Today is March 17th, 2020. By now, the corona pandemic has paused public life all over Europe. As of today, the WHO reports over 170,000 confirmed cases and just over 7,000 deaths. Stock markets are crashing, shops are closing, and companies are struggling to adapt to the changing boundary conditions on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Earlier today, Volkswagen and Opel announced to shut down production facilities in Europe to cope with the crisis.
These are challenging times for business leaders, as they have to juggle the enormous dual challenge of supporting their people and safeguarding their contributions to a basic functioning of society in a global crisis – while all the time being painfully aware of the traumatic injuries to their companies’ performance and health these days and weeks will eventually leave behind.
Over the past few days, I talked to many business leaders who are trying their best to keep their organisations up and running. Most started off with minor adjustments to normal operations – and are now moving further and further away from anything that could reasonably be called ‘business as usual’. My main conclusion to date is: Gradual adjustments will no longer work. All companies need to radically change how they think about what they do and how they do it – the sooner, the better (and most likely: the less disruptive in the longer term, once the pandemic subsides).
Here is a checklist of twelve questions to work through to step out of gradual adjustments and into disruptive changes to running your business:
- Which of your products and services serve basic needs of society? Or serve those who serve basic needs of society? Think broadly: People might not buy new trucks right now, but servicing and maintenance of trucks will be crucial to keep logistics up and running; people might not go to restaurants or on holidays right now, but capacities to provide meals or beds might be needed soon. Even if you don’t provide basic services yourself, be cautious not to become a bottleneck for others who do.
- For those products and services which do serve basic needs of society: How will demand evolve over the coming weeks? People will travel less, but goods will most likely travel more; companies will need less power, telecommunications, and internet services in their headquarters – but those working from home will need much more electricity and bandwith; people will eat out less, but will need more food at home. Assess how demand is changing in terms of volume and distribution in space and time, so you’re prepared for what migth be different.
- For those products and services which do not serve basic needs of society: How will demand evolve over the coming weeks? People with kids at home will want access to supplies of books, games, toys, and movies; people working at home will want to buy computers, tablets, phones, printers, print cartridges, paper, or noise-cancelling headphones; delivery services will need cars, motorbikes, bikes – and mechanisms for contactless delivery and payment. At the same time, people will most likely buy less luxury goods, need less event organizers, and not go to yoga studios, gyms, or bouldering parks. Get a grip on what a shutdown society needs, and adjust your offerings accordingly.
- How do you ensure being able to deliver on products and services which cover basic needs? How do you protect your employees from getting infected? How do you make certain you have sufficient resources to cover demand? What can you do to shift resources from other areas of your business to create backup pools of employees in case of teams having to shut down because of infections? How can you strengthen your suppliers, especially for time-critical products and services? Put lots of good thinking and meaningful action into minimizing threats for the provision of basc needs.
- Once you have solved supplying products and services for basic needs: How much resources do you have left to deliver on 3.? For those resources: How can you provide the same levels of protection to people and supply chains as spelled out under 4.? Do not make a difference between those who work in critical areas and others: If people are working, make sure you protect them as much as you possibly can.
- If you have lots of free resources (because your business is in the unfortunate position of catering neither for basic needs nor for ‘shutdown demand’): Can you offer free resources to other companies or industries which are in need of resources? Help others, if you temporarily run out of customers (or suppliers).
- Then, regarding your people: What is the weight of mental and emotional loads within each of your teams? Analyse as follows: Outside their jobs, people are currently under pressure because a) they are personally affected by the virus, because they are infected or have been in touch with infected people; b) they have family or friends directly affected or threatened by the pandemic; c) they have kids at home they need to take care of; d) they have already been under pressure before the crisis, e.g. because of physical sickness, mental illness, or financial strains. Have all your teams understand their profiles along these dimensions, and map against the criticality of the activities of those teams.
