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We need to evolve from COVID crisis response toward futureproofing

By Andrea Kates

As leaders, we have choices about what back to work will look like post-COVID. There have already been inspiring examples of corporations, scaleups, startups, governments, community organizations, and local groups that have mobilized rapidly to respond with immediacy and energy to the crisis as it unfolded. Now’s the time to move out of the emergency response mindset and transition into a new mode that integrates the impact and implications of COVID-19 into our business DNA.

I argue that Post-COVID, we need to lead our companies beyond transactional adaptation toward transformative impact. We need to “futureproof”—envision a bolder future and mobilize efforts to get there.

It’s obvious that there are some aspects of business that can’t go back to “as usual”. The forcing function of the COVID crisis response pushed us rapidly into behavior shifts like these that were technologically possible and potentially even inevitable, but which had been lagging in their deployment prior to the burning platform urgency of a pandemic:

  • Work from home became a “do it,” not a “think about it” norm.

  • Hunger for reliable, coordinated data—to track transmission and protect lives—underscored the need for new infrastructure to knit together data sets from disparate, reliable sources. We realized that epidemiology wasn’t the only area where that type of coordination of big data mattered.

  • Education flipped. The paradigm of teacher as teller has been replaced by refreshing workarounds. Online engagement, global access to content, integration of gaming and virtual reality, collaborative learning, just-in-time content delivery have all been exposed as logical alternatives. It’s simply a matter of time before those workarounds become mainstream.

  • The world got smaller. It’s clear that borders of disease transmission can’t be closed. We clearly saw how differences in cultural and social behaviors affected health outcomes.

  • We learned to think twice about social proximity, open offices, shared space. We rethought our core assumptions about what it means to have human interaction closer than two meters apart.

Most dramatically, throughout the crisis, people died. A lot of people. We can’t just go back to work without acknowledging what that reality has done to our collective human spirit.

Ultimately, we have been reminded that our employees, customers, customers’ customers, supply chain, vendors, competitors are not just “economic units”. We are all...people.

I’ve observed early stages of inspired crisis response:

  • Creative shuffling of the deck: flour shortages solved; hair color sent home; restaurants pivoting to carry out; toilet paper to bidets

  • Outside-the-silo, proactive crisis response and collaboration: Zoom gave us an information infrastructure; Khan Academy supported school at home; Salesforce and Alibaba mobilized to deliver 50 million pieces of personal protective equipment; Luxury fashion brand LVMH shifted production from high end perfume to hand sanitizer; General Motors, Ventec Life Systems and Dyson manufactured ventilators

  • Ad hoc harnessing of the maker spirit: individuals engaged in mask making, creativity unleashed in at-home crafts, cooking and global concerts

  • Large-scale collaboration and cooperation: Healthcare experts around the world formed cross-border challenges to tackle vaccine development and epidemiological tracking