What We Have Learned So Far from the COVID Pandemic

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We are approximately nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of things have now become fairly clear, both in society at large, and in the workplace. In addition to widely accepted observations, my executive search firm, Top Gun Ventures, conducted multiple executive roundtables, which we called “GameChanger Dialogues,” with executive level leaders across multiple industries (including higher education) and regions across the globe. We learned a great deal from those sessions about how different companies and organizations are navigating what are broadly understood to be unprecedented challenges, some of which I’ll share in this article.

Starting from a high level first, however, it is evident that the pandemic has served as both a cause of change in its own right and an accelerant of already existing trends. The most salient lesson has probably been that given the right circumstances, we can change the way we do almost anything—and relatedly, what we thought was “sacred” and untouchable before the pandemic became negotiable in the face of an existential crisis. What has also become evident is that some things will not go back to how they were even after we are ensconced in the next normal. Some examples likely include less business and recreational travel, and continued working from home, hybrid education (even on campus), telehealth, and low or no contact shopping and dining. 

So, what are some of the other significant takeaways so far?

In Society

Inequities that existed before COVID have been exacerbated by the crisis (for individuals, families, communities, and organizations/businesses).

The pandemic revealed that the “recovery” from the 2008 recession was both uneven and fragile for many people and businesses. Tens of millions of people were pushed into the gig economy, working for less pay and no benefits[1], and many “essential” workers make the lowest salaries and earn the weakest benefits in the workplace. Many millions also lost homes and businesses in the last recession and never recovered previously held assets and wealth. Access to healthcare, education, and full-time employment with benefits was already declining for many people and, as noted by the Federal Reserve, nearly half of Americans had greater monthly obligations than income before COVID. The crisis has made clear that many children and families do not have the technology resources or internet access to engage in education or telehealth, further separating them from the “haves” in society. One of the most glaring examples of inequity so far relates to the fact that about 10% of the population has grown more wealthy during the pandemic due to holding 92% of the equities in the stock market. The top 1% of Americans now hold half of all the equity in the stock market.

Political polarization has penetrated something as seemingly straightforward as public health policy.

Political polarization, particularly over the last several years, is not new. However, the politicization of something as basic as public health policy has resulted in greater COVID-19 infections and deaths due to the lack of a centralized policy and support structure, as well as turning preventative measures into an individual rights issue. As we head into fall and soon winter, we are already seeing daily infection records in many parts of the country and world, and that is before what is likely to be significantly worse infection rates in the winter season in the Northern hemisphere. A telling example from earlier in the summer was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in which, despite local opposition and public health recommendations against the rally, roughly half a million people descended on the Sturgis, SD area. Because of nearly non-existent contact tracing, it is impossible to know how many infections came directly from the rally, but it is clear that the infection rates in surrounding states surged dramatically in the two weeks following the event, tripling and then quadrupling in South Dakota. Willful disregard for the wellbeing of others is not new in the human condition, but it is relatively new at such a large scale in American society. Interestingly, the same people who choose not to follow public health guidelines because they believe it is their right not too, still follow many other “rules” that are designed to protect others such as buying liability insurance for their vehicles and not driving drunk.

Our collective mental health has worsened over the course of 2020.

According to the American Psychological Association, Americans in particular were more stressed in 2019 (before the pandemic) than at any time since the APA began surveying stress levels many decades ago, primarily because of political divisiveness, climate change, and mass shootings among other issues. By October of 2020, a global survey conducted by Oracle found that an astounding 78% of respondents claimed that the challenges of 2020 have made their mental health worse than it was in the previous year. The National Institute for Mental Health has also found that anxiety and depression have increased significantly over the course of 2020 and that mental illness related mortality may equal or even exceed the deaths caused directly by COVID-19!

Our behavior directly impacts the ebb and flow of the virus itself.

Although there was some confusion early in the pandemic about transmissibility and best practices for prevention, it has been clear since at least late spring that three simple behaviors dramatically reduce the transmission of the virus: wearing a mask, maintaining modest physical distance, and good hygiene with the hands and face. The epidemiological science is clear that where these behaviors are practiced, by individuals and groups, infection rates are very low. Where they are not practiced, infection rates are high. In countries that were very disciplined early on (South Korea, China, Singapore), life is nearly back to normal. In countries such as the U.S., Russia, and India where the public was not disciplined, infection rates are as high or higher than at any point during the pandemic. The head of the CDC has said that if everyone in America wore a mask and washed their hands every day (in the presence of others outside their immediate family) that the pandemic would be effectively ended in roughly eight weeks, yet substantial numbers of Americans simply won’t do that and, as a result, the pandemic continues unabated.

In Organizations

It’s really hard to manage a crisis, run the daily business, and strategize for the future all at the same time.

