priorities and challenges.

They see that these teams make faster, better decisions and many are wondering how they can replicate this effort in other parts of their organization.

Creating a central ‘rapid response’ group is the right first move, but leaders shouldn’t stop there, instead focus the steps to creating a cohesive and adaptable network of teams, united by a common purpose, that gathers information, devises solutions, puts them into practice, refines outcomes—and does it all fast.

Four steps to creating a network of teams.

1. Launch teams fast and build as you go.

Create teams that will tackle current strategic priorities and key challenges facing the organization.

That’s job number one—everything flows from it.

But leaders should also understand that mistakes will be made.

Maybe these teams won’t be the right ones a month down the road, but the model is built to be flexible and to shift when that happens. Teams have to make the best decisions they can with the information that’s available.

Don’t worry about perfection; the key is to stand up teams and let them course-correct quickly.

It is important to launch two groups in particular: an intelligence team, which makes sure the network has a high level of situational awareness, and a planning team, which thinks through scenarios for the recovery and beyond. Each team should be small and contain a mix of individuals with cross-functional skills, acting with a clear mandate but also within guard rails that empower it to act.

Next, pick the team leaders.

These individuals often are not the ‘usual suspects’ typically put in charge of key initiatives.

They need to be a good fit for the task at hand: creative problem solvers with critical thinking skills who are resilient and battle-tested. They should also be independent and open to a range of different perspectives. Best of all, they should be willing to say what needs to be said, and to make tough, even unpopular, decisions—ideally with a track record of having done so in the past.

As soon as the teams are set up, leaders should empower them to make decisions quickly.

This will work only if they each have what military leaders refer to as a ‘commander’s intent’ — a clear goal that allows them to make decisions within a set of parameters. This improves both the speed and quality of decision making. It also allows teams to respond to the dynamic demands of the external environment and is one of the strengths of the network approach.
 
2. Get out of the way but stay connected.

After creating the initial set of teams, a leader must shift toward ensuring that multidirectional communication is taking place—not only across teams within the network but also between these teams and the rest of the organization.

To do this, there should be steady coordination with the central team hub, perhaps in daily stand-up meetings.

The central hub can check in on the progress being made and find ways to support teams and make sure they are using first-order problem-solving principles.

This second step is a balancing act: as the network forms and the number of teams increases and the teams make their own connections, the leader is pushing authority down and out but also staying tightly-engaged.

The goal here is to empower teams and support them at the same time, without micromanaging.

This is what great coaches do: they listen to many voices and then make tough calls, even when they have insufficient or imperfect information.

Particularly early on, leaders and their close advisers will need to focus on how budgets and people have been distributed across the network of teams, ensure that the highest priority efforts have what they need, stand down or slim teams that are no longer as relevant, and form new teams as circumstances shift.
 
3. Champion radical transparency and authenticity.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen instances of leaders who have behaved boldly, setting priorities for their organizations, going outside of traditional channels to procure needed equipment, speaking personally about how the crisis affects them, and being realistic about the challenges ahead.

In the network of teams context, the leader’s approach to communication will foster an environment of collaboration, transparency, and psychological safety that is crucial to its success.

Julia Rozovsky, one of the leaders of Google’s Project Aristotle—which studied hundreds of Google’s teams to understand why some did well while others stumbled—believes that groups where each member has an equal opportunity to speak is a key variable to team performance. People need to feel invited to share their ideas by the group for peak performance to occur.

When leaders foster connections between and among teams, that will move the model away from a hub and speak to a more extensive network. In this phase, there’s a lot going on with many teams. You’re doing everything you did in step two, but now your teams aren’t afraid to say something isn’t working. Part of the radical transparency in this phase is that teams can say, “Our plan isn’t good enough, we need to launch another team or several more teams.”

Psychological safety underpins successful networks of teams by enabling the rapid sharing of information to address changing goals, and fostering an environment in which individuals and teams can rapidly test ideas, iterate, and learn from mistakes.
 
4. Turbocharge self-organization.

We’ve discussed many of the technical points to setting up a network of teams— who should be involved, what their mix of skills should be, how they should interact, what resources they need, how the leaders should act. And at this point, once the initial network of teams is established and after support from leadership early in the journey, the network should become self-sustaining and self-managing.

As the number of people and teams increases in the network—in both the third and fourth panels—fewer people are connecting with each other all the time, but when they do, it is more meaningful as they know who to go to for what task.

At the same time, too many connections per person can also lead to overload (too many emails, meetings, communications, and touchpoints).

But with the right network structure, you can achieve a ‘small-world network’, which may be large with many teams, but it feels much smaller because of the degree of separation between people.

In a well-functioning network, the central hub does not begin to mimic the bureaucratic hierarchy that the network of teams is supplanting.

The central hub stays connected to all the activities, but it avoids becoming a bottleneck that slows down the response.

Liberia’s 2014–15 response to the Ebola crisis is a good example of removing a bottleneck to get to the desired outcome more quickly. The nation’s initial Ebola task force was hampered by slow decision-making and hierarchy, so it set up an “Incident Management System” network that empowered teams working on case management, epidemiology, safe burials, and other related issues. Liberia’s President interacted directly with the incident manager and convened a small group of advisers who provided advice on policy and sensitive matters.

These tasks are a tall order for any leader who is working without a playbook.

But a network can help by infusing the organization with a common purpose that allows it to respond more quickly to the challenges unleashed by the pandemic.

