President Emmanuel Macron addressed the French nation on Sunday night and announced the effective end of the coronavirus containment efforts. According to their measurements for the propagation of the virus, the country has gone green. Stores, gyms, restaurants, and offices are opening again, albeit with sanity protections.
Stroll down the Seine amongst the groups of friends catching up around six packs of Leffe and there is not a single mask in sight. Lines snake from bars with drinkers standing centimeters – not meters – apart. This does not bode well for the future. The new habits that we were supposed to adopt to protect each other and ourselves and being shed faster than the recent gains of the economy.
The amount of new covid-19 cases in the world is growing. Beijing is locking down entire neighborhoods – something they didn’t need to do when the outbreak first began. The US has cases rising in half of its states, and more and more states are reopening despite this trend. President Macron had his victory moment, but I can’t help recall when former American President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier declaring the war in Afghanistan won. We cheered, but nearly two decades later the Taliban is firmly in control and America is preparing to cede them the win.
The fact is that unless there is a vaccine, we are not going back to normal. The pre-coronavirus era is over. As much as we want to forget the lost spring and head into summer as if it were all but a dream, that’s not the world in which we find ourselves today. Some people understand this and are adapting in a permanent (or semi-permanent) way. Others deny it, believing that the life we led before is where we will get back to eventually.
Apply this division to the business world and it becomes the criteria for how we will define the winners and losers. I’m seeing too many businesses go back to what they were doing before and crossing their fingers that it will work as it used to. It’s well-intentioned. It’s hard to get a business to work. And when you find success it’s easy to milk the situation for all it’s worth.
But it’s naive to think that things will go back to normal. So many levels of the economy were impacted. Global supply chains have held up but factory closings are limiting stock. Farms left untended have lost their harvests to rot. Governments shelled out assistance but that will hang heavy on the public balance sheets. Growing our way out of this mess will require consumer confidence, which is in short supply when tens of millions of people have lost their jobs.
Stores have to limit customers. So do bars and events and restaurants. Business models that depended on physical space and a certain number of customers to break even will have to adapt or go under. The volume of sales for any company that relies on physical environments will suffer. And like the Taliban, coronavirus is not done fighting. So when I see companies trying to go back to the old normal, all I can think is that they are wasting their time by trying to revive the glory of the near past – which is impossible in the current situation – and, worse, they are not making themselves more resilient for the future.
Companies wanting to get back to normal is forgivable, but squandering this opportunity is not. Change in the corporate world is extremely difficult – just ask Linda from HR to download Slack. Coronavirus is a once-in-a-lifetime gift for directors to vastly shift, all at once, how a company operates. If we are to live with waves of coronavirus, and possibly future lockdowns, companies should be preparing for what that looks like, not focusing on what life looked like before. It is the perfect context for positive change.
Alas, many companies are allergic to risk. Covid-19 massacred balance sheets and now as managers grasp for revenue in the darkness the last thing they want is to propose new ways of working. They want to stand on something solid before launching task forces and setting goals for modernization in the midterm future. That’s what they’ve known.
The truth is that going back to the old normal is the biggest risk of all. Finding a new business normal actually means minimizing the risks to business caused by future flare ups of coronavirus.
The safest path today is radical change.