In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser discusses the lessons learned after two years of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Topics discussed include COVID-19, the “Great Resignation”, how we’ll fight pandemics in the future, the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines, impacts on the economy, the rise of remote/hybrid work, and more.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Blog Post: What the COVID-19 pandemic will mean for the office of the future
- Blog Post: Your Supply Chain May Not Be As Resilient as You Think
- Episode #106: Rethinking Business Continuity in the age of COVID-19
- Episode #107: Returning to the Office in 2021 Post-COVID, what role will remote work play?
- Episode #140: The Workplace of the Future and Business Continuity.
- Episode #144: Standing up a Successful Business Continuity Program
Hello and Welcome to the Managing Uncertainty podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, Principal and Chief Executive at Bryghtpath. And in this week’s episode, episode number 145, we’re going to talk a little bit about lessons learned from two years of the global COVID 19 pandemic. Two years later from March 2020, when the pandemic was really declared as a global pandemic, what have we learned and what are the implications for business and for business continuity, crisis management and crisis communications professionals? And I think we’ve learned a lot, things that we learned that allowed us to take the actions that we did as organizations, as businesses, as society, as a whole, and lessons that we learned through some really deadly reminders about what the failure to plan and to take action can really mean. So first I want to talk about maybe some macro trends in business and with the pandemic, and then I’m going to drill down to talking about what are some specific crisis and continuity leadership lessons learned.
So let’s start with some big picture things. The first one is that infectious diseases pandemics are truly a whole of society challenge that we’re faced with. If you look at the data at the time the pandemic started, in the time the initial outbreak of COVID started, I should say, in late 2019, one out of every 1300 people in the world has died from the SARS COV2 virus. When we think about this in the future, though, I don’t know that we’ll necessarily focus on the number of deaths from COVID 19. I think that instead, we will consider the whole story about indirect effects on health and on society as a result of a number of things: delayed routine and preventive medical care, an overstressed global healthcare system, the increased burden that this placed on us from a mental health perspective. These may all one day seem to be bigger challenges than just the death toll from COVID. We’re also going to understand over time, the impact this is had on children, particularly children from low-income families, that suffered a lot of harm due to prolonged school closures. And then there’s the economic harm and the dislocation and the business closures and more, that the pandemic has caused that really decrease the quality of life, the earnings, the ability to live and spend as a consumer, even for basic needs, that has decreased the quality of life for people around the world.
The second, a positive development, is that the way we think about developing vaccines has been transformed, probably not just for emergent public health issues like COVID 19, but probably for everything. We’re two years in at this point, and it’s easy to forget how remarkable the development of the COVID 19 vaccines has been. It was 326 days from when they genetically sequenced the COVID 19 virus to the emergency authorization of a vaccine by a regulatory authority here in the United States that’s very strict on vaccine in medical approvals. Shattered every record of anything we had ever done before. Not only that, but pharmaceutical companies delivered multiple vaccines with high efficacy against severe COVID 19 and a strong overall safety profile. It’s really raised the bar for how we think about vaccine development. And it might even be something that now we know how to do it, that we might be able to do even more quickly. The pharmaceutical companies say they want to cut the time for sequencing to authorization to just 100 days for the next emerging public health threat, and given what we’ve seen in the last two years, I think that’s something that could be done.
The third big macro trend that we see is about trust, that trust is a critical requirement for an effective pandemic response, but it’s also one of the most delicate. Before the pandemic, I think we thought that safe vaccines with high levels of protection against a very fatal… I should say frequently fatal disease, a society-altering disease, would be in high demand. And in some countries, they have been, but in other areas and even states and cities here in the United States, vaccine skepticism has really limited that demand. In this pandemic, like so many other things in governments and public health, the success of the strategy has depended upon people’s trust in government, and in the idea that there’s some sort of shared social contract among citizens. I think the same principles have really applied to companies as they think about, what are their policies for return to work in an in-person workplace. Trust is a really hard thing to put into place during a crisis. Building confidence in specific areas like biomedical science, like public health, like your organizations, can be especially important, but trust is a critical requirement to successfully manage a crisis, and as business leaders, your employees need to believe in the communications that you’re providing them.
The fourth big macro trend is that speed and agility will be the new basis for differentiation. And we saw this play out strongly from a commune crisis standpoint. The pandemic in our mind consistently defied expectations, and our response to it as society and government, public health, and companies has evolved. I almost think of it as a multi-chapter story whereas new information and tools became available, new arrows in the quiver, we adapted strategies. As new evidence became available about masking, about repeat infection, about the efficacy of viruses, about the risk of new variants, about the difficulty to getting to herd immunity, and the benefits of boosters, these have required policy and behavioral changes. They have required companies to shift strategy. Countries, businesses, public health agencies, and others have all had to balance the benefits of incorporating this new evidence into their plans against confusion and frustration that happens when we make the changes or frequent changes.
McKinsey writes that their own research around agility and strong communications allowed some companies to respond more effectively to the crisis than others. We have said before on this podcast, and we continue to believe here at Bryghtpath, our clients and other companies that we observed that moved quickly, and in a lot of cases they moved quickly because they had a strongly defined business continuity and crisis management program, but the companies who move quickly got a first-mover advantage. They were able to obtain equipment and resources and personnel that were much more difficult to obtain later, particularly in the far reaches of the world where even obtaining wifi hotspots and supplies like masks and hand sanitizer and laptops and external displays and things. The ones who moved quickly got those resources. The ones who didn’t find themselves challenged.
The next macro trend is that no matter how we slice it, the government policy matters a lot. And as different states and cities and counties and countries took different approaches, it really impacted organizations’ ability to operate from a COVID standpoint and understand the base requirements to do business. But not just that government policy mattered, but that individual behavior, to some extent, mattered even more. We saw this dynamic play out with lockdowns and mask mandates in early 2020. And these were effective if you listen to the public health reports, but their effectiveness really varied depending upon how seriously people took the rules and the ways in which people mixed and went to events and what the local requirements were.
