As leaders, our employees, customers, and other stakeholders have always watched us. What they are looking for is how we act. Our actions are what reveal our values.
“We are social beings, neither economic man, nor altruistic saints. We crave esteem and belonging, and these underpin our moral values.” — Collier, Paul. The Future of Capitalism (p. 50). Harper. Kindle Edition.
At the time I am writing this, our country is re-opening from the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders, both public and private, have
been under scrutiny for months. Those who are watching are drawing conclusions about the values of those leaders. Do they care about their employees? What preparations are they making to ensure the health and safety of their people?
Leaders Embracing Change
For the past several decades, I have been working with small to mid-sized, privately held companies. Presently, the leaders of those companies are under enormous stress. They have been doing everything they can to keep their employees safe while also keeping the company afloat financially. Most have sent all non-production employees home to work remotely.
Many leaders are admitting that they misjudged how working remotely would affect productivity for them, their leadership team, and their employees. Most were predicting that productivity would decrease. However, recent articles are reporting that statistics are indicating that worker productivity has increased with the move to everyone working from home.
I am now hearing from these same leaders that they see a significant advantage in allowing employees to work from home if they wish to do so. Everyone, it seems, is happier.
Employees Embracing Change
On the employee side of things, we also see change. Some employees have learned that they prefer to work in the office. Others are ecstatic about working at home and love the time saved by avoiding frustrating commuting. They can spend more time with their loved ones. And, since their children are home from school, they avoid the problem of childcare.
Employees have learned new skills around communicating with remote colleagues. Besides video conferencing and collaborative workspaces, they are finding that how they interact is more important than ever.
The downside of this situation is the increased concern that employers will accelerate the implementation of automation. I believe their fear is well-founded. Indeed, we know that businesses have been deploying automation wherever possible. But this pandemic will undoubtedly accelerate that process. After all, machines and software do not catch COVID-19!
Companies will move to a more cloud-based infrastructure. They will make sure that employees can carry out all critical business functions from remote locations. Businesses will put pressure on municipalities to build out the infrastructure—electrical power, high-speed internet, backup systems, security—that such a world will require.
The New Business World
Trying to predict the details of what our world will be like as we begin to get back to work is a fool’s errand. I think there are some generalities that we can keep in mind, however. First, the return to business will be uneven, with some industries recovering faster than others. Second, many companies will not make it to the new world. They will run out of cash or fall victim to thinking they can do “business as usual.” Third, the post-COVID world will belong to two groups of companies. Those with strong balance sheets providing infrastructure, and the small innovative entrepreneurs who see the opportunities that will be abundant going forward. Fourth, I believe the numbers will show that this is the deepest economic downturn since the depression.
Finally, because of the impact on our economy, our recovery will be a long slog. Ray Dalio, founder and CEO of Bridgewater, has even dared to use the “D-word.” He believes it will be two to three years before we are back to a GDP that matches pre-COVID levels. And yet, he is optimistic that we will recover and that we will have changed our capitalist economy for the better.
Now is when we will surely test our country’s leaders, both those in the private sector and those in the public sector. I remember a saying from my sailing days, “Calm seas never made a skilled sailor.”