Return: A new muscle, not just a plan
Return is not a phase; it’s a way of operating. A nerve center can help build the capabilities that businesses need in the “next normal.”
By Mihir Mysore, Bob Sternfels, and Matt Wilson – In less than four months, COVID-19 has upended almost all expectations for 2020. Beyond the loss of life and the fear caused by the pandemic, businesses around the world have faced disruptions at a speed and scale unprecedented in the modern era.
Companies everywhere are now wrestling with the question of how to reach the next normal safely. Many talk about a return to the workplace as a plan that needs to be implemented: a series of systematic steps to reach some kind of stable operating model, in a world where vaccines are adequately available or herd immunity has been reached. In many cases, these plans suggest a return to some relatable version of the past.
Yet the intrinsic uncertainties that might scupper such plans continue to mount. Executives readily admit, for instance, that it is tough to write a deterministic return plan because of the likelihood of a resurgence, discoveries about how the virus is transmitted and whom it affects, the nature and duration of immunity, and continued changes in the quality and availability of testing and contact tracing. The best possible plan today is merely a strawman that will need near-continuous recalibration and change.
Another critical uncertainty is the future of remote work. Some feel that recent events have driven a real productivity gain they do not want to lose. However, they recognize that a wholesale shift to remote work has had many false dawns. Silicon Valley has experimented with it most extensively, but after many attempts to implement telecommuting, our research found that at 15 top firms, only 8 percent of the employees work remotely. These companies do not want to try this again only to roll it back in a few years.
Customer behavior is a third unknown. Companies see the clear shift to digital among consumers and its inevitable impact: online shopping has expanded by up to 60 percent in some categories, and up to 20 percent of online consumers in the United States have switched at least some brands recently. But it’s unclear whether once the pandemic recedes, these customers will return to their old ways or if the pandemic will create new types of consumers.
Given these and other uncertainties and the need for experimentation and fast learning to navigate through them effectively, we believe that the next step in the response of businesses cannot be thought of as a phase at all. It will be open ended rather than fixed in time. A better mental model is to think about developing a new “muscle”: an enterprise-wide ability to absorb uncertainty and incorporate lessons into the operating model quickly. The muscle has to be a “fast-twitch” one, characterized by a willingness to change plans and base decisions on hypotheses about the future—supported by continually refreshed microdata about what’s happening, for example, in each retail location. And the muscle also needs some “slow-twitch” fibers to set long-term plans and manage through structural shifts. more>