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How the Coronavirus is already rewriting the future of business

Harvard Business School experts on how the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to change business practices

Published: Mar 19, 2020 09:46:17 AM IST
Updated: Mar 19, 2020 04:13:47 PM IST

How the Coronavirus is already rewriting the future of businessImage: Shutterstock

With COVID-19 cases growing worldwide, business leaders are scrambling to deal with a wide variety of problems, from slumping sales and stalling supply chains to keeping employees healthy and making sure they can continue working.

We asked professors of Harvard Business School how the coronavirus pandemic is likely to change how companies do business. Here’s what they said:

Michael Beer: Organizations will develop trust-based cultures with employees
The coronavirus challenge demands an organization-wide, honest conversation that enables truth to speak to power about the corporate response to the challenge. Think of it as a new strategic initiative facing huge execution challenges. These require senior management to get the best information they can about barriers to execution, and it requires trust and commitment. That comes about when everyone in the organization knows that senior management wants to hear from lower levels about barriers to execution that might include their own leadership.

The coronavirus challenge, like any crisis, provides senior management a huge opportunity to develop a trust-based culture rapidly or, conversely, if not handled with an organization-wide honest conversation, to undermine their ability to develop a trust-based culture for years to come.

Michael Beer is the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, co-founder and director of TruePoint Partners, and the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership.

Ryan W. Buell: Businesses will help customers be more helpful
The rapid spread of COVID-19 reminds us how our wellbeing is interconnected, and the flurry of heartwarming responses people have exhibited in the face of this crisis reveals our tremendous willingness and ability to help one another. These truths will persist when life goes back to normal.

Forward-thinking leaders can run better organizations by creating conditions that allow customers to be more helpful. When service provision is a true partnership and customers are pitching in, employees are more productive, service outcomes are improved, and experiences are enhanced for everyone involved.

There are three barriers that can prevent us from productively engaging: 1) not being able to help, 2) not knowing how to help, and, 3) not believing our help is important.

Organizations that have succeeded in helping their customers be more helpful have found ways to overcome all three barriers. For example, cinemas have identified a concrete, helpful customer behavior—silencing phones before the movie begins. A simple reminder that demonstrates why it matters to everyone in the theater is all it has taken to practically eliminate interruptions during movies. Another success is how airlines have trained us all to take part in cleaning the plane before landing. During the final approach, a flight attendant asks over the P.A. that we pass our trash and unused items to a crew member in the aisle. On some flights, this message additionally describes a tight upcoming turnaround, and how passengers can help the cleaning crew achieve an on-time departure for the next flight. In both cases, we gladly do our part.

One caveat: When the rationale for customers to help seems mostly about enhancing profitability, the request to lend a hand can feel disingenuous, and in some cases, can lead to behaviors that run counter to the organization’s objectives. But when it’s clear that our engagement is broadly helpful—to ourselves and to others—most people are delighted to engage.

By identifying concrete ways in which customers can be helpful, providing clear instructions about what they can do, and designing transparency into why their partnership will make a positive difference for everyone involved, business leaders can improve interactions among their customers and employees, and help us all achieve better things together.

Ryan W. Buell (@ryan buell) is the Finnegan Family Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Technology and Operations Management Unit.

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury: Remote work will become strategic
I’ve been studying remote work for years now, but under very different conditions—not under a crisis like this. We have to recalibrate our minds in terms of why we’re doing remote work now.

In this moment of panic, when companies and workers are trying to figure out how to be productive and how to be happy working from home, the most practical advice I can give is to find someone who is experienced in remote work tech tools. Find a colleague who has used Slack and Zoom and set up a tutorial and get a sense of how to use these tools and what their functionality is like. Hopefully the virus will go away soon, but those tools will stay helpful even if you choose to go back to the office when the virus is gone. This is an opportunity to learn Slack and Zoom and have a mentor teach you how to use these tools.

The second thing is, working remotely is very effective if you can also restructure the organizational processes for how communication happens, how socialization happens, and how coordination happens.

In a short time it’s not possible to do everything, so there are a few things companies can focus on. First, in a remote world, it’s very important to not only communicate synchronously on Skype or Zoom, but asynchronously, where you’re not face to face on a screen.

The easiest way is to use a Google doc or Slack. This is how virtual companies work. If you and I are working as a team, I can work in a Google doc and explain what I’ve done, and you can wake up in a different time zone or city, open it up, and see the work I’ve done. There’s less chance of losing communication, and people are on the same page.

The final thing I’ll say: Remote companies have well-established processes where people are socializing and no one is feeling isolated and falling through the cracks. That’s really important right now, especially with all the anxiety around us and schools getting closed and the fear and psychosis of the moment.

In my research, productivity went up when people went to remote work settings. But I would not like to compare those normal circumstances to this moment now, where general anxiety might affect productivity.

The isolation and mental sadness needs to be actively worked on by encouraging employees to develop a personal regime: Exercise at home, meditate, and make sure you reach out and talk to people, even if that socialization takes place virtually, just to make sure employees are happy, mentally relaxed, and productive to the extent that we can.

And managers should think: How do we survive this time and even get something positive out of this? One of those positives could be the use of all these cool tools that we should be using anyway. As time passes, workers may find that they like the flexibility of not driving every day and might be interested in making their own self-selection to continuously work from home. So companies should have the right processes and incentives in place to allow for that flexibility.

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury (@prithwic) is the Lumry Family Associate Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit.

Amy C. Edmondson: Leadership will engage people to work together creatively
I hope we will come to learn that hiding bad news is never a good idea. That will mean recommitting ourselves to mastering the leadership skills to tell the truth and to engage people in the hard work of creation solutions together.

Mastering the design and management of teams will become an even more critical focus—or more accurately, mastering what I have called teaming—working in flexible groups with shifting membership, often from different locations, to address particular challenges. Depending on how long the current state lasts, we may see a shift away from static organizational structures toward dynamic team forms. This only works well under conditions of psychological safety, when leaders have made it crystal clear that every team member is welcome to speak up with ideas, concerns, and yes, bad news.

It is unprecedented to have a large cohort of people all over the world start working remotely at the same moment. The only parallel I can think of is from World War II, when waves of women entered heavy manufacturing for the first time. This current case is even more remarkable because it is moving so quickly. The shift has happened in days, not months. Businesses may be able to learn how to move faster, acting in more agile ways, as a result.

Amy C. Edmondson (@AmyCEdmondson) is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management.

Joseph B. Fuller: Standard operating practice will be elevated to a new level
Many of the changes companies will make in the short term are obvious: dramatically reduced travel, more work-from-home opportunities for white-collar workers, and changes in business operations to reduce human contact and to improve workplace hygiene.

I believe the more interesting changes will play out after this public health emergency is behind us. In the past, companies have used the lessons learned during

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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