Lessons from lockdown: how business leaders can prepare for the new normal

May 06, 2020

Business is never going to be the same after COVID-19. How can we prepare for the aftermath? Eamon Murphy offers us lessons to cope with the future ‘new normal’.

I was working in Milan when the authorities announced the lockdown of a few small towns in the Lombardy and Veneto regions in late February. The action was designed to prevent the spread of the virus to the industrial north of the country and beyond. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the square outside Milan’s famous Il Duomo cathedral was filled with tourists (some masked) and well-fed pigeons. The Milan fashion week and three Serie A matches had just been cancelled. I did not feel that I was sitting in a front row seat watching the start of a pandemic outbreak, but I was.

Since then, I have returned to Ireland and have witnessed how this most democratic, pernicious virus has planted itself among us without any sign of leaving. Governments around the world have struggled to respond to the scale of the health and economic collapse. It is a wartime endeavour with the frontline shifted to attack the most vulnerable ­­– the elderly in nursing and care homes and those who are already dealing with health concerns.

The economic impact has been swift and brutal. Thriving enterprises have seen turnover fall to zero overnight. In Ireland, the numbers dependent on state support has rocketed to over one million. All conventional economic forecasts have been jettisoned in favour of scenarios – educated guesses as to how bad the deficit, unemployment and contraction might be.

This is where we find ourselves in early May – just two months after the first tentative Italian lockdown. We are unsuspecting innocent travellers who find ourselves caught up in this terrible car crash of history. As professionals in business, we have no choice but to confront our historic appointment. There will be a post-COVID phase and it’s time we prepare for our ‘new normal’.

I have been working remotely for the past few months and would like to offer the following lessons from lockdown:

  • Do not assume that your business post-COVID future will be just like it was in the past. Events of this scale always leave behind great change. Even if you think your business will not change, your customers and supply chain will.
  • Act now. Do not wait for the crisis to end. Normal business rules have been suspended. Be bold, imaginative and innovative. Create your own future. ("What did you do in the Great War, Mr Joyce?" "I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?")
  • Help is available. Maximise assistance from the Government schemes and agencies – wage subsidy, unemployment support, Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland loans, Sustaining Enterprise fund and financial planning grants. Find someone to talk to.
  • Cash trumps everything. Forecast early and often.
  • Remote working works. Trust your staff to work from home. (Right now, you may have no choice). Ask yourself if you really need all that office space when this is over.
  • Online meetings are not the same as in-person meetings. They are filled with peril for wafflers and the unprepared. We miss the social interaction cues. These meetings require more than an effective broadband and technology. Above all they need an effective chair with excellent listening skills.
  • Go online and find Andrea Bocelli singing on Easter in the empty Duomo di Milano. Soul music.

Eamon Murphy is a member in business and of Chartered Accountants Interim Managers.