A year ago, I speculated about the likely impact of Covid-19 on the businesses, people and the economy. At that time few thought that the crisis would still be raging a year later, or its impacts so severe. Indeed, with the pandemic still burning its way across the globe in a spate of second and third waves it appears that this crisis still has some way to go. Despite the amazing progress in developing vaccines their unequal distribution across the world still risks prolonging the epidemic.
So, what have we learned in the past year, and what conclusions can we draw from these lessons? First, the importance of resilient networks, both personal and corporate, for successfully navigating the crisis. Firms with strong networks were better able to gain support from suppliers, customers, staff and other stakeholders to assist in the transition to long-term remote working.
At the same time people with strong and supportive relationships were in a better position to shift to remote working with all its challenges and isolation. With firms in several parts of the world having operated remotely for over a year both firms and employees have grown accustomed to working in new ways. Indeed, some employees have relocated to take advantage of this new flexibility, accelerating a shift that many had long predicted.
The importance of relationships, networks and the information sharing they promote has also been shown in the rapid development, testing and approval of vaccines. What would normally take years was successfully compressed into months. In part this was owing to the exploitation of long-established academic and research networks and the trust between partners that these networks engender.
Second, the adaptability of both organisations and people was critically dependent on the availability of suitable infrastructure. You can have the strongest relationship network in the world and the most supportive stakeholders, but it counts for nothing if you are unable to access the internet. A key lesson for the future – both in terms of pandemic resilience and potential adaptation to climate change challenges – is the importance of infrastructure investment. Providing fast and reliable internet connectivity may prove to be a key factor in deciding which regions thrive and which decline, an effect compounded by the likely permanence of remote working. This also enables businesses to take advantage of the growth of software as a service (SaaS) and its cost and productivity advantages.
At the same time there has been concern about the uneven impact of the costs of the pandemic on society. There has been a clear “St Matthew’s effect” (the rich get richer, the poor poorer) – those best able to take advantage of remote work possibilities are those who already possessed educational or financial capital, or both. There is also concern about an uneven burden being placed on female staff members, who may have to take a lead in home schooling and elder care. Whilst this – if true – may prove to be a temporary effect there is concern that it may add a further drag on female careers, delaying the achievement of gender balance in firms.
Third, the difference between value and price has been brought home. Given a choice between a hard-to-get home grocery delivery slot and a designer garment the groceries inevitably won. Previously disregarded occupations, such as delivery persons, sales assistants and bus drivers have suddenly had their importance highlighted. Indeed, there has begun to be a reassessment of these jobs and the dismissive “low skilled” term is now being replaced by “key front-line worker”. It is to be hoped that this new-found respect doesn’t dissipate as the memory of the crisis fades.
So, in summary, what have we learned? Perhaps to value “simple” things more – like the ability to visit a shop or restaurant without intensive preparations. Hopefully, to retain respect for vital key workers and to value their contribution to the economy. For business, the importance of investing in relationship networks; you can have the best Teams or Zoom set-up in the world, but they are worthless without knowing the right person to call.
This investment is not something that is just pandemic-dependent: as the world eventually emerges from this crisis it is critical for all businesses to treat their relationships like any other key asset. That means investment in and management of these resources, and a mindset that sees them as an asset, not a cost.