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Reflecting on our COVID-19 journey: Three lessons for industry that should survive the coronavirus

Last Friday, our Prime Minister announced a three-step plan to enable Australia’s economy to begin to fire back up. Now, we’re a long way from normal and many of us are using phrases like “new normal”. Still, it was hard to ignore a heaving sigh of relief breathed out across the nation. The end is a while off, but we can clock it, and that’s all people need – the point whereby they can expect a return on their hope. 

I want to talk a little more about this “new normal”. For us at Mindful Risk, the wildness of the ride since mid-February has been bittersweet. Many companies have reached out for a bit of advice, assessment and some help navigating their businesses through the rollercoaster. So, in that sense, we’ve been weathering things pretty well – but sadly many of the people reaching out to us are friends, long-terms clients, industry associates. We’ve been hearing the stories about retracting sales, layoffs, infection and health management. I hope we never experience this kind of pain and uncertainty again in our lifetime. 

Yet, there have been some valuable lessons. I’ve recently reflected on the last eight to ten weeks in that light; about the things I’ve been party to through our involvement in working with organisations as they navigate this time. There has been some considerable good come out of the process of keeping a business afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d like to see a few new norms remain as “business as usual” moving forward. People, in the main, are impressive in crises. Coronavirus has proven this again and I can share a few key stayers we are keen for in post-COVID-19 industry.

A breakdown of hierarchies

The first thing we started to notice when we got into meetings with our clients; both managers and employees, to talk about what could and should happen in terms of risk management at this time was that hierarchies started to erode. Everyone in these meetings began to look at each other as ‘a fellow human’. 

We all love to eat, to sleep. We all need to keep putting food on the table, our kids safe, the bills in check. We want to work. We want these things for each other, really. Our jobs are the means to all of the things and I watched the traditional dictatorial dialogue of yesterday start to melt away as managers and workers spoke together about what – practically – they all needed to do to keep the company safe in terms of workforce health and the lights on beyond this crisis. People spoke more as friends. It was like watching the uni lecture on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs play out in real life. When there is a genuine threat or fear – and coronavirus has certainly instilled plenty of both – there’s a sudden clarity of purpose. 

The value of seeing “the” human as “a” human during this time has made positive, assertive action possible over the last two months. Ego has been downplayed as commonalities have been plainly identified in keeping people well and in their jobs. It’s been a highly productive time and I think that kind of momentum is something that can be maintained as a new normal. Productivity is the essence of organisational success and being able to guide people through that by amping-up productivity as a people-led driver is something worth preserving. 

I want to explore productivity – and its traditional barriers, a little further. Phillip Coorey of the Australian Financial Review wrote, on April 7 this year, that 

The coronavirus catastrophe has led to many developments which not long ago were considered beyond conception. Among them is the Coalition government singing the praises of the CFMEU, a union which not so long ago it was trying to eradicate via the passage of its Ensuring Integrity, or union deregistration bill.

Less us v them

While I’m not interested in interrogating the history and relationships of unions, management and governments, Coorey’s piece resonates with much of what the Mindful Risk team have observed since the pandemic gripped us. Often, in the recent past, our risk management consultancy has had to play a big part in diffusing the “us versus them” mentality of the inadvertent commerce management versus the broader workforce. It is unproductive and time-consuming. Notwithstanding history and all that water under the bridge that, again, I’d rather steer away from in this article, as of ten weeks ago, the body language and emotion has shifted. Leaders are compelled to genuinely lead their workers through real-life fears and loss – the types of things I alluded to earlier. They are guiding people through uncertainty and finding ways to reassure everyone that by pulling together, a solution in everyone’s best interest can be found. Keeping businesses alive and operating is the fundamental principle of many of our recent discussions and my experiences working through management “versus” unions in the past has exposed unnecessary barriers in dialogue. But leaders from both “sides” are trusting each other more to find solutions based on trust and serving mutual “best interests”. I haven’t seen this much before and I really like it. 

Moving things along

My third and final take-away for business and industry in the post-COVID-19 world refers to processes. Without wanting to be crass, I have to say that in the current climate, I’ve been impressed that organisations are now more motivated towards #gettingshitdone. Previously, many older organisations have used aged processes as a means for new directions in business. These processes may have been useful at the time, but today they are spanners in the cogs of progress and productivity. Many choose to hide behind these processes as a means of preserving either the hierarchy or the upper hand. See above. 

I liken these organisations to the City of Sydney. This city wasn’t town planned. It wasn’t developed with much structure; its founders and future generations just cobbled it together and then bolted bits on as the city grew. You can see for anyone who navigates their way through Sydney for business or travel, it’s ineffective and inefficient in design and access. I feel the same way about many organisations. They have grown to be complex beyond reason in many cases. 

In the last ten weeks, however, we’ve seen organisations swiftly and willingly unpack these overwhelming bureaucratic processes in favour of seeking the simple solution. Can the answer be ‘yes’? Probably. Let’s explore how we get from here to there, then. You’ve always done it this way? Well, I’m sorry, that way is probably going to lead to a negative outcome in the current economic climate – let’s play out the alternatives and see what we can find. Let’s get shit done. 

These are the real conversations being held in virtual boardrooms and on zooms across our client list. No one is taking measures that play into high risk or holding themselves to unrealistic timeframes, but things are happening. It’s been terrific to help those conversations along. 

Our observations have shown that relationships are building, trust is growing, and businesses are becoming well-equipped to be adaptable to external threats as we enter a post-COVID-19 economy. The lessons have been largely positive. The more glaring take-away of all has been that at the end of the day, we are all in it together; whether that’s a health and economic crisis or finding ways to pivot and do business better for everyone. 

It has been a bittersweet journey but one that we hope will continue well beyond isolation. I look forward to doing more better business alongside our clients who have shown immeasurable resilience and pragmatism over the last ten weeks. Thanks for having us along for the ride – the new normal looks okay. 

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