4 COVID Impacts for Your Organization

Sep 16, 2020

There’s a meme going around that says, “Whoever said ‘The days go slow and the years go fast didn’t know 2020.’”

What a year.

I’ve worked my way through a few mask styles, read some books I didn’t know I’d get to, let a prepaid annual parking spot at our airport sit empty, watched a film series or three, and bigger than all of these, pulled off a wedding for my oldest daughter. After only 3 or 4 COVID pivots.

What a year.

On the work front, every client I have (and more than a few friends) has wanted to talk through the impact of COVID on their organizations. It has become the great leveling of the playing field in some respects. We’re all going through it.

One friend called the other day and asked if I would come talk with his leadership team about some of the impacts I’ve seen from COVID. I’m hesitant to do talks like this because I’m just one guy with one seat to watch this from, but I’d seen enough from clients at this point that I was starting to see a few trends, so I agreed.

We met outside, doing the whole socially distanced thing and talked for a couple hours. I’d come up with four personal and organizational impacts from COVID, and after I finished, I thought I’d share them with you here.

Again, I’m not trying to be exhaustive here (I’m on the board of Praxis, and our CEO wrote an excellent and extensive analysis of the season called Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization is Now a Startup), but these four insights are what I’m seeing from friends and clients across the country and across the industry landscape. I hope they help you make sense of this disorienting season.

1.    COVID is a pressure test for every organization.

The old saying is “What comes out of a lemon when it is squeezed? Whatever is in the lemon.”

I guarantee COVID has shown you some things about your organization. It renders a score, exposing some weak areas that need shoring up, and highlighting some things that are more deeply rooted than you thought.

Over the years, one of the tools that I’ve used to do a quick assessment of a company’s viability and health, is The 4 Wheels of Effective Strategy: Customer, People, Offering, and Financials. If one of these four wheels is flat or out of balance, you’re in for trouble. Maybe not right away, but it’s coming. During COVID, all 4 of these things have been pressure tested:

I know a company that has learned that their entire culture depended on being in close proximity. I have watched companies designed for gathering scramble to survive. People who firmly believed remote working would never work for them are big believers now.

Running within, through, and around all four of these categories are questions of values and culture. As you look back at the past six months, do the things you called values show up crystal clear? If not, they probably weren’t that clear to start with. How has the pressure test of COVID been for you and your company? Learn anything?

2.    COVID doesn’t treat all organizations equally.

While COVID has had impact on every company and organization, the exact impact has differed, falling into one of four categories: disaster, hyper-growth, pivot, and bridge. Which are you?

  • Disaster: This is you if the combination of pandemic and your pre-existing risk meant the end of your organization. Big name companies like Hertz and Lord & Taylor have declared bankruptcy, but I’ve also seen it in my hometown as restaurants and small businesses have shut down. It’s happened to companies dependent on March Madness tourism and churches without an online platform for giving. It could have been poor planning, but it also could have just been bad timing. You didn’t have the balance sheet or the cash to carry you through; you saw the writing on the wall and you shut it down.
  • Hyper-growth: There’s definitely some of you who are “all systems go.” It’s a good time to be in the hand sanitizer business. Wal-Mart’s online sales surged 74% through April 30. Zoom has become a verb. Anybody tried buying a boat, bike, tent or pickle ball set lately? Some of you are just figuring out how to keep up with all the growth you’ve run into.
  • Pivot: The Praxis article I mentioned earlier highlights this possibility, saying “Set aside your current playbook” and lean into “the creative potential.” The pandemic is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset things that aren’t working or to try out new things. Most health care providers sped up their telehealth offerings, restaurants are offering curbside pick-up and delivery, churches are shifting care back into the hands of church members, universities are moving courses online, even the NBA is getting in on the act, trying out new technology and playoff structure.
  • Bridge: There are some industries in which business will look pretty much the once we get to the other side of COVID. The manufacturing company may have lower numbers during COVID, but the equipment still runs the same way and will on the other side once demand increases. The non-profit answering educational needs in developing countries will restart as school restarts. Alabama is not going to tear down their stadium and call it quits in football. American Airlines is not going to recall their 874 planes and reconfigure them for one -third less passengers. Sure, they have to innovate and manage costs, but mostly, they just need to make it to the other side.

3.    COVID made us slow down and refocus

I know that there are some people (health care workers, for example) who have not slowed down, but the vast majority of us have. I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me, “I’ve spent more time with my wife and family in the last few months than I have in years.” Hedges have never been so trimmed, the book stack on the nightstand is going down, the basement is cleaned, sons and daughters are learning to fish and throw a baseball. You might even be eating healthier.

We are people of routines and habits and like Newton’s first law, something in motion stays in motion until a greater force stops it. Routines…meet COVID.

The question is, “What have you done with the chance to reset?” Were you one of the 15.8 million new Netflix subscribers (not all bad)? Did you reinvest in your relationships and in self-management? I sometimes talk about my “oikos,” that is, my relational orbit. During COVID, the orbit has gotten tighter. Have you invested more in those in your oikos?

As for self-management, what has COVID shown you about what you depend on for joy and satisfaction? What habits have you started that you don’t want to lose when this is over? COVID has given you a chance to slow down, take stock, and make adjustments. Take advantage of it. 

4.    COVID exaggerated differences and brought us together at the same time. 

Ever had an ambulance screaming down the street, getting closer and closer, and then it stops at the house across the street? 2020 feels that way a bit, like an alarm screaming for attention that has just parked itself permanently.

Except it’s not just one alarm in 2020, it’s at least three. Check out anything from Facebook to NPR over the recent months, and you’ll hear voices screaming about three topics in particular: health safety, the economy, and politics. (And as a sidenote: most people have one alarm that is most important. They’ll talk about that one more than the other two.)

When disaster strikes, people generally set aside their differences and rally together for a minute. We see this when there’s a natural disaster like a tornado, but we also saw it at the beginning of COVID. People weren’t faking it then; they were uniting around their common humanity. As John Kennedy famously said, “We all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air.” I’d say it’s that we’re united in our carrying of the divine image of God.

But when the crisis flattens, we go back to our ideological differences. This is particularly evident during an election year, when candidates proclaim their differences loudly.

It’s good to have points of view about these things; I do. But it’s also good to remember that you’re not an expert in everything. When the weatherman says, “Hurricane coming! Get out of town!” he’s not thinking of economic impact or transportation infrastructure to get people out of town. We need his voice, but we don’t need only his voice.

In a season with conversations around health safety, the economy, politics, and much more, as people tend to devolve into hardened camps, it’s worth not hardening yourself. Listen to wisdom and remember common humanity.

It’s been a long year, and it’s not over. We need wisdom, courage and resolve. Be both a leader and a follower. Be both a talker and a listener. Find your footing and hold on, but pivot where needed. Even the longest tunnels have light on the other side.

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