Prof. Jan Bosch, 17 March 2020
All of Europe, as well as the rest of the world, is in the throes of the coronavirus and some people I meet are comparing it to the start of one of those apocalyptic movies where the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Of course, nobody can ignore the human suffering that comes from getting sick and potentially even dying from COVID-19. It is terrible and my heart goes out to those that are affected.
The current actions, including avoiding large gatherings, quarantining geographical areas, closing schools and recommendations concerning washing your hands, limiting travel and so on all make sense. However, these actions will only slow the rate of infection in order to decrease the overloading of the healthcare systems (even more) by spreading the cases out over time.
For the companies I work with, the impact has been unprecedented. All travel that’s not absolutely business critical has been suspended. Visitors (and researchers) are no longer welcome. Employees are asked to work from home wherever possible.
'The dark COVID-19 clouds can have a silver lining for companies'
The dark COVID-19 clouds can have a silver lining for companies. The disruption of normal work practices offers a great opportunity to review and evaluate all processes and activities in the company and between the company and its ecosystem partners. This allows us to determine which processes that earlier required physical interaction can also be accomplished by virtual means. Similarly, we can review all activities and processes that were performed by humans by virtual means but that can be automated and be achieved without any human involvement. Finally, we may even identify activities that are obsolete and that were only conducted for historical reasons and we can shut those down.
The second benefit that companies can seek to exploit is a step function change in the adoption of digital practices. In many cases, we either figure out how to do things remotely and virtually using digital means or it doesn’t get done at all. This includes holding meetings, managing daily standups for agile teams and running the operations of systems. In fact, I could easily see the efficiency of companies significantly improve due to the forcing function provided by the current situation.
Third, many organizations are built on the principle of aligning all the gears in the machinery as closely as possible in order to optimize operational efficiency. The consequence tends to be very brittle systems that are unable to withstand adverse circumstances. Situations as we’re experiencing now force us to rethink things in terms of risk management and should encourage you and your organization to think in Taleb’s antifragility principle where systems get stronger in the face of detrimental developments.
Fourth, although the short-term economic damage is significant, the removal of business travel and working from home does provide some breathing room in the lives of many professionals. This space can be used to think strategic rather than tactical, to reflect and introspect and to find smarter ways to accomplish the same if not better outcomes.
Concluding, COVID-19 is terrible from a humanitarian, as well as from an economic perspective. Although the short-term impact on revenue and margins is undeniably bad for most companies, we can use these circumstances to realize at least some benefits that may help our companies going forward. This is important as this is not the end. In the same way as the Spanish flu in the early 1900s, SARS in 2002 and swine flu in 2009 weren’t the end. As the poet Rumi wrote centuries ago, this too shall pass.