Listen to the radio, turn on the television, read the press or browse the internet and you will realise that there is a large consensus affirming that the way we do business post Covid will be fundamentally different from how we did it before. Everyone is talking about it. The post-Covid company is presented as radically transformed, with remote working the new normal, workspaces redefined and employees given ever more individual responsibility and autonomy. And managers will have to learn how to reinvent their roles, accounting for new practices developed during the lockdown. However, many employees and managers either seem unaware of this, or would prefer everything to return to the status quo.
History has shown that human societies often do not learn from the hardships they go through. Take, for instance, the 2008 global financial crisis.This was initiated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US, spread with terrifying speed throughout most sectors, and threatened to bring down the entire global economy. For a while everyone – from world leaders to leading commentators and the business world itself – seemed to have acquired a deep realisation that something was fundamentally wrong with the system of capitalism. They all agreed that, at the very least, it would have to be fundamentally revised and even ‘moralised’. Yet here we are, 12 years later, facing another global crisis of even greater proportions, finding that so many things that should have been done were left untouched, and in fact the status quo prevailed.
When it comes to companies, the reasons behind their difficulty extricating themselves from their historical modus operandi are well known: fear of not being up to the task, the difficulty of finding suitable solutions for the new challenges facing the company, the reluctance to make the necessary efforts for change, the desire to maintain existing power balances, the certainty that yesterday's recipes for success are necessarily those of tomorrow, the fear of facing uncertainty and mourning the past.
We can also see that many employees and managers explicitly want everything to go back to how it was before. It is of course legitimate to want to regain a more stable financial situation and enjoy the benefits of more relaxed health regulations, but wishing everything to return to how it was before is to be in denial. A company should be a living collective that can and must learn from the hardships it suffers to improve itself. It should be, essentially, a learning organisation.
In the face of the current health and economic crisis, companies must be resilient. However, whereas resilience in physics is defined as the ability of a material to return to its original shape after being subjected to stress, we cannot use the same definition when talking about resilience in social sciences, especially when dealing with a company and its employees. In fact, to go back to one’s original state after a stress such as the current Covid-19 crisis would mean that both individuals and the human collective have not learnt anything from their experience. In a social sciences context, being resilient means coming out on top of the difficulties you went through – what didn’t kill you should make you stronger.
Resilience requires that everyone within the company is aware of the need to question existing operating and working methods in light of the current crisis, and in particular lockdowns. With this in mind, managers can set up feedback workshops for employees so they can share their thoughts and report back on what works best for them. Managers can then create or update processes to collectively construct new working methods to better respond to the company’s new and unique challenges. This may also mean seizing new opportunities, creating value and giving meaning to the work of employees.
The company of the future does not exist yet, but we can create it together. It has to be built collectively; it is not a reality that will inevitably come about on its own. What it will look like is everyone’s business. Employees, managers and other stakeholders all have a valuable part to play. Without everyone pulling together, the company of the future will, in the pessimistic words of French author Michel Houellebecq, “be the same after the pandemic – only a bit worse”.
Thibaut Bardon is a professor of management at Audencia