Later that year in 2020 when vaccines became available, I think a lot of countries had a lot of hopes soar that they could get to a point of herd immunity very quickly, but that dream was faced with the reality of vaccine hesitancy. And around the world, a significant part of the population just declined to take the vaccine. And we saw this here in the United States as well, and that may have helped COVID mutate and spread. History will teach us what we learned and didn’t learn and what the impacts of these strategies were.
I think perhaps the biggest macro trend that we saw is that work is simply never going to be the same. 2020, the first year of the pandemic, really proved three things in our minds. First, that the way we thought about critical personnel, about essential workers, was inadequate. It had totally changed. Second, that the numbers and kinds of workers we need are probably profoundly different now, two years later, than they were in 2020. And the third is that most workers, most knowledge workers, can indeed work remotely. They can do the job from home. They can do the job from anywhere. It doesn’t matter where they’re based.
In year two of the pandemic, 2021, a lot of people then internalized those lessons, and we see that now in 2022, two years later in the great resignation, that millions quit, especially women. And people who kept their roles that they had before have really started to question the old assumptions, the old paradigm, of how we do these things, that we now see this world differently as both employers and employees. And that disconnect is having some huge effects. It’s sharpening a labor shortage, according to McKinsey, that has been slowly brewing. It’s causing companies and the owners of real estate to rethink well, what is the role of an office, and can I work in a hybrid environment? And what does this mean for the workplace and the workforce of the future? Where will I find these folks? And they might not be in the places that we’ve been hiring from in the past.
There are some micro trends. Let’s talk about this from a crisis and continuity leadership standpoint. The first is, in our presentations immediately after the pandemic started, we reminded continuity and crisis leaders and business leaders, a quote from Dr. Herman Leonard at Harvard, who wrote that there is no comprehensive executable plan for a novel situation, that even if you had a pandemic plan, no one’s pandemic plan anticipated the challenges that we saw with COVID. It was simply unprecedented in terms of its impact. And what really became important is to have a crisis management process and framework that from an all-hazard standpoint, that it didn’t matter how you wound up in a crisis, but you had a way, coordinated by your top management and your experts in your organization, that gave leaders a place to collaborate and discuss and make decisions together and do it quickly.
It’s a process that gives experts and leaders the autonomy they need to implement creative and pragmatic solutions and then communicate the results of those decisions and move quickly in doing so. Our clients who had that kind of process in place moved quickly, and they were quickly able to make critical decisions that put them ahead of the pack. There were a ton of leadership challenges we saw from a crisis and continuity standpoint during COVID, that there was no real plan or playbook we could pull out for this situation, that we faced early in 2020 a significant amount of uncertainty and just sheer unpredictability on what was going to happen. We had a fearful workforce, we had shaky economic foundations, and we had a customer base and a consumer marketplace that simply bordered on panic. So if we accept the fact that we had no plan for this crisis, companies who understood how to collaborate and communicate, set priorities through their crisis management process, who knew how to develop solutions, and then execute upon those solutions, fared better than other organizations did as we moved through the pandemic.
The pandemic taught us a number of things about, I think, current and future challenges related to work, that working remotely, working in a hybrid manner now, as a lot of us are, or coming back to the office in 2020, that these really gave us some new team structures for working remotely. And they set some new rules for this workplace on how to lead remotely. And we’re going to find, and I think we have found, that how some individuals led in the past are not going to translate to this new remote hybrid environment that we’re in. I worked with some leaders in my own past that really struggled with remote employees. They needed to see you in your seat, in your cubicle, in your office, in order to feel comfortable that you were getting the work done, and their whole process of collaboration and communication and coaching and follow up was based on being in the office with you.
And I think that’s gone. I think you’ll have some organizations that will continue to do that, but for the most part, I think that whole idea of that kind of work is gone. It’s going to continue to evolve towards the way we think about work now, more remote, more hybrid, and much less of an in-person thing that we do. There’ll be new operating and working models. There should be good questions about whether or not we need an office anymore. And I think for the first time, the pandemic taught us the need to really be cognizant about the mental health of our workforce and how our team is doing through this situation. How are individuals doing as the pandemic would evolve and we move forward?
Some key lessons learned for businesses from our standpoint, again, I can’t emphasize enough that companies who had strong frameworks for collaboration and crisis management move more quickly, and that gave them a first-mover advantage on gaining access to resources and tools and capabilities and talent. The ones who moved more quickly through their crisis process came out of this better than companies who did not. Regular crisis exercises that build muscle memory with their crisis processes helped enable rapid decision making. Organizations who were transparent and communicated what was going on along the way have really been more successful. That transparency and communication is key to that organization’s success and the engagement of their teams.
Building flexible plans that had multiple potential options have enabled confident and collaborative decision-making. One of the key lessons coming out of this is how can companies take this process they’ve used over the last few years, this fast-twitch muscle, if you want to think of it that way, how do we take that rapid decision making and collaboration that we used during the pandemic? How do we scale that within the organization to do better?
At two years in, you should really be asking yourself how you can capture the lessons learned in your organization from the pandemic or you as the crisis and continuity leader. How can we capture some of the things that we’ve learned and then use that to your advantage? Think about focusing on both what went well and where your company can improve, and then take those lessons to heart and apply them moving forward to continue to enhance your business continuity and crisis management program.
Those are a few things from my perspective, our perspective here at Bryghtpath on what we’ve learned, as lessons learned over the last two years of the pandemic. That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty podcast. We’ll be back next week with another new episode. Be well.