The Coronavirus Crisis: What Recovery Looks Like

While the economic numbers still look grim, there are amazing things going on in large companies. I’ve been on the phone with HR leaders from more than 50 large companies over the last six weeks and I see a clear trend: companies are starting to plan their recovery, and it’s happening in three stages.


The first stage was React. Identify where the virus has taken hold, send people home, and set in place a set of programs for global coordination, data collection and sharing, and fast local response. As I described in an earlier article, a new model of resilience has arrived. Companies have stitched together their HR, IT, Facilities, and Finance teams and they are operating with daily meetings and coordinating response across local facilities managers and HR business partners.

Key to this stage is what I call the Coordinated, Distributed operating model for HR. As I described in a previous article, this approach mimics how the military responds to asymmetric wars. (The Virus is a sneaky, asymmetric enemy who hides and appears without warning.) This operating model is important for now and for the future because it sets in place a process to continuously monitor, adjust, and adapt as the virus ebbs and flows. Even Bill Gates agrees that we have at least a year ahead and the virus is likely to come back in the future (this is not the least pandemic of our lifetime).

The second phase was Respond. In this phase companies developed “work at home” policies and programs, we launched dozens of learning and communication programs to help with management, coaching, wellbeing, and resilience. We have to look at pay (furlough pay, forced vacation for some, loans, stipends for home work tools, and family assistance), and many allowances for medical, safety, and other conditions. I’ve talked with companies that threw almost everything they had at their “crash remote work” programs, essentially speeding up their digital transformation from years to days.

And much of Phase two was changing the workforce as a whole. Retail stores, hotels, and leisure and sporting facilities shut down, while e-commerce, customer service, sales, and logistics team are ramped up. I’m doing more research with EMSI and we have discovered that while most of the hospitality industry sent its workers home, jobs in these other areas have exploded with growth (including healthcare). So companies are swapping workers as best they can and some amazing talent networks have sprung up.

The third phase, which many companies are now thinking about, is how we “Return.” And I don’t mean “return to normal” I mean “return to the new world.” The new world, which some locations (China, South Korea) are now entering, includes new safety protocols, new monitoring systems, testing, PPE for everyone, and lots of focus on changing offices, plants, cafeterias, and almost every work location. The Return to Work Playbook from Lear will give you a good sense of what to think about.

What Does The New World Look Like

As I told a set of CHROs yesterday, this is really a forced business transformation, come in disguise of a pandemic. We won’t be going to back as “the world as it was.”

covid19 business transformation

The analogy I like to mention is TSA at airports. We used to walk into an airport and wander directly to the gate. Those days are over. After 9/11 and the response we developed, we have instituted X-Ray scanners, TSA agents, and dozens of protocols to prevent terrorism and violence on planes. Well, we’re going to see the same changes from this pandemic.

Not only are companies adopting hundreds of new safety protocols and cleanliness programs, I think we will see COVID-safe airplanes, buses, and taxis. We will see COVID-safe restaurants, stores, and shops. And offices, elevators, and meetings will have COVID-free protocols too.

But the bigger topic is how the work world will change. Every company I talk with tells me “we won’t need the office space we had before” and “many of our workers may work from home into the future.” Hospitals are ramping up telemedicine at a rapid rate, and most tell me “it’s not going back to the old way again.” Banks have sent branch workers home and they’re now operating as financial counselors and advisors over the phone – many of them may not come back to branch locations. And restaurants, food service companies, and other soft goods manufacturers are becoming pickup and delivery businesses and using other models of “low-touch” work to deliver products and services.

In fact, the new economy of “low-touch” business models is arriving. Even the NBA is considering getting into the online gaming or video entertainment business. The transformation ahead includes changing products and services, changing leadership and culture, and changing HR. And more and more companies are telling me “this is the excuse we needed for a massive digital transformation of our entire company.”

One of the world’s largest publishing companies (more than 100 book and magazine businesses) told me the CEO has decided “this is the time for us to integrate and digitize the entire company.” Not only do they need these digital businesses to survive, but now the company can move fast, break down silos, and re-engineer itself. I’ll tell you more about this story in coming months.

Nobody wanted this virus to appear, and nobody likes the disruption we’ve experienced. In fact, the #1 issue on employees’ minds (according to a new MetLife study) is “I’m just tired.”

People are tired of working at home, they’re tired of not being able to get the food they want, they’re tired of not seeing their families and friends, and they’re tired of the worry and uncertainty of not knowing when the kids go back to school and personal life comes back to normal. Well, this sense of exhaustion and fatigue is starting to deepen, so it’s time to take a deep breath and see the big picture.

We, as a society, are in the middle of a Big Reset that will feel positive in the future. Yes, millions of people have temporarily lost their jobs, but my research shows that new jobs are being created very quickly, so this downturn may not last as long as we think.

The environment is getting cleaner and we are now developing a deeper connection to our friends, peers, and teammates. We are learning how to fight an unseen enemy, and we are going to develop a cleaner and safer future. Even employee engagement appears to be going up.

For our companies, now is the time to clean up and “do less with less.”

As I described in The Big Reset, a lot of positive outcomes are likely to come from this – so start thinking about your stage 3 as soon as you’re ready, and you’ll see that the economy and our customers and friends are still there. We just need to reach them in creative new ways. And that’s what companies are doing.

PS: From our Big Reset Working Group, Here are a few of the many strategies companies are using to “recover.”

Coronavirus Recovery