It can also highlight important behaviours like empathy, communication, and clear decision making, and point the way to becoming a more dynamic, agile organization down the road.

These uncertain times can also spur leaders to reflect on what kind of organization, culture, and operating model they want to put in place, so they can avoid returning to previous patterns of behaviour and instead embrace the next normal.

In response to same, several companies have already listened to the market and taken a risk or two quickly adapting like chameleons to the situation, stretching their brand and catering to new needs, making COVID-19 the main propeller for new growth in some sectors and reviving dormant potential in others.

Going sector-wise, we are seeing opportunities in the below:

• Food – fresh groceries and meat, cold storage, high-quality foreign food and beverage, cooking appliances.
• Entertainment – gaming industry, new ways of disseminating content and promoting small businesses, online cooking classes, and virtual visits to landmarks.
• Education, sports, and well-being – virtual classrooms, online fitness classes.
• Services industry – contact-less systems, enhanced delivery services, remote banking services.
• Healthcare and health technology – pharmaceuticals, supplements, medical devices, personal protective equipment (PPE), telemedicine, smart hospitals and online consultations, digital medical assistants, apps and mini-apps, self-diagnosing medical devices.
• Electrical appliances – dishwashers and washing machines, sterilization machines, sweeping robots.
• Office cost reduction opportunities – office rent is expensive and flexible work arrangements are yet to be explored in their full functional scope. This will open up opportunities across multiple and linked sectors, such as office space redesign, building remote work systems, software platforms, and cloud-based services – all of which will likely see significant gains once the world economy goes into post-COVID-19 recovery mode and employers keep their office space costs in check in case their staff will need to work from other locations.

In Conclusion

How can brands successfully engage with consumers on lockdown due to COVID-19?

There is little doubt that there are some difficult times ahead for some brands especially those in the advertising industry, at least in the short-term.

Work stoppages along with quarantines are changing the landscape for marketers. In this new environment, connecting with consumers digitally can be challenging. Yet, it is especially important for both brands experiencing hard times as well as those experiencing booms to communicate effectively.

According to a Berlin Cameron/Perksy study, a high proportion of millennials believe that marketers can play an important role during the COVID-19 crisis and want to see communications that address the situation in their tone and/or focus on brand initiatives. With this in mind, marketers need to be innovative and creative in their communications with consumers.

Here are some perspectives on how brands should interact with customers during the COVID-19 crisis:

1) Social media channels currently offer special opportunity for innovative engagement.

With so many people spending more time at home, internet usage is even higher than normal. In this vein, we are seeing some brands engage innovatively. For example, some wine companies are running virtual educational tastings for their wine brands with the goal of connecting with people that may not have the opportunity to visit them physically and continue to grow a stronger and closer relationship with their customers.

Another example in this vein is the virtual concerts by musical acts who cannot currently perform live shows put on by everyone. While these shows have generally been free and focused on fundraising, they surely build up goodwill. In addition, they keep the act top of mind and likely have the potential to spur online purchases of albums and merchandise, especially if scheduled regularly. These innovative types of strategies can be especially valuable in some industries that are heavily impacted by the virus.
 
2) Influencer marketing strategies may need to be changed to target “homefluencers”.

As with everyone else, the lives of social media influencers have been impacted by COVID-19. There is a major opportunity for brands who have capitalized on influencers from Instagram, YouTube or other social media channels to capture what can be referred to as the new “homefluencers.” Bearing in mind that influencers “are suddenly facing a moment where the cocktail dress they’ve been trying to sell is no longer for a night out, but for a mirror selfie or a virtual happy hour.” To stay relevant, these individuals become homefluencers and find ways to connect with their followers.

3) Strong consumer brands should deliver simple messages that address COVID-19 and social responsibility.

“Recently, Coca-Cola featured its impossible-to-miss logo with the letters spread out in Times Square. The viral marketing campaign was a testament to the success that can be derived from keeping the messaging light — yet powerful — all the while spreading a message about the importance of social distancing.”

4) Tone and human-centric messages are especially important for companies to experience an uptick or shift in distribution channels during the crisis.

The public is well aware that this crisis has hit many individuals very hard. As a result, messages that focus on the human element are likely to enhance effectiveness. Remember, the quarantine won’t last forever.

We won’t speculate too much about when the ‘end’ of this period will come, but by all guidance, we’re expecting to emerge from quarantine sometime this year.

This, of course, is an increasingly difficult one for brands to navigate, but it’s something that we all need to face together. The challenges are significant, and we’re all hoping that there might be some relief, some light at the end of the tunnel sooner, rather than later. But if that isn’t the case, then we need to work within the confines of the new environment, and consider that in how we look to adjust and stay afloat in increasingly trying times.

The focus should be on positive, helpful information, keeping the perspective of your target audience in mind, and how your business can contribute to improving things, where possible, while also looking to maintain critical customer connections.

We wish everyone health and safety during this unusual time.
#StaySafe.
#StayAtHome.
#ToYourBrandSuccess.

Charles O’Tudor is Africa’s premiere brand strategist and engagement consultant. He is the Group Principal Consultant at ADSTRAT Africa – One of the most innovative and creative brand consulting firms in Africa.

NB: Opinions expressed in this article are strictly attributable to the author, Charles O’Tudor and do not represent the opinion of CrossRiverWatch or any other organization the author works for/with.

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