• Prolay Chaudhury

A CEO's Guide to COVID-19: Restarting after the crisis

Eight actions CEOs can take to ensure a safe and successful relaunch of economic activity.

As governments of different countries plan to end the lockdown, a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic is upon us. It is a time for hope but also for caution. The end of the lockdown will not spell a return to the old “normal”, nor will it be universal. The opening will take different shapes, with different countries, different regions, and different business sectors opening up in different ways and at differing speeds. The virus still lurks and the ability to contain its spread will dictate what happens next; any resurgence will likely bring about renewed restrictions. Large-scale testing and tracing, the broad availability of masks, and sufficient intensive-care capacity in hospitals will determine the pace of recovery.

How can companies navigate this challenging environment, especially in the next few weeks, as the governments loosen the restrictions? How can employees be motivated to return to work and reassured about their safety? How quickly will demand return? What will health and safety stipulations mean for the organization of operations and supply chain? Companies will need to take a holistic approach to restart. This article focuses on eight key actions.

Creating a detailed relaunch map

The crisis has shattered many of the assumptions and tools that business leaders rely on for decision-making. Still, for the restart, they will need to define a robust framework for action in a highly volatile environment. The best approach is to develop a detailed relaunch map—country by country, site by site, segment by segment, customer by customer, and product by product—to prioritize recovery opportunities. This map will guide production, supply chain, and marketing and sales efforts, and help determine a recovery timeline for each site. It will also enable business leaders to get a head start on reassessing investments and prospects for changing the geography of their value chains, for example, through relocation of assets. It may be appropriate to freeze some planned or ongoing projects until the company can reassess them.

Providing customers with safety guarantees that restore trust

Emerging from lockdown, clients will be more vigilant about health and increase their demands on safety. Companies will need to provide products and services that adhere to the most rigorous health and safety conditions and be able to show or explain them to clients. Define requirements for a safe experience for customers. Proactively communicate about measures implemented that may not be visible to customers in back offices, production, or storage sites.

Safeguarding the health of employees

Many employees are eager to return to work, but many are also worried about being able to do so safely. Companies will need to reassure employees about safety and find ways to motivate them in a post-lockdown world. The top priority will be to control access to the workplace, following national regulations strictly. That may mean implementing measures such as checking employees’ temperature at the entrance of buildings and imposing a period of quarantine for those who fall ill. Remote work should be encouraged to minimize travel. Some categories of employees have shown that they can do almost all their work remotely and are likely to continue doing so without any significant impact on their activity.

Extend protection measures to employees outside the office, as has been done by multinationals. For example, some companies will want to encourage individual travel for commuting to and from work or provide employees with safety equipment (hydroalcoholic gel, masks, gloves) for personal use. Human-resources departments can also, under national regulations, help make tracking technologies available to staff to prevent resurgences of the virus. Finally, it will be crucial to strengthen the organization’s ability to monitor well-being at work and detect signs of fragility. These safety measurements will mean continuing in the spirit of transparency and empathy that developed during the lockdown.

Reviving demand

One imperative for businesses will, therefore, be to revive their customer base. They will then have to stimulate demand, guarding against any risk of distorting price models or, worse, fueling a deflationary spiral. Businesses have to Identify and capture pockets of profitable growth. They have to adopt tactical pricing. Companies have to help core clients with solvability.

Rebooting operations and supply chain

The optimal restart of operations requires returning to the market at the desired speed to serve the demand accumulated during lockdown—but without going faster than the pace of recovery. At the same time, CEOs will seek to consolidate their company’s competitive position. Secure the supply chain on strategic procurement. Strengthen the company’s ability to anticipate and meet demand. Set out a phased recovery, site by site. Reassure all partners about operational reliability.

Shifting IT and technology to restart mode

From the start of lockdown, chief information officers (CIOs) and chief technology officers (CTOs) have made heroic efforts to cope with spiraling new demands against tight deadlines. They have had to orchestrate the massive and sudden switch to remote work for employees, using new collaborative tools in a way that is both efficient and cybersecurity. They have had to ramp up digital channels to serve customers, even as they solidify their company’s IT infrastructure at a time of substantial load increases. For all these achievements, there’s still an opportunity to do more. The importance of digital to customers, suppliers, and the entire economy has rapidly accelerated—and executives must speed up their digitization plans.

Steering the restart with care

Increase the speed of decision making. A successful restart will require addressing a large number of interdependent issues simultaneously. Provide impetus through the optimal use of working capital. Management of working capital requires special attention to ensure that cash flows will be sufficient to cope with the shocks of the crisis and recovery, regardless of which scenario takes place. Sustaining value creation born from crisis and reinvesting in recovery Companies, particularly in professional services, have managed to increase their work-from-home rate from 5 percent to 90 percent in a matter of days. All companies have been forced to eliminate travel while preserving their capacity to operate by videoconference. Others have had to resize their teams, make their business models more flexible, shorten decision chains, streamline their processes, and even convert their production lines. Finally, the skills of the staff have sometimes been developed in a hurry across multiple dimensions (in the business aspects, as well as in terms of piloting and execution capabilities, a stronger sense of initiative, greater versatility, and so on). Finally, the innovation of both processes and products has made huge leaps during the lockdown. With the restart, these new performance achievements could be reinvested and contribute to enriching the company’s material and intangible assets in the longer term. It is worth making a rigorous inventory and integrating the new achievements into new post-crisis operating standards, in the process of continuous improvement.

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