After coronavirus, what next?
This week I discuss how you can prepare for the recovery and transition back to 'business as usual' after the coronavirus.
You will have seen in the UK that there has been a change announced and we are moving from ‘containment’ to ‘delay’. It has been made clear that the virus has the potential to affect us all and the peak is some weeks away. There is so much information out there on social media, websites and blogs on different ways to respond, I didn’t want to add to the noise, so I have been struggling all week to come up with a theme for this week’s bulletin. The thought which inspired this week’s bulletin came from a military colleague of mine, John Holman, and he wrote a comment on one of my LinkedIn posts: ‘Any thoughts on preparing now for the recovery and transition back to BAU after the event?’. I always tell readers to try and horizon scan and think about future incidents, and when teaching incident management, I always say you need to try and get ahead of the incident. This week I thought I would take John up on his challenge and write some thoughts on the possible aftermath of coronavirus.
In looking at the potential aftermath of coronavirus, I was reviewing a model to frame my thoughts around. I thought a good place to start was the Black Death. Not, before you ask, that there is any similarity in the death rate, as the plague killed between 30% and 60% of Europe’s population, but after the Black Death, European society was changed fundamentally for those who survived. After the plague there were three major impacts, firstly, it had a large physiological effect on how people viewed life ‘some lived wild, immoral lives, others fell into deep despair, whilst many chose to accept their fate’. The second effect was social in that the plague affected both the rich and the poor in a similar way, so people began to question their position in society. Many aristocrats and Parliament tried to introduce laws to reinstate the social hierarchy after the plague, which included laws on who could wear different types of clothing, but society had changed, and these were mainly ignored. The third impact was economic, and there was a shortage of labour so workers were able to demand larger wages and could move to another job if they weren’t well treated or didn’t get a wage increase.
I personally think one of the major impacts of coronavirus will be the physiological effect on the population. We live in a fairly safe world in that there are cures for most diseases, we can build defences against nature and most threats we have met before, and there is insurance which at least gives us money to rebuild. Yes, there is the threat of climate change but so far, the impact has not yet overwhelmed our defences to deal with it. Coronavirus is everywhere, it is going to have a big impact on society, we have not seen an uncontainable pandemic in many of our lifetimes and at the moment there is no cure or treatment. For many of us in the western world since the cold war there has not been a threat which could have such as major impact on everyone. I don’t think many will go out and ‘lead wild immoral lives’, but I think it weakens all of our sense of security.
In our response to the coronavirus, I think we should bear this in mind when dealing with people and in our communications with them. Our messages should be reassuring, and we should listen to people’s fears, our communications to staff should be gentle and their fears should be taken into consideration. We shouldn’t be ordering people around and treating them as commodities, in our desire to mitigate the effect of the pandemic. Leadership is key in reassuring stakeholders and staff, and management should be visible and in listening mode. Showing compassion in decision, flexibility in normal workplace rules and being understanding are all very important management traits. Clear and unambiguous decisions and actions will help to keep the confidence of the staff and in those who are managing the response. Where there may be underlying mental health issues amongst staff, then during the incident these could come to the forefront. Having helplines or people for staff to talk to will be important, as well as briefing managers on how to identify mental health issues in their staff so they can detect issues early.
During incidents, often the normal social hierarchy and boundaries of the workplace changes, with some being given more responsibilities and leadership. It may become more important than the usual means of determining workplace leaders, and boundaries and the ability to make decisions may be relaxed. Adapting the ways of working within the workplace may be critical for an organisation to survive or continue to provide a service under difficult circumstances. When incidents come to an end often the organisation is fundamentally changed, both in what it delivers but often socially as well. When we re-emerge beyond the incident, we have to recognise that we cannot go back to the way the organisation was before and we will have to recognise a new reality.
I am not sure what will happen to the economy over the period of the coronavirus, but I think it is going to have a big impact on many. I can’t see that the public's taste for goods and services are going to be fundamentally changed by coronavirus, so there is a good future for companies which survive. After many pandemics, there is a surge in spending as those who have not be able to spend money are now able to do so. Small businesses may be affected by cash flow, as many may not want to purchase their good and services. This will be especially prevalent in the leisure market as people are not travelling, taking holidays or going out. Those who are self-employed will feel the impact of any economic downturn. Large businesses and public bodies can do their bit by making sure they continue to spend money, pay their invoices on time and employ the self-employed. It is in their own self-interest, as just like after the plague, those who survive can charge higher prices.
The last major international disaster, the banking crisis, had a major effect on the public and led to fundamental changes within the banking industry. Coronavirus will no doubt lead to similar societal and economic changes. As business continuity professionals, as well as managing the incident in the here and now, we should have one eye on the future and identify how our organisation and society around us is changing. If we can recognise the changes then we can identify the opportunity. We should also recognise the impact on staff within our organisations and ensure we support and look after them. If we look after our staff in the bad times they will look after our organisation in the good times.