Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal

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The coronavirus is not only a health crisis of immense proportion—it’s also an imminent restructuring of the global economic order. Here’s how leaders can begin navigating to what’s next.

or some organizations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others are peering through the fog of uncertainty, thinking about how to position themselves once the crisis has passed and things return to normal. The question is, ‘What will normal look like?’ While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.”

These words were written 11 years ago, amid the last global financial crisis, by one of our former managing partners, Ian Davis. They ring true today but if anything, understate the reality the world is currently facing.

It is increasingly clear our era will be defined by a fundamental schism: the period before COVID-19 and the new normal that will emerge in the post-viral era: the “next normal.” In this unprecedented new reality, we will witness a dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order in which business and society have traditionally operated. And in the near future, we will see the beginning of discussion and debate about what the next normal could entail and how sharply its contours will diverge from those that previously shaped our lives.

Here, we attempt to answer the question being posed by leaders across the public, private, and social sectors: What will it take to navigate this crisis, now that our traditional metrics and assumptions have been rendered irrelevant? More simply put, it’s our turn to answer a question that many of us once asked of our grandparents: What did you do during the war?

Our answer is a call to act across five stages, leading from the crisis of today to the next normal that will emerge after the battle against coronavirus has been won: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagination, and Reform.

The duration of each stage will vary based on geographic and industry context, and institutions may find themselves operating in more than one stage simultaneously. Today, a group of colleagues published “Safeguarding our lives and our livelihoods: The imperative of our time,” which emphasizes the urgency of solving now for the virus and the economy, and thereby precedes our focus here on reimagining the future, post-pandemic.

Collectively, these five stages represent the imperative of our time: the battle against COVID-19 is one that leaders today must win if we are to find an economically and socially viable path to the next normal.

Resolve

In almost all countries, crisis-response efforts are in full motion. A large array of public-health interventions has been deployed. Healthcare systems are—explicitly—on a war footing to increase their capacity of beds, supplies, and trained workers. Efforts are under way to alleviate shortages of much-needed medical supplies. Business-continuity and employee-safety plans have been escalated, with remote work established as the default operating mode. Many are dealing with acute slowdowns in their operations, while some seek to accelerate to meet demand in critical areas spanning food, household supplies, and paper goods. Educational institutions are moving online to provide ongoing learning opportunities as physical classrooms shut down. This is the stage on which leaders are currently focused. Please see “Coronavirus: Leading through the crisis” for more.

And yet, a toxic combination of inaction and paralysis remains, stymying choices that must be made: lockdown or not; isolation or quarantine; shut down the factory now or wait for an order from above. That is why we have called this first stage Resolve: the need to determine the scale, pace, and depth of action required at the state and business levels. As one CEO told us: “I know what to do. I just need to decide whether those who need to act share my resolve to do so.”

Resilience

The pandemic has metastasized into a burgeoning crisis for the economy and financial system. The acute pullback in economic activity, necessary to protect public health, is simultaneously jeopardizing the economic well-being of citizens and institutions. The rapid succession of liquidity and solvency challenges hitting multiple industries is proving resistant to the efforts of central banks and governments to keep the financial system functioning. A health crisis is turning into a financial crisis as uncertainty about the size, duration, and shape of the decline in GDP and employment undermines what remains of business confidence.

Return

Returning businesses to operational health after a severe shutdown is extremely challenging, as China is finding even as it slowly returns to work. Most industries will need to reactivate their entire supply chain, even as the differential scale and timing of the impact of coronavirus mean that global supply chains face disruption in multiple geographies. The weakest point in the chain will determine the success or otherwise of a return to rehiring, training, and attaining previous levels of workforce productivity. Leaders must therefore reassess their entire business system and plan for contingent actions in order to return their business to effective production at pace and at scale.

Compounding the challenge, winter will bring renewed crisis for many countries. Without a vaccine or effective prophylactic treatment, a rapid return to a rising spread of the virus is a genuine threat. In such a situation, government leaders may face an acutely painful “Sophie’s choice”: mitigating the resurgent risk to lives versus the risk to the population’s health that could follow another sharp economic pullback. Return may therefore require using the hoped-for—but by no means certain—temporary virus “cease-fire” over the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months to expand testing and surveillance capabilities, health-system capacity, and vaccine and treatment development to deal with a second surge. See “Bubbles pop, downturns stop” for more.

Reimagination

A shock of this scale will create a discontinuous shift in the preferences and expectations of individuals as citizens, as employees, and as consumers. These shifts and their impact on how we live, how we work, and how we use technology will emerge more clearly over the coming weeks and months. Institutions that reinvent themselves to make the most of better insight and foresight, as preferences evolve, will disproportionally succeed. Clearly, the online world of contactless commerce could be bolstered in ways that reshape consumer behavior forever. But other effects could prove even more significant as the pursuit of efficiency gives way to the requirement of resilience—the end of supply-chain globalization, for example, if production and sourcing move closer to the end user.

The crisis will reveal not just vulnerabilities but opportunities to improve the performance of businesses. Leaders will need to reconsider which costs are truly fixed versus variable, as the shutting down of huge swaths of production sheds light on what is ultimately required versus nice to have. Decisions about how far to flex operations without loss of efficiency will likewise be informed by the experience of closing down much of global production. Opportunities to push the envelope of technology adoption will be accelerated by rapid learning about what it takes to drive productivity when labor is unavailable. The result: a stronger sense of what makes business more resilient to shocks, more productive, and better able to deliver to customers.

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