04 Jun COVID’S Difficult Gift: An Awakening
By Georgia Everse
For more than two months our heads have been down in this pandemic crisis. Altogether we have been learning that survival in business, in life, and on the planet are linked together and can never be thought of as separate again. A few days ago we raised our heads and out the window we saw a nation burning. A lifetime of work in communication and strategy, brought to bear on these difficult weeks, has delivered a lesson. There is no worthy agenda in the business world distinct from one in which we seek each other’s health, prosperity and treatment as equals.
It’s a lesson learned in the virtual corporate trenches of the pandemic, and now the civil unrest from coast-to-coast, in the crisis war-rooms of businesses. With a long straight blade, the pandemic and the eruption of anger all around us have cut deeply into the expectations and conversations of everyone. But it has been different for each team. High profile clients have become oracles whose messages are seen and heeded. The pressures to be reassuring, to avoid polarized debates over health precautions, to project a wider empathy while keeping workers safe and holding onto survival, have made this an urgency of communication and messaging competence like no other. Smaller companies struggle to let the market know they are still here even as the products they offer undergo a transformation in value and importance. Other enterprises find themselves in a sudden vortex, facing pandemic demand spikes producing suddenly-needed medical equipment or holding down the link in a critical supply chain, for products that have become more essential than ever. At the same time many are finding their communities threatened by chaos and violence. If there was ever a margin of error in this time, it has evaporated.
In the past few weeks the generalized health emergency has condensed like the Big Bang into smaller, more specialized crises redefining business and commerce in an environment where familiar landmarks are obscured or swept away. Where once clarity of vision and confidence drove corporate communication, companies have had to retool their strategic imperative to one of learning and listening. Even big companies have had to embrace the soft power of humility in the face of change without projecting defeat. At the same time a new Big Bang erupts from a society outraged and out of patience with injustice and inequality.
How to proceed. Can we proceed? For weeks the market has done without products and services in ways so recently unimaginable. For some businesses return-to-work will mean managing a raging flood of pent-up demand in a new health-regulated and more restrictive work environment. Others may learn that demand for their products and services has evaporated. These businesses will have to be built back with patience, creativity, deeper insights about changing customer needs and carefully targeted messages. A global “buy-one-get-three-free” sale by worried retailers will be heard as frantic noise, while consumers seek more sustainable solutions. All the while businesses must demonstrate that rebuilding economic prosperity is also a mission to restore the health of society.
In thinking about return-to-work, most businesses are struggling to understand exactly what workplace configurations will deliver safety, engender worker confidence, with a through line to clients and customers as well. What relationships will be forced to migrate to digital platforms? What elements of face-to-face contact are suddenly more valuable and precious than ever? What does it mean right now that protests are face-to-face communications in this moment while politicians speak to us from their bunkers? For all companies, promises made regarding safety, future productivity, and the importance of prosperity as a measure of our community and national viability, are arguments that must be broadly persuasive to all stakeholders. These actions will be paid back in trust earned, which we have now learned is the most valuable asset of all. This is the gift of awakening that COVID has given us.
Everywhere there is the storm of unintended consequences. Smaller companies are struggling to get their workforces back because employees are making more money on unemployment. There is still much uncertainty and no roadmap. Will demand return? Will we be able to meet it? How will we sustain our workplace chemistry and cultures at a distance? Will a second or third wave of infection erase any progress of the next few months? Will civil unrest continue to spill over into workplaces and marketplaces?
In the middle of all this, I have the constant wish that everyone could hear and see what I have been seeing these last two and a half months. As I work with various embattled teams I am amazed at the chorus of human voices determined to bring the world back better than before. I see the women and men behind these voices stepping up to think in new ways. We need to do better at coexisting if we want to exist in the future. From now on, unless companies project a mission of community service, social justice, and sustainability based on human understanding, they may discover that no one will want to buy whatever it is they are selling. It is a humbling and heroic choir determined to be heard, with the common refrain: “Hope is real and it’s real hard work.”