As we discovered in our GameChanger Dialogues, it is very difficult for leaders and their organizations to do three difficult things at once. Although it’s possible, it is rare, and we found that most organizations are still mostly focused on business continuity relative to the crisis rather than actively seizing opportunities for the future. While this was common across industries, it was even more prevalent in higher education, where leadership teams seem to be confusing the efforts and changes related to crisis management with planning for the future. Not so ironically, those leaders who were focused on future opportunities reported that their employees were less stressed out by the crisis itself and saw the focus on the future as a competitive advantage that will pay dividends going forward.

Leadership practices that worked at least reasonably well prior to the pandemic are much less effective now—and some are simply counterproductive.

Although “traditional” leadership profiles were becoming much less effective before the pandemic, the crisis has quickly separated the wheat from the chaff when it comes to leaders that are capable of leading through the crisis vs. those who are not. The need for people leadership skills and traits that make leaders accessible and trustworthy to their followers have been drastically amplified through the pandemic, in which organizations need leaders who are compassionate, authentic, and vulnerable, but who have a plan and can instill hope and stability. In short, what we’ve learned is that people don’t need their leaders to know everything or be bullet proof. They do need them to be honest and genuine. They also need them to have the integrity to make decisions based on deeply held values rather than fear or short-term thinking.

Leadership matters: Within organizations, communities, and government

Relatedly, it has, not surprisingly, become very clear that leadership matters in the face of crisis. Prior to the COVID pandemic, many entities were benefitting from a high tide that kept most afloat regardless of the quality of their leadership. What the crisis has made clear is that regardless of the kind of entity or organization in question (municipality, company, university, or even a national government), those with high quality leadership have fared much better than those without. As noted above, basic things such as honesty, transparency, compassion, integrity, care for people, having a plan and clear communications about the plan, etc. have been critical to those entities that have survived and even thrived through the pandemic. On the contrary, ego, dishonesty about the breadth and depth of the problem, competition over collaboration, short-term gains over values, concern about image over people, etc. have been detrimental and even lethal in worst case scenarios.

Actions taken over the next six to 12 months will determine future winners and losers

Although a few industries have actually benefitted from the pandemic, most have experienced a continuum from modest challenges to existential crisis. In some industries such as dining and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed and millions of employees are out of work. In higher education, about a third of all colleges and universities were operating at a deficit before the pandemic and many will not survive into the near and mid-term future. About 250,000 employees in higher education have been laid off since February and it will almost certainly get worse in the coming year as institutions, both public and private, realize that their expense is still materially greater than their revenue. For the survivors, the actions they take now and in the next 18 months in terms of preserving liquidity, developing alternative revenue streams, strengthening the customer value proposition, increasing efficiencies, opening new markets, etc., will determine whether or not they have a future. More importantly the extent to which they make decisions that create a legacy they want to have, will be remembered by employees and customers for a long time. As Mark Cuban recently said, “The way companies treat their employees in times like these will be their defining feature in the coming months and years.”

So, we’ve learned things from the COVID crisis that are encouraging and we’ve learned some things that give us pause. As with any crisis, there are challenges and opportunities. Some people rise to the occasion and some fail—and many of the failures are backfilled with new, entrepreneurial approaches that present openings that would not have been possible in status quo times. One encouraging result of the pandemic is that we are collectively accepting things that we didn’t in the past. We are seeing each other as actual human beings, even in work contexts! We are accepting change, even dramatic change, that would have not been possible prior to the crisis. We’ve learned that we can be more flexible, and at times, more empathetic than we realized. And maybe most importantly of all, the COVID crisis has peeled back deep, problematic realities in society that have long been ignored such as systemic inequity and systemic bias. As brutal as the pandemic has been, with nearly ten million known infections and nearly a quarter of a million deaths in the U.S. alone, not to mention the worst recession since the great depression with tens of millions of people out of work, and rapidly declining mental health, this global crisis also represents opportunities to finally address critical, structural issues we have declined to effectively tackle in the past such as adequate health care, deep economic inequity, systemic racism, quality education for all, and adequate housing among others. As someone who was born in the last year of the Baby Boomer generation, on the early edge of Gen X, while I have little faith in people of my age, I am heartened by what I see from young people today. It is clear that younger Gen Xers, Gen Y, and even Gen Z, who have inherited the worst deal of any generation since the depression, are much more open, less biased, more socially conscious, and less selfish than their elders. They are the ones who will build a better world, and the pandemic of 2020 may just have broken things enough to allow the new construction to begin.

[1] The current unemployment numbers are significantly under reported because they do not include the many millions of people who were working as “independent contractors” in the gig economy before the pandemic struck.

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