- Once you know which teams are most affected: How can you shift resources to ensure all critical activities are covered by teams with the least possible mental and emotional loads? If you can, be creative: Allow teams to radically cut down on all tasks which do not directly contribute to providing products and services (or are legally required); allow teams to self-organise to ensure maximum flexibility for all team members; ask for volunteers to switch roles temporarily; employ freelancers (especially those who are used to working remotely – they will be extra gratefuly for jobs in these times). Most people want to work – right now, your job is to enable them to do it with the least possible amount of stress.
- In exchange with your people managers and your unions: What are the simplest, most far-reaching measures that you can take to maximise flexibility and minimise additional pressure on teams? Again, be creative: Use existing mechanisms (e.g. for remote working, job rotation) and expand them so all employees have access; minimize legal and administrative requirements for all changes in working location, working times, and flexibility; consider extra allowances of days off for people under tripe or quadruple stress. In these times, people will honour your care and your loyalty, not your business rigour.
- In exchange with your finance managers and your shareholders: What is the maximum time you can continue paying salaries to your employees, regardless of whether and how much revenue comes in? Even here, be creative: Can you use provisions made for other purposes? Can you as top managers role-model solidarity by voluntarily giving up your bonuses (most likely gone anyways) or reducing your monthly salary for a while? Can you – as members of supervisory boards – release your financial expectations vis-à-vis your companies? And: Can you consider temporarily acting like a public institution, temporarily aiming for a ‘black zero’ instead of double-digit profitability and exponential business growth? If you can, make a promise to your employees with regard to salary security, at least for a few weeks.
- In exchange with your political affairs managers and your industry lobbyists: What are the lines of support you can offer to society right now? And: What are the flexibilities and legal frameworks that would help you get through the crisis? Pay attention to start by offering what you can offer – support will eventually follow, in one form or other.
- Finally, with regard to yourself: What is the most efficient and effective way for you personally to recharge, calm down, and catch your breath? Whatever it takes: Make sure you get those hours off, spend time with your family, or spend time alone, listen to that piece of music, read this book, play that instrument – or: find a time and a place where you can have a run without being to close to others. Or maybe finally try out meditation? At the very least, you can easily distance yourself from others when sitting on a cushion.
Once you have worked your way through these questions, here are four ground rules for communication to follow:
- Refrain from all public financial announcements about expected developments of revenues, profits, or growth – unless absolutely required by law. If communication is necessary, be as pessimistic as reasonably possible. Things will most likely be worse than you anticipate.
- Be empathic towards your people. As often as possible, show and tell them that you care, and that you understand that every single one of them has worries and fears. Start every single communication with an acknowledgement of fear and uncertainty – and: Remember to never assume you know what others are fearful about.
- Emphasize solidarity and society. Whenever you explain the decisions you take, make sure that your arguments are based on values of solidarity and society. Praise those who support others; don’t tolerate egoistic or free-riding behaviors. These are times when self-orientation will backfire big time and for all.
- Show trust in the distributed wisdom of teams and individuals. As much as you can, hand responsibility over to those on the ground who are close to the problems which need to be solved. Be available to help solve overarching challenges and give advice, but don’t issue orders or prohibitions. This crisis cannot be terminated by top-down directives. It will only be navigated by creative cooperation of those doing the hardest work.
If this all sounds crazy to you: Yes, it is. At least measured against what we all were used to until just a few weeks ago. But then: Crazy times require crazy measures. Right now, being crazy might well be the most compassionate and wise choice for a business leader. And: Today’s craziness might well turn out to be tomorrow’s sanity.
So: Dare to be crazy – while staying sane.
 The best source for all facts around the global development of the disease is still the World Health Organisation’s page here [retrieved Mar 17, 2020]. For updates on the situations in various countries, consult the respective newspapers. BACK TO TEXT
 For those who don’t know me: It’s my day job to support business leaders and their teams on questions of strategy, organisation, and cooperation. My professional website is here [retrieved Mar 17, 2020]. BACK TO TEXT
 The following list is based on what I heard and saw over the past days. It will most likely be dynamic, so I’ll make adjustments as things evolve. Please comment with any thoughts and experiences from your own businesses.BACK TO